Monday, January 4, 2010

putting it back

At the Dutch uncle (actually aunt) suggestion via email, I am returning what I deleted from the blog. Be forewarned: It's really long but I haven't got the energy to divvy it back up into its individual little bits. I am not even sure that it is a perfect in every respect.

BLOG JAN 2010 –



With the ladies out of town, my sons and I picked a burger joint in town and went out to dinner last night. None of us had ever been and we had heard good reports about the place.

When we arrived, the first thing we saw was the mayor, sitting in the window seat -- a good place from which to see and be seen. She is a large meatloaf of a woman whose face, when I've seen it, generally exudes a distant watchfulness and importance. Last night, I saw her smile.

Once we were seated, my older son asked me what I thought of the mayor. I told him I had voted for her opponent in the recent election, as much as anything because people who have been in power a long time tend to become complacent and sometimes arrogant.

And we chatted along through some pretty good burgers, finally touching on the recent spate of arson fires (eight or nine in the space of an hour and a half last Sunday ... two people died) that unnerved this small city. One of the people who died, a man in his eighties, kept a truly beautiful garden not 500 yards from my house. It was beautiful enough so that one day, when passing and admiring it again, I stopped to chat with him and tell him what a pleasure it was. To make something beautiful and small, without any fanfare, made my heart soar ... and so the arson fires had killed someone and something I loved. I too was affected by those arson fires ... so mindless and stupid and painful and fear-provoking.

Back at home, on TV, the local cable channel was replaying a community meeting that took place after the fires. A police officer (the chief? ... you couldn't really tell on local TV) was handing out tips to a crowd of what looked like a hundred or so. I listened a little and then moved on.

But what struck me was the crowd. It was largish. People were concerned. People were afraid. People came together in common cause. I imagine the mayor was there too, though I didn't see her. I imagine she wasn't smiling.

What a sticky wicket for any man or woman ... though I was thinking of my teenage sons: Human beings are social by nature and yet when they get together in some form of agreement -- politics, religion, fear, anger, delight -- they tend to get stupider than they are as individuals. They forget to reflect: Yes, it is wonderful (and sometimes awful) to gather in some common cause, and yet what "everyone thinks" is never precisely what anyone might think. Becoming swept up can be a lovely feeling, but a failure to reflect compounds not so much the warmth and security imagined, but instead nourishes a kind of lonely insecurity that is reflected in the increasing intensity of the hosannahs that are embraced.

I was thinking of my sons and how I might tell them: Pick your course, join with those who seem like-minded, but never lose sight of what you yourself actually think.

It takes courage and responsibility to do this because doing it diminishes the sense of mindless but warming camaraderie. However good the cause and however compelling the emotional and intellectual content, still, what do you think, what do you love, what do you fear, what do you long for? There is no need to sell it or 'share' it -- or not sell or not 'share' it -- with anyone else. It is enough to know and to take responsibility within that knowing.

Perhaps this sort of lesson can only be learned in the school of hard knocks, but as a parent, I can't help but wish I could transmit it to my children. The habit of social connection and social agreement is not a bad thing. But it is a thing worth investigating: Are the things which appear reliable actually reliable? Are the thoughts and emotions that can be so fierce in their allegiances actually as nourishing as they seem? The object of such questions is not to denigrate or dismiss anything. The object is to encourage a reflection that can abort the necessity of finding yourself flopping like some desperate, helpless fish on a pier.

I chose Zen Buddhism -- a realm in which there are many students and a vast body of text and agreement. For starters, I had to wrestle myself to the ground in many instances, following in the footsteps of what I thought were reliable, lovable, and trustworthy compatriots. In order to join the warming club, I had to be a good club member. So I tried. I was never much good at it, but I tried. Along the way, there were warming and frightening adventures and I was not dismayed by my choice ... however much I might grumble and draw back. The teachings, for my money, were and remain, good teachings.

But there came a point where I had to serious up, where all of my club-membership solemnities had to be addressed. In what way did I actually care about any of the activities and words Zen Buddhism could/can encourage? The warmth and support of my confreres and consoeurs (if there is such a word) were a big help ... now what?

It was not a pleasant realization because relying on others is such a strong habit -- other people, other thoughts, other emotions, other philosophies, other religions, other instructions, other ... well, all the other others -- is never truly reliable. This is not to say that I was or am more reliable, but when I'm all I've got ... well, I was stuck with the farm and it was my job to till it.

In the past, I had swooned and sworn and believed I was tilling it, but now it was time to actually till it. I was, perhaps, like a devout Christian who wakes up one day and wonders, with excellent but frightening reason, "Who, actually, is God?"

Am I really concerned and confused and angered and afraid in the face of arson fires that claim the life of a man who made a beautiful garden? Perhaps so and perhaps others feel the same way but what others feel is their responsibility, even if we all hold hands in the face of a perceived danger. What do I think and feel? Honestly? And who is this one who feels honestly? Does the one who feels this way honestly need the support of others who feel similarly? Maybe so, but if so, why?

Do daisies seek out the support of the roses that likewise bloom in the spring? They may spring from the same earth and wallow in the same bright sun and breathe the same sweet air and be truly connected in a hundred other ways, but daisies and roses do not fret or pine.

They simply bloom.

Daisies bloom.

Roses bloom.

What a beautiful garden.


-- When I was a baby, my mother was sitting on a park bench in New York, reading a book as I lolled in the perambulator. A woman passing by stopped to look down at the baby and then, looking up, said to my mother, "Ah, a minister." And she passed on.

-- Outside the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, an Indian fellow told my fortune for half price. He cut the price because he wasn't getting much business and he wanted other passersby to see, as I sat with him, that someone trusted his work. After gathering my birth information and consulting a book that told the position of the stars at different times, he proceeded to tell me about business, love life, family ... the usual laundry list of aspects in anyone's life. When he finished, he looked at me and I looked at him. "What about spiritual life?" I asked him. And he started to laugh as if I were well and truly stupid. Then he said, "Enlightenment in this lifetime for sure." He was quite emphatic.

-- After a newspaper interview with a Massachusetts woman who claimed to be able to 'get out of her body,' I asked her to do a small test with me -- naming the numbers I drew at random out of an envelope I had brought with me and in which were bits of paper with the numbers one through sixty typed on them. "I don't do tests," she said firmly, "but I'll give you a reading if you like." So I gave her my watch and she held it and began to tell me various things. Towards the end of her recitation, she said, "I see two." "Two what?" I asked. "I don't know," she replied, "but it's very important to you."

Ten years later, I was in a Chinese restaurant in New York. A part of the ambiance was a strolling palm reader. As usual, he held my palm and told me nothing unfortunate. But as he came to the close, he said casually, "I see two." And as with the woman, I asked, "Two what?" And just like the woman, he replied, "I don't know, but it's very important to you."

-- At a party in New York, a fellow Zen student said he was into astrology. He seemed pretty serious. I didn't really get all the vagaries of astrology that he described to me, but I was taken with the notion that each person's birth had a small phrase that went with it. Gautama Buddha's small phrase, for example, was "an empty hammock between two trees." Mine, when he looked it up, was, "an Easter parade."

I mention all this because there sometimes seems to be a wonder or delight or belief that can grow up around the past or the future and what others or even we ourselves can find there. I know people, for example, who are mesmerized by their 'past lives.'

But my question is not so much whether such visions are true or untrue, whether they are veritable or fabricated -- that doesn't strike me as so important. What I find interesting about them is whether or not they are honestly useful. Maybe so, maybe not, but I have a hunch that getting swept up in past of future is likely to leave people pissing on their shoes.

. A friend sent this along without comment:

How refreshing, to live concentratedly in the instant. To give over regrets, anticipations, worries, reflections, and reflections on reflections. To focus on the job at hand. How refreshing, and how loosening of prejudices and inhibitions. We are enabled to enter into a more productive transaction with what we are trying to do.. . . .living thus one-pointedly, our bodies are full of light. . .We move in harmony with our total forces. To each moment, its own. . . .If we walk through the dark wood of life thinking of the past and of the future, we shall miss the bright actualities revealed by life’s lightning flashes.
-- Stewart W. Holmes, in “Zen Art for Meditation”

I responded in part ... while biting my tongue:

Interesting how it takes no effort whatsoever to be alive and yet without effort, how could anyone learn to really live?

I am grateful for the contact and the fact that someone might think of me, but the truth is that stuff like the above generates a sense of irritation as well: Together with the warmth of contact, I imagine that the sender wants a pat on the back for having found something that is true and perhaps pretty ... and let's hug each other in agreement ... but that's the end of it.

I get a sense that it is enough to feel warmed by the words and perhaps encouraged, but my Irritation Monster says, "OK ... so what the fuck are you going to do about it? Read another (and another and another) book with inviting words and inviting quotes ... and go on endlessly being consoled by others?"

My Irritation Monster represents the edges of whatever small amount of patience I may have: So far and no further. Quotes and invitations and accumulations of understanding and pats on the back and ... isn't there a time to put up or shut up? And those edges seem to draw increasingly closer as time goes by: My Irritation Monster grows testier by the hour. Just because I have done precisely the same thing in the past does not mean I am inclined to repeat the mistake in the present

You want to be serious? I'm all ears.

You want to play patty-cake and make no effort ... well, there are plenty of others who will support that addiction. Just don't ask me to.

So ...

"You go right ahead and bask. Just leave me out of it!" my Irritation Monster growls.

1/1/10Sometimes I think that what frightens or constrains the followers of any given persuasion is not so much the restrictions of that persuasion as the fact that there are no restrictions whatsoever.

Not even the restrictions of fear or constraint.

That's life.


Barney, an army friend from long ago, wrote to explain the ritual of New Year's in Hawaii where he lives and works as an economics prof. The fire works are increasingly loud there (is that the truth or is it just his age showing around the edges?) and their power sets off an endless array of car alarms, thus adding to the noise pollution that is so ... uh ... festive.

More important, he wrote, neighbors drug their dogs. Is this true? I wonder, but am willing to take it at face value: Drugged animals spared the anger or fear aroused by the festivities of drugged humans creating a festive time.

I don't want to rain on anyone's parade of ritual or meaning or festivity, but the "new year" brings to mind a couple of thoughts expressed by others:

From Dylan Thomas in "Under Milk Wood:"

Time passes. Listen! Time passes.

And from (I believe) former Yankees manager Casey Stengel:

If people won't come out to the ball park, you can't stop them.

Yesterday, today and tomorrow are not different and they are not the same. It takes consent -- not belief -- in order to actualize this festival. There is coming and there is going and no (wo)man can convince any other.

No need to drug loving animals.

Happy New Year!



The Associated Press reported today:

KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia (AP) - A Malaysian court ruled Thursday that Christians have the constitutional right to use the word Allah to refer to God, striking down a government ban as illegal.

Whatever the implications and permutations and machinations of this news story, I guess human beings will always search out -- sometimes at fever pitch -- a way to name their gods. The Jews, if I get it right, try to sidestep the issue with The Tetragrammaton, the four unpronounceable letters that represent the unspeakable name of god: YHWH. But the effort to suggest that god cannot be compassed in words strikes me as proving what it seeks to enjoin: Naming -- even when fervently asserting some no-name -- is human and sometimes worthy of courtroom battles and battlefield bloodshed.

My question as always is, if god/tao/the eternal is something honest and true, why does it need a name? And the answer seems to be, because naming is an encouragement and an inspiration. Buddhists, for example, get to talk about "Buddha" as a personification of some awakened quality that they value. Zen Buddhists, like Jews, attempt to point out the hopelessness/helplessness of naming with lines like, "If you meet the Buddha on the road, kill him!" But for those in need of names, such sayings, like The Tetragrammaton, merely reframe the naming process.

Who would your gods be if you did not name them? Would you be better or worse off without the names? Would your gods be better or worse off? Wouldn't it lighten the load if the names were merely possible instead of somehow necessary?

It all reminds me of the old question, "What if there were a war and nobody came?"


The Associated Press reported today:

KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia (AP) - A Malaysian court ruled Thursday that Christians have the constitutional right to use the word Allah to refer to God, striking down a government ban as illegal.

Whatever the implications and permutations and machinations of this news story, I guess human beings will always search out -- sometimes at fever pitch -- a way to name their gods. The Jews, if I get it right, try to sidestep the issue with The Tetragrammaton, the four unpronounceable letters that represent the unspeakable name of god: YHWH. But the effort to suggest that god cannot be compassed in words strikes me as proving what it seeks to enjoin: Naming -- even when fervently asserting some no-name -- is human and sometimes worthy of courtroom battles and battlefield bloodshed.

My question as always is, if god/tao/the eternal is something honest and true, why does it need a name? And the answer seems to be, because naming is an encouragement and an inspiration. Buddhists, for example, get to talk about "Buddha" as a personification of some awakened quality that they value. Zen Buddhists, like Jews, attempt to point out the hopelessness/helplessness of naming with lines like, "If you meet the Buddha on the road, kill him!" But for those in need of names, such sayings, like The Tetragrammaton, merely reframe the naming process.

Who would your gods be if you did not name them? Would you be better or worse off without the names? Would your gods be better or worse off? Wouldn't it lighten the load if the names were merely possible instead of somehow necessary?

It all reminds me of the old question, "What if there were a war and nobody came?"


I wonder to what extent it might be said that seriousness in one person gives rise to solemnity in others. And that among those who grow solemn, few seek out the seriousness.

Gautama -- to pick an example from the spiritual front -- was apparently a serious man. Some who followed in his wake were serious, but I imagine far more relied on the solemnities they found in Gautama's teachings.

And perhaps Jesus was serious.

Or Lance Armstrong.

Or Jacques Cousteau.

Or, in TV fiction, Tony Soprano.

Just noodling here.


In a rarity among rarities, Dec. 31, 2009, New Year's Eve, will witness a "blue moon" -- the second full moon of a month. The last blue moon to appear on New Year's Eve occurred in 1990. Blue moons generally occur every 2.7 years, but a New Year's Eve appearance happens only once every 19 years.

Another piece of Totally Useless Information, I imagine, but it's fun ... sort of like picking a chocolate out of a sampler box and finding it's one of your favorites. When something is rare or unusual, it's easy to pay attention, but when things are ordinary, it's harder to be surprised.

Did you ever see a kid tie his/her shoes for the first time? This is a major woo-hoo and delight and yet now, so many years after the event, tying our shoes is merely an afterthought, a step on the road to work or the supermarket or a New Year's Eve party.

I wonder why we are not more surprised by our own lives. Every moment, when you stop and think about it, is a pure rarity -- utterly unique in the literal sense of the word. It only comes once. Talk about a rarity! And yet we are like a (wo)man who stands in an endless field of diamonds and only picks out this one or that for our delighted attention.

“The art of knowing is knowing what to ignore.” I have seen this quote attributed to the Persian poet Rumi and it makes me wonder if ignoring things isn't the source and substance of ignorance. Isn't it a perilous business, ignoring what cannot be escaped ... ignoring the fact that shoes need to be tied, ignoring inhalation and exhalation, ignoring the rare and delicious chocolates of our lives?

True, if we were to pay attention to every moment with the same verve brought to the rarities and delights of this life, the ego would probably have a short circuit, blow a fuse, and darken our landscapes. When would we ever get out of bed if we noticed all of our moments?

Me, my, mine ... this is the fly in the ointment, the aspect that bars us all from enjoying our rarities. Things do not occur for our enjoyment, they occur to be enjoyed. Each circumstance is a woo-hoo that does not require us to say woo-hoo ... but there's nothing saying we can't enjoy it. After all, it only happens once in a blue moon.


I suspect, but don't know:

The only refuge of the non-fiction writer is fiction.
The only refuge of the fiction writer is non-fiction.

Curious how the refuge anyone might seek turns out to be the mirror image of what was initially sought...perfect in every coveted detail and yet really quite a surprise.


Nag, nag, nag.

What is this persistent booger up my nose -- the one demanding an exploratory finger -- that insists and insists and insists on attention? It is impossible to transmit the conviction I feel about it and yet still I wallow in the 'importance' of saying it in a way that will bring conviction to others.

Some boozy, self-centered voice whispers urgently: "It can't be said, Adam. Say it anyway."

I have known so many good people who have given so much good thought and effort to spiritual life ... given and given and given. And been through unimaginable fires of despair and delight and still kept going. Day after day, week after week, year after year. Courageous stuff ... miles beyond the sissy conveniences of some belief system or philosophy. Tried and failed and tried again. Seeking out the home-ground of what might roughly be called the eternal.

So what's the nag and what's the booger and what's the conviction?

It is this: The eternal, by whatever name, has many imperatives. Each may be met and acknowledged and digested in time. And it may be hard, hard work. But the only imperative that really counts for much is the willingness to give it all up, surrender to the embrace of the eternal, let it go, relax and enjoy what cannot be escaped. (I purely hate that terminology, but it is all I can come up with.)

This is something you cannot say and cannot see in or impute to another. It is just what might be called the final imperative of spiritual adventure and endeavor. Just ...

When the time comes, just forget about it and enjoy the toast.


Gideon, a very nice man who looks after my aging mother's needs, wrote in the course of some business emails yesterday:

I know you hate talking about yourself, but I will ask anyway. How the hell are you? What's going on. Your mother reasonably says when I ask, "he wouldn't tell me anyway, too nice a boy."

Gideon's words made me feel a little guilty -- as if, somehow, I could or should be more forthcoming in some way that is common enough for others and yet not so common for me. I felt excluded in some way that had to do with my own temperament and habit structure... the kid with glasses or freckles or a limp. I dislike being thought of as "nice," but I suppose that's a mother's prerogative.

How are you?

It's a common enough question, commonly answered with more and less detailed accountings of ups and downs, adventures and still places, emotions and thoughts. From within, I feel as if I'd be willing to tell anyone anything they asked, anything I could tell them about ... anything. But, from Gideon's point of view, somehow I do not say enough or give enough or make it tangible enough.

How are you?

Well, I still hate anchovies and love my kids and have an interest in Buddhism and get cranky about advancing age and waning health and feel the cold more keenly than once. I look forward to less and yet love being delighted by the little and large surprises that come along. I can feel I deserve some respect -- the same respect I hope I can show to others -- and yet become testy and dismayed by smarmy deference. And I wonder if "how are you?" means "how are you?" or does it mean "give me a place to hang my hat, a place in which I can categorize you according to my loves and distastes?" I honestly don't know.

How are you?

It's a strangely daunting question -- one that rouses up a tart retort: "Well, here I am. Isn't that enough? What more would you like?" I don't feel defensive about it, I just wonder what more there might be.

It's an odd matter.

Turn it around and take a look:

How are you?

Sometimes it amazes me how much damage hope can do -- the need, the craving, the pleading. It may be human, but without a willingness to examine ... it's utterly hopeless.

What lit this fuse was a discussion of addiction on Zen Forum International. Many people posting observations on the topic had themselves suffered from addiction to one or more drugs and the observations were wracked with experience and horror and sadness. This was a no-fucking-around world, an on-the-ground, raging, weeping, pain-producing, seismic, true-life story that brooked no distances or analyses. It was not a polite and primping bit of philosophy or religion.

But because the topic appeared on a Zen Buddhist bulletin board and because Buddhism makes reference to the "greed, anger and ignorance" that causes so much suffering and uncertainty in life, someone was bound to suggest a similarity between the addictions referred to in Buddhism and the pills/powders/booze addictions that are more easily recognized.

The suggested link brought this understandable response from someone who was on the wagon after having suffered the ravages of addiction:

I dont 'completely' disagree that alcoholism is somewhat like an addiction to "greed anger and delusion" or whatever, but I want to make sure we're distinguishing between a habit and an addiction here. When I was actively addicted to heroin, my body needed it to function. Same thing with alcohol. My mind was obsessed with obtaining it not just some of the time, but the majority of my thoughts revolved around these substances.

Between the lines here, I imagine I hear a distinction that goes something like this: Addictions wreck people's lives. Addictions wreck the lives of those in the near vicinity of the addict. Addictions are wily and pernicious and always up-close-and-personal. Addictions are closer than close. Addictions are to scream ... in fear and horror and helplessness and unanswered prayers. Addictions are heartless devils in angels' attire. When it comes to addictions, written words are utter and complete bullshit ... an apostasy.

By contrast, spiritual endeavors like Buddhism hold out kissy-face hope and relief and release. They make nice promises. They are filled with buoyant and sometimes intricate philosophy. They may point out the problems, but those problems are problems that pale beside the promised solutions. They are filled with hope and that hope insistently overshadows the difficulties involved in fulfilling the hope. Buddhism, and other spiritual persuasions, are, in short, for pussies when compared to the clawing horrors of physical addiction.

I see nothing wrong with an addict who pays attention to pulling away from his or her addiction. In such straits, Buddhism, the pope and all the choirs of angels can piss up a rope. Addiction is serious ... and it should be taken seriously.

But I also think that Buddhists and others seriously concerned with spiritual life need to get their heads screwed on the right way when it comes to "greed, anger and ignorance." These are not just white-whine points from which anyone might then segue into a hopeful riff about "compassion" or "enlightenment" or "emptiness" or "love" or some other trivia. These are every bit as in-your-face and painful and to-scream-for as the horrors of addiction.

Where does anyone suppose the flag-draped coffins that arrive at Dover Air Force Base here in the United States arrive from? Politely and with a socially-convincing ardor, we say that they arrive from Afghanistan or Iraq. Where do the wrecked families and amputees come from? And, with less hand-wringing obviousness, in what source do other losses and regrets and even laughter find their nourishment?

Sure, there is hope in spiritual endeavor. But if hope is the best anyone can do, how does that hope differ from the hope of men wearing lapel-pin flags who 'hope' to make the their nation safe by making other nations less safe? If hope is all that I can find in spiritual endeavor, is it any wonder that someone might think it was a pastime for pussies?

For shock-value purposes, we can say: Greed ... and the body bags pile up. Anger ... and the body bags pile up. Ignorance ... and the body bags pile up. But an ain't-it-awful approach is really not much better than adding to the body bags. "Couldn't we all just get along?" is the plaint of the lazy and the unwilling, no matter how many holy books they may memorize and spout.

There are wondrous things to be learned in this life. And some horrific ones as well. But without taking the time for the addictions pumped into the arm or the addictions pumped into the heart, how can anyone expect to attain the hope about which they can wax so eloquent and hopeful?

Attention, responsibility ... these are the spotlight on center stage, the very place any of us might stand. This is up-close-and-personal and the sooner we quit screwing around with hope and get to work, the sooner we can smile.

End of rant.

News accounts are a bit sketchy, but it appears that between eight and twenty-four arson fires erupted between 2 and 3:15 a.m. today in the neighborhood where I live in Northampton. Two people, the grandfather and uncle of a neighbor's son, were killed. Some of the fires involved structures, as for example the house in which the men were killed, and some were automobiles.

The Massachusetts governor showed up today to thank firefighters who came from neighboring communities to lend a hand. The mayor and police chief issued soothing statements. Two suspects are apparently being sought.

Christmas cheer it ain't.

I was chatting friendly-fashion with another fellow on the peace-picket line -- a bearded, taciturn man of about 60 who works at a local college as a counselor for the disabled -- and I commented that he was lucky to be in a profession that would lend a hand to people who, whether 'abled' or 'disabled,' were in a confusing and sometimes confused time of life ... not yet exactly adults, but no longer exactly children either.

He conceded that teen-dom (which lately seems to extend into anyone's 20's) was a discombobulating time and then idly wished he could return to his own earlier years to correct or improve what had been.

Such a wish, often tinged with regret, is pretty common conversational fare. And I suppose it reflects an honest longing at some level. But really, leaving aside how useful it might be, it is just not a correct view.

How could anyone be where they are now if they had not been where they were then? Stupidities were corrected to the extent possible and thus produced wisdom. Wisdom was corrected as best possible to reflect inherent stupidities. Joy, sorrow, wealth, poverty, gain, loss, anger, love, boredom, excitement ... each an every adventure or lack of adventure wove this very right-now tapestry. Seriously ... no airy-fairy stuff.

If anyone could go back and somehow revise what had happened in the past, what in heaven's name makes anyone believe that the present (the new and improved present based on the old, but improved, past) would be any the less filled with joys and regrets? It simply doesn't compute in any useful way.

Sometimes I think spiritual endeavor boils down to little more than the framed reminders that used to hang in parlors and kitchens: "Count your blessings." Literally. I don't mean this in the usual sense of shutting up people who are prone to sharing their complaints ... and it goes on and on. I mean it in the sense that there is some effort required to see -- honestly see -- that from front to back, beginning to end, there are nothing but blessings.

This can be surmised from each and every inhalation, each and every exhalation. No joke: Blessings.


Perhaps because the experiences of old age are increasingly relegated to 'being old' by younger and more energetic surroundings, there is an increasing willingness on the part of old age to credit a wider history and past.

My kids, for example, see the Beatles and World War II and the Vietnam War and the Beatniks and the drooling ecstasies with which some recall the U.S. president John F. Kennedy as distant and separated events and people -- things that have to be boned up on for a history test, but otherwise are devoid of laughter and tears.

I do not begrudge my kids their perspective and will not join those who pontificate with arrogant lines like, "those who do not read and understand history are doomed to repeat it." Not-understanding is one of the things that human beings do best. And those who do read and understand history have a persistent habit of not looking in the mirror.

But as a younger and more energetic clan searches out its meanings and directions, old age becomes marginalized -- thrown back on its own experiences which were once vibrant and remain vibrant even in marginalization. The loneliness enjoins reflection and that reflection brings life and laughter and tears even to that which once was marginalized by what later became old age.

For example, I did not live when Gautama or Huang Po or Ta Hui or other Buddhist lights shone, but their flesh-and-bloodness and their up-to-date lives seem increasingly close and warm to me. I did not live during the American Revolution and yet it seems to me inescapably close ... the wounded lying on grassy or frozen turf crying out for their mothers while others in well-tailored attire utter pleasantries and plot the next 'important' bit of strategy. And not just the sharp edges of horror or delight move closer: There were and remain apple pies cooling on the counter and giggling fun at the bend in the river.

I suppose all this could be chalked up to the self-serving and imaginative ruminations of the old and yet I think there is some usefulness in it ... not just mewling about one horror or another, one delight or another, but somehow becoming friendly in the most ordinary terms with that which has no margins.

It's raining here and the weatherman predicts a frigid day or two ahead. Soon, the kids will be up and the mock machine-gun fire of some video game will be heard. The old man will go out and do a little zazen or seated meditation in a backyard hall built for that purpose.

And who knows -- perhaps George Washington slept here. And even if he didn't, the soft footprint of some hunting or gathering Indian lies beneath my feet and informs the day.


Funny how you look back on a learning experience and seem to recognize that you weren't learning what you thought you were learning but were learning something more important.

I am thinking of a time when I was dazzled by spiritual life. I couldn't read enough fast enough. I was besotted and longed to know what these writers seemed to expound so effortlessly, so competently, so knowledgeably. I was a reporter at the time and I wanted to write about such things, publish books perhaps, but more important, I wanted to understand what I imagined, based on their books, they understood.

Book after book filled the shelves. Occasionally, I would get a chance to write something at the newspaper about some guru or other speaker who came to town. For background understanding, I had several sources, among them Taitetsu Unno, then chairman of the World Religions Department at nearby Smith College. An ordained Shin Buddhist minister, Tai was ever patient and careful and kind with my reporter's questions.

But what I thought I was learning from Tai, as what I thought I was learning from all those books I would get up and read at 4:30 in the morning, was more important than what I might use in a news article or try to digest from the page. All that gathered information was just my way of circling the subject -- trying to get close and gain a foothold without ever really putting myself to the test. I gathered and gathered and gathered as if that would lead to some understanding, some accolade, some peaceful capacity. Circling, circling, circling ... gathering, gathering, gathering. There were so many wonderful invitations and, at the time, I thought I was accepting and embracing those invitations by gathering, gathering, gathering ... circling, circling, circling.

And looking back, it seems OK to me -- a bit of understandable misdirection. It is as if I wanted to get to the East by traveling West. What is OK about it is that after enough sincere and heartfelt circling, circling, circling and gathering, gathering, gathering, one day I was fortunate enough to recognize that circling and gathering just couldn't accomplish what I was really after, what I really wanted to learn.

All that time and all that energy and all that enthusiasm and then I was forced to admit I would have to begin at the beginning, start over, and actually do something. The recognition left me somewhere between despair and delight. Despair because of all that circling and gathering that came to what I imagined was 'nothing,' but delight because, well ... better late than never. And it was at that point that I stepped off the cliff and took up Zen ... another exercise in misdirection, I suspect.

All that time imagining I was learning ... only to find that I actually had been learning. Perhaps it is as simple as banging your head against a wall until you realize how much better things are when you stop. But that puts a negative cast on circling and gathering and I don't see it as negative at all.

Just because I didn't know what I was actually learning doesn't mean I wasn't learning something that was honestly useful.

How thankful I am to the circling-and-gathering dimwit I was. Not that I would wish my idiocies on anyone else, but I am grateful for the good teachers who came along.


. I guess everyone was at home far away or clogging local malls with Christmas returns, but whatever the case, there were not many people passing by the peace picket line this morning.

But what I noticed as I stood there was something I have noticed before ... or perhaps I just made it all up.

People passing by as I stood there in Buddhist robes, would sometimes give me a sidewise or even head-on glance and smile. One or two even said good morning, though I had never met them before. It was as if the robes provided permission and even a safe invitation of some sort: This was a dog that would not bite and there was some unspoken contract -- robes meant this dog was constrained not to bite and it was nice to enter such a safe arena and express a little hope or a little longing or a little smile.

Each small smile or nod was over in a moment and yet I imagined I could see it in those passing faces -- a real, if fleeting, openness ... and pleasure that there was nothing manipulative or threatening in the works. This was a dog which would allow you to pat it.

And all on account of the robes.

I too have imagined and surrendered to such things. It feels good to know that somehow it's OK to be who you are and that there is someone who will (if only in imagination) allow you to do so ... to be so ... to be so at ease and not far away from a warmed and warming home.

And it's the same from within the robes -- an unspoken contract to do your best not to betray those small sidelong glances, shy smiles, pleasant good-mornings ... those small moments of trust and hope. As man and dog approach each other with trust and openness -- a wagging tail and a stroking palm -- so there is hope and trust woven into those robes.

It's a strange matter -- open to corruption -- and yet still, there it is.

Or so I imagine.


Not long ago, I decided not to write another book I had in mind -- a compendium, like the first one, of random thoughts and arguments and stories that seemed to relate to spiritual (and more often than not 'Zen' since that was my upbringing) endeavor. The umbrella for the new collection lay in the title, "Finished with the Eternal." When I realized that the theme was enough for an essay but seemed to be too much as a book, I set it aside.

But every now and then, the theme rises up in my mind and feels important all over again ... so perhaps I will make some effort to add the essay to the web site ... a sop to my sense of importance.

A couple of days back, my niece had a baby, Lily. She was not born "Lily" any more than she was born Buddhist or Christian or Jew or stockbroker or pole vaulter or housewife or genius or even a 'baby.' She was just born, like the rest of us ... as simple and soft as alpaca. Nothing added, obvious as a walnut. Lily issued from the womb without extras and will return to the womb the same ... just like the rest of us.

There is nothing wrong with the extras that life provides and anyone might don, but it strikes me as important to recognize and be at peace with that from which the extras emanate and of which they are the perfect expression. Like a walnut, it's nothing sexy or holy or mystical or threatening or magnetic ... it's just who we are and there's no reason not to be content with it.


For those well-enough off to concern themselves, today will be a day of returning Christmas gifts that arrived yesterday. The color is wrong, the size is wrong, the style is wrong, the usefulness is wrong ... or the recipient just plain hates it and hopes to get something to replace what is clearly so u-u-u-g-g-l-y!

The stores will be as packed today as they were in the acquisition phase before Christmas Day. There is loading up and then there is unloading. The search is on for something better.

Isn't spiritual endeavor somewhat like this ... a recognition that prior acquisitions don't quite work and then seeking out a place or time or person or situation that seems to offer a good return policy, a more contenting result? A better love life, a better job, a better location, a better house, a less damaging result, a more exciting adventure? Something better?

In other times, kids would sometimes collect the bottles and cans that others threw away and return them to the store at five cents each. It was a good way to get a little candy cash. Then, more and more often, those bottles and cans would be imprinted with the words "No deposit. No return." There was no up-front premium paid and thus no return cash to be accrued. Stores hated the return policy (it was more work for them) and besides, people were too lazy or too busy to take the bottles and cans back. Nowadays, supermarkets sometimes offer machines that will dispense the nickel premium that has been reintroduced on the cans and plastic containers that can litter the streets and highways.

No deposit. No return. Isn't that pretty much the way of things? And yet, in the search for something better, we imagine we have made a deposit and we expect a return. We deposit hope and belief and intention and effort and ... and then it doesn't quite fit or it really turns u-u-u-g-g-l-y.

It strikes me as pretty ordinary, pretty human, and pretty damned frustrating. Whatever satisfactions are gleaned are never quite The Satisfaction ... the one that requires no improvement, the one that fits perfectly, the one whose construction expands and contracts with a waistline. And so we are off to join yet another throng clamoring in the 'return' line.

For those worn out enough by their own scurrying, spiritual endeavor can look pretty good. Fat, thin, tall, short, rich, poor, beautiful, ugly, educated, idiotic -- here is a proposed satisfaction that welcomes all comers. We deposit hope and belief and intention and effort and invariably, based on old deposit-and-return efforts, come to a place where it doesn't fit, it doesn't work, it's not at all what we expected ... and besides, perhaps, it has some very u-u-u-g-g-l-y aspects.

Well, shit! Same ol' same ol'. "God," "heaven," "hell," "enlightenment," "compassion," "joy," "kindness," "freedom," "emptiness," and all the other come-hither satisfactions of spiritual endeavor may be pretty satisfying and yet ... and yet can never qualify as The Satisfaction, the satisfaction that keeps on satisfying despite expanding and contracting waistlines. I made my deposit ... where's my return?

As anyone might grumble about Yuletide argyle socks, so spiritual endeavor excites grumbling of its own. But in the same way that ugly argyle socks still warm the feet, so spiritual endeavor has the capacity to bring a new and warmer perspective. Spiritual endeavor encourages attention and responsibility and the more attentive and responsible anyone becomes (with or without the grumbling), the more satisfying life becomes. Bit by bit, the longing for The Satisfaction dwindles because the person making the effort is simply satisfied. Who would whine for heaven if they were in heaven? Who would grovel at God's throne when they were sitting on it? Who would long for "enlightenment" when ... well, when argyle socks really do warm the feet?

You like argyle socks? OK, wear 'em.

You don't like argyle socks? OK, return 'em or hide 'em in the bottom of the sock drawer.

You're the boss.

No deposit, no return ...

Just pay attention and take responsibility ... and whistle Christmas carols if you'd like.

Thursday, December 24, 2009
what works
I very seldom walk through the town I live in, but yesterday I did as part of the Christmas imperative ... looking for odds and ends that might make presents. It was quite a lot of fun. There were dresses and jackets and jewelry and art works and T-shirts and shoes and books and perfumes and games and totally-useless gadgets. In one store filled with 'original' clothing and other creations, the shopkeeper told me that a woman had come in for months to visit a rhinoceros she admired and finally bought it for $900. Everything seemed pretty expensive to me, but that probably says more about me than about everything. I did get to give a scruffy-looking fellow some change for "a cup of coffee."

My daughter thought I was nuts for even considering buying anything in town -- too up-scale, too yuppie, too wasteful -- but I enjoyed myself anyway. It's a place full of pink and polished people, but the smiles, when forthcoming, are about the same as smiles anywhere else.

Somehow it reminded me of a recent auction in the UK: The wardrobe of former film legend Audrey Hepburn (d. 1993)was going on the block and the television was showing it off. I couldn't imagine wanting to buy someone else's clothes -- especially when that someone was so petite -- but I was interested in the clothes themselves. They were classically cut, apparently made with good materials, and lacked the woman-hating quotient that so much of haute couture can weave in. They seemed to be well-made and I like things that are well-made, from Slinkies to M-1 rifles to Japanese calligraphy to Zippo lighters to Ferraris to spiritual endeavors. Not only do such things work, but they also qualify as beautiful in my mind.

After World War II, when Japan was clawing its way out of the wreckage it had wrought, Americans would joke about something "made in Japan." Now, I imagine, the Japanese snicker at things "made in America." The screw turns and yet the effort and sometimes success at creating things that work well and are beautiful ... somehow I think it continues, even as the shills and pimps and salesmen ply their trade. Perhaps everyone has a need to do something, create something, that actually works and simultaneously, without immodesty, soars.

I like Buddhism for that reason, though I'd hate to see or hear or be someone who pimped for it with glowing praise. For those who like Buddhism, it simply works and, without any help whatsoever, has the capacity to soar. Like Audrey Hepburn's wardrobe, you can auction it off, but something remains untouched and ... soaring.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009
A note from my half-sister and favorite relative, Revan, informs me:

Katie and Jason (Revan's son) had a baby girl at 6:32PM on December 23. Her name is Liliana Reppert Miles, aka "Lily". She weighed 6 pounds, one ounce and she's beautiful! I'm a Grandma!
Love, Revan

I guess that makes me a grand-something-or-other as well, but that's not important.

How wonderful!

Wednesday, December 23, 2009
Former U.S. poet laureate Billy Collins once commented in a radio interview that meeting a favorite author was one of life's most reliable disappointments.

But isn't that the way with all favorites, whether they are people or philosophies or religions or emotions or ... whatever favorite anyone might choose? Delight or despair dance in the mind, but the details of the present can never live up to the dancing mind.

Disappointment may be what anyone might seek to avoid, but I think disappointment serves a pretty good purpose. Disappointment points out that our reliabilities are unreliable ...

But that dancing is quite a lot of fun.
Posted by genkaku at 7:06 AM

Wednesday, December 23, 2009
Sitting on the porch last evening, a longtime attention-getter or prayer crossed my mind:

Love and charity towards all beings
Contentment under all circumstances
Control of the senses and passions....

I always liked that one and sometimes exercised a real verve when reciting it, much as I had exercised some real verve with the "Heart Sutra." It comes from the Vedas, I think, but that never interested me much. It was just an encouragement or a wish. As an encouragement, it insisted on and brought me into the present. As a wish, it looked to the future and perhaps some relief or release or sense of absolution.

Intention seeks absolution and attention grants it.

But last evening on the porch it seemed to me that absolution was unnecessary. I don't mean some slick-willy Zen student thing -- no one to absolve and nothing to be absolved: Just ... absolution was unnecessary: Integral but unnecessary. Sort of like a fourth-grade math test you run across: Certainly absolution was part of the scene, but dwelling on it seemed a bit much.

Without special meaning or import, still, it was a nice recitation -- recommended, as it seemed, by someone who happened to be around at the time:

Love and charity towards all beings
Contentment under all circumstances
Control of the senses and passions ....

Tuesday, December 22, 2009
the round table
Is there a table anywhere, whether metaphorical or literal, that is not round?

King Arthur created his round table, I think I have heard, because he wanted to assert the equality and fraternity of the knights who sat around it. No man was to be greater than the next; each had a valor and wisdom to contribute; and each was to freely acknowledge the valor and wisdom of the next. It was a wonderful idea, but, like most wonderful ideas, the devil was in the details.

Around the world, to the extent that people still sit down at tables, someone generally sits at the 'head' of the table. Someone sits on the throne. Someone assumes the place that others acknowledge as in some way primary. And isn't it the same in the mind? Some pigs are more equal than others. Some thoughts and hopes and emotions are just more important. 'Money' is more important than 'daisies' or 'love' is more important than 'fried eggs.' Although thoughts and hopes and emotions all sit down at the same table, still, someone or something is king.

But maybe Arthur had it right from the get-go. Literally or metaphorically, how could the king be king without his vassals? How could the vassals be vassals without their king? Their reliance on each other makes them equal in necessity and valor. The 'least' is that without which the 'most' could not be 'most.' To ignore or dismiss a daisy because money is more important ... wouldn't that be a mistaken point of view? Isn't it daisies that inform and bring brightness to money ... and vice versa? Isn't every table as round as Arthur suggested?

The Dalai Lama was once quoted as saying, "I am a simple monk." Who among his vassals would honor those words and their implications and sit down at the round table with him? And who among us would sit down with our own most- or least-noble thoughts and accomplishments as we might with our brothers and sisters?

It really is not enough to shoot off our mouths or minds about an imagined or elevated 'equality.' This is just a fancy way of dressing up inequalities. It is only enough to sit down at our very own round table with our brothers and sisters and then eat and laugh.

That's what we came for, isn't it?

Tuesday, December 22, 2009
If you could subtract the arrogant and somewhat nasty quotient, perhaps human beings could be described as a group too stupid to know how stupid they are.

The problem with such a description is that language always describes something or someone else and the usefulness of the description goes begging in the mad scramble to dodge the bullet.

It's probably too much of a much: Suggesting too directly that each of us needs to attend to the weeds in the front yard ... well, indirection and sweetness seem to work better, if at all.
Posted by genkaku at 5:54 AM

Monday, December 21, 2009
bright balloons
Today, as I was ordering some Christmas flowers for various relatives, I overheard a Catholic priest who was likewise ordering flowers for his church. The salesman asked if the priest's church was slated for the all-too-common chopping block and the priest said no, his church would remain open.

And, having eavesdropped, I engaged the priest in conversation. What direction did he think the church ought to take as it tried to combat reduced attendance, reduced income and a reduced number of incoming priests?

He gracefully sidestepped the question by pointing out that all of the long-time religious groups were getting hit. He mentioned Anglicans (Episcopalians), Jews, Catholics. Only the Pentecostals and splinter sects seemed to be faring better.

The priest was a man in his sixties, with grey hair and a pleasant face. He had told the flower salesman that he was preparing to retire. He chalked it up, wryly, to advancing age, but I wondered.

What are people to do when the air seeps out of their bright balloons? True, it's an opportunity, but will they have the energy to seize it? Or will they, in some less drastic way, follow so many police officers who decide to 'eat a bullet?' Or segue, like some famous sports figures, into a wasteful and lonely lethargy of remembrance?

So many bright balloons.
Posted by genkaku at 3:47 PM

Monday, December 21, 2009
Is there anyone out there who does not have a savior in one way or another? Naturally, my savior is not as important or true or compelling as your savior, but nevertheless we both have our saviors ... or anyway, that's my guess. Saviors represent hope and a safe haven, a person or time or place that is better than the land of nicks and bruises and uncertainty currently at hand.

And, although some people's version of a savior can irritate the crap out of me, I think the implications of having a savior can be pretty good.

In a social setting, Christians have a savior, Buddhists have a savior, and even Mary the Housewife who has too much on her plate to be bothered with church or liturgy has a savior. Today, I will go out and buy Christmas presents, and among them I plan to get some lottery tickets for family members to scratch on Christmas Day: Who knows, maybe someone will get saved?

For starters, I think it is fair to say that people love their saviors. And that is important -- to love what will save you. If you love something, then you are open to it and who could possibly be saved without willingness and openness?

The tricky part comes when circumstances force anyone with a savior to reshape and redefine and patch up the initial vision of whatever savior is in hand. People change and so their saviors change as well. Questions based on everyday life arise and suddenly yesterday's savior doesn't quite extend to a war in Afghanistan or the death of a child or the pure pleasure of doing something naughty. Current circumstances force those who have saviors to refurbish and prop them up. Atheists and intellectuals may clap with glee, but atheists and intellectuals have their own saviors to contend with.

After enough instances of trying to save the savior, the bright light that was once the savior becomes dimmed by compromise and rote ... oh well, I'll just believe what the church says or the temple says or the books say or my friends say. What was once bright and pulsing in the blood becomes dulled ... a comfort on the lips that does not comfort the heart.

So what is the good news about saviors? I think the good news is that all saviors are limited -- beloved but limited. And those limitations -- as presented in living technicolor in everyday life -- are the very thing that can encourage the savior-prone to investigate more fully the nature of their own saviors. True, those limitations can also suggest that settling down into a comforting compromise is the only choice, but there is the potential for serious investigation: Serious, careful investigation of why the heart might soar or what it is that eases the uncertain mind.

Naturally, investigation is not always pleasant -- saviors are beloved and dissecting love is really annoying -- but if the limitations are unavoidable in a land of saviors, what choice is there but to address those limitations with the same open-heartedness once accorded to the savior? Sincerity and belief and get-me-out-of-here only reach so far. They are limited. So what then is the limitlessness of love? What is the bright clarity of the savior?

If God is your cup of tea, who is God?

If enlightenment is your cup of tea, what is enlightenment?

If hitting the lottery is your cup of tea, who brews and sips this tea?

Yes, it's a pain in the ass. Yes, it requires effort. Yes, a chorus of hosannahs feels better than investigation. But when the compromises that are made on behalf of the savior become too apparent, too dulling, too stale, too unfulfilling, too limiting ... then I would say the savior -- whoever he/she/it may be -- sets us all on a road to honest salvation.
Posted by genkaku at 7:14 AM

Sunday, December 20, 2009
excellent failures
When beginning a Zen practice, everyone, for lack of a more immediate understanding, begins by imitating what is prescribed -- sitting, bowing, chanting, retreats, philosophies, etc. Even students with many years of practice may continue to mouthe and mimic the thoughts, words and deeds of others. And sometimes the imitated models are truly excellent.

But did you ever stop to think: To the extent that anyone ever imitates anything, there can never be success, never be peace. All that results is a contentment that is constantly having to be updated, a peace that rests in the pre-chewed comfort called "Buddhism," another Armani "emptiness," another Dior "compassion," another Ferrari called "joy," another penthouse suite of "freedom."

Perhaps the best thing about Zen practice is that it makes our failures apparent. And more, that that failure is a sure sign of progress, if not success.

Sure, for conversational purposes, I am a Buddhist, I am a father, I am an old fart. And likewise, for tentative purposes, others have similar ways of referring to themselves ... mimicking ways, well-analyzed ways, ornately-wise ways, stupid ways ... so many ways.

But Zen practice is a good tool -- even if anyone does begin with imitation and word-mimicking -- for finding some success where there is currently nothing but half-baked failure, flag-waving Buddhism, and page after imitative page of deeeeeep wisdom.

Let's just be sure to appreciate our excellent failures.
Posted by genkaku at 10:54 AM

Sunday, December 20, 2009
Christmas on TV
Amazing and saddening to think how much anyone might measure themselves against the television shows they watch.

Take Christmas. Christmas on TV is insufferably cute, depressingly upbeat, and immodestly acquisitive.

But Christmas itself can be pretty nice.
Posted by genkaku at 9:20 AM

Sunday, December 20, 2009
best guess
The back-breaking snow promised and delivered along parts of the East Coast brought little more than a dusting to this neck of the woods. Outside the porch, the street lights illuminate a powdered and emptied thoroughfare.

It seems that everyone had heard the dire news yesterday and got their cars off the street in advance of the snowplows that are now unnecessary. No one wants to pay the $80-100 for having their cars towed during the parking ban that kicks in when the snow begins to fall.

And yet all the planning in the world, whether in fear or hope, cannot predict the future. The weather channel on TV tells viewers what it knows much as people tell themselves what they know: It is just a best guess based on data in hand and past performances. But still a guess.

Nothing wrong with planning. Nothing wrong with taking a best guess.

But also, nothing wrong with knowing it is just a guess, no matter how much anyone might know.

Sunday, December 20, 2009
Be like glass, which,
when cleaned,
allows others to see
to the furthest horizon.
Posted by genkaku at 6:31 AM

Saturday, December 19, 2009
chilly day
Standing still in 21 degrees F with a wind was too cold for me, so I only stayed for half of the usual hour's worth of peace-picketing today. I figure I'm old enough to surrender my disciplines ... if not always with good grace.

One of the fellows on the picket line said there would be a meeting later to discuss what more anyone could do. "We have to show that we're angry in some bigger way," he said. I knew what he was talking about, but I'm not much good at righteous anger, so I came home to get warm.

Standing on a picket line is enough for me. Let people notice if they like, think if they like, disagree if they like ... get cold if they like.
Posted by genkaku at 11:40 AM

Saturday, December 19, 2009
Dec 19, 7:28 AM (ET)

VATICAN CITY (AP) - Pope Benedict XVI has moved Pope John Paul II one step closer to possible beatification, the milestone before sainthood.

Benedict on Saturday approved a decree attesting to John Paul's heroic virtues. Benedict still must sign off on a miracle attributed to John Paul's intercession before the late pope can be beatified.

Benedict put the Polish pontiff on the fast track for sainthood just weeks after his April 2, 2005 death, waiving the customary five-year waiting period and allowing the investigation into John Paul's virtues to begin immediately.

Benedict also approved a decree on the heroic virtues of Pope Pius XII, despite opposition from Jews who say the World War II-era pope didn't do enough to stop the Holocaust.

I just looked "saint" up on an Internet dictionary. It said:

▸ noun: person of exceptional holiness
▸ noun: a person who has died and has been declared a saint by canonization
▸ noun: model of excellence or perfection of a kind; one having no equal

Does anyone bother to think this stuff through, to examine it with all of the seriousness they might bring to their various saints? Who is a saint? What precise usefulness does s/he have? Who says so?

I'm not trying to tear down or demean anyone's affection for or adoration of saints. I just wonder if, within a person's own affections, there wouldn't be some willingness to investigate the importance and meaning.

Buddhists say "enlightenment" or "compassion" or "emptiness." Christians say "God" or "heaven" or "saint." Self-helpers encourage "self-esteem" or "love" or "peace." And there may be some deep affection for these things.

But without exercising some curiosity, how could anyone be sure of themselves? How could they overcome the whispering doubts and uncertainties? Belief may be a wonderful thing as an inspiration, but it is hell on earth without some effort.

Curiosity killed the cat.
But satisfaction brought him back.

Being satisfied with the lords of heaven is like reading food ads and calling it nourishment. A world full of saints and a couple of bucks is only good for a bus ride. But exercising curiosity about what is most cherished has the capacity to take people home.
Posted by genkaku at 9:20 AM

Saturday, December 19, 2009
finding joy
If you can't find your own joy, what in heaven's name makes you think someone else can find or provide it for you?
Posted by genkaku at 7:58 AM

Saturday, December 19, 2009
see good or be good?
When I sent Bob a satirical clip about Tiger Woods' extramarital activities, he wrote back wondering why a man who is arguably the best golfer in the world and has more money than anyone could possibly spend should also need to be Mr. Clean into the bargain.

The situation makes me wonder if it's not a common pastime -- wanting not just to be good-at something, but longing to be thought of as good in addition. And wondering if the longing for goodness -- however fabricated and however reliant on the views of others -- doesn't bespeak an honest longing to somehow BE good.

Honore de Balzac wrote, "Behind every great fortune lies a crime." Whatever exceptions there may be to this observation are far outweighed by evidence of its truth. Robber barons, Wall Street tycoons, kings and churches abound. But perhaps a shrink friend was closer still the truth when he said, "No one ever got rich by being nice."

But, as Bob suggests, why would anyone want to be thought of as "nice" in the first place? True, "nice" is a pretty good tool for blindsiding the next sucker, but that suggests that "nice" is an attractive and warming trait, something human beings admire and perhaps aspire to. The openness which may be seen as gullibility by various sorts of thieves is ... admired: I may be a thief, but I want to think well or have others think well of my thievery.

Outside of the hand-wringing and social outrage that various thieves and manipulators can inspire, I wonder about the need for spiritual endeavor to see itself as nice. It's something to watch out for, I think ... and not just in the finger-pointing way: Goodness and virtue and niceness within is even more dangerous than goodness without...more seductive than another of Tiger Woods' dalliances.

For lack of a better approach, spiritual endeavor presents itself as a more sensible way. It is more loving, more clear-headed, and less prone to the unhappiness that evolves from doing various kinds of harm. Since anyone might wish to be happy and at peace, spiritual endeavor can be a real draw. It may in fact be quite a "good" thing ... right up until the moment anyone imagines it is "good." And yet without imagining it is "good" or "nice" or "virtuous," why would anyone take the first step on a better course. The goodness and niceness are a honey pot which serious students must learn to set aside.

Somehow it reminds me of the old ditty:

I eats me peas with honey
I've done it all me life.
It makes them taste so funny
It keeps them on me knife.

"Niceness" and "goodness" and "virtue" are sweet invitations. They are offered "faut de mieux," for lack of a viable alternative. But for anyone seriously inclined towards spiritual endeavor, it becomes increasingly clear: Goodness is good right up until a time when anyone might imagine it is good. Which is better? -- a good deed, a kind deed, a nice deed, or a raft of accolades, whether from within or without, for that goodness or kindness or niceness?

Anyone who longs for a bit of peace would do well to be peaceful. It is enough.
Posted by genkaku at 6:12 AM

Friday, December 18, 2009
Yesterday, in memoir-writing class, Sasha, a plump throw-back to Greenwich Village in the 1960's, was telling some of her tale. Sasha wanted to write a memoir, but, in past classes, had insisted that she write it in some sort of poetic format as a means of giving the tale more class or art or heft or importance. But yesterday, she just talked about notes she had on hand and about being unsure about how to attack the material.

Sasha married a soldier at 19, got pregnant and lived in a pink trailer in Alaska ... where the temperature was routinely 60 below. Moose, caribou and reindeer carcasses were kept freezing on the roof of the pink trailer and cut up as needed. She was miles from the New-York Jewish mom who had bossed her around unmercifully. Instead, she was in the hands of a husband who, both when he was drinking and when he wasn't, did precisely the same thing. After the baby boy was born, Sasha suffered from post partum depression, but her husband wouldn't let her cry. Sasha would squeeze into the small closet in the pink trailer in order to cry.

This is the same Sasha who thought she ought to write her memoir in some kind of elevated poetic style ... and yet spell-bound the classroom with her tales of being young and depressed and in love with marijuana.

What is this human drive to outshine what is already shining? To ignore what is closest to home? It's common enough, but it seems like such a waste of energy: I'd way rather listen to Sasha (or anyone else) than read the Iliad.

Maybe I should listen to myself.
Posted by genkaku at 6:32 AM

Thursday, December 17, 2009
Sometimes I think that instructors in spiritual endeavor must take patience pills...or perhaps mainline it out of a syringe. Imagine, some of the most-favorably-educated people in the world land on their doorsteps, the kind of people who are really pretty smart and the instructor may say things like:

-- You realize, of course, that no one else can ride a bicycle for you, right?
-- You realize, of course, that no one else can play the piano for you, right?
-- You realize, of course, that no one can write a letter for you, right?
-- You realize, of course, that no one can sing a song for you, right?
-- You realize, of course, that no one can take a leak for you, right?
-- You realize, of course, that no one can eat your meal for you, right?

The list goes on and on.

And these most-favorably-educated people will nod in assent and agree with what makes sense. Yes it is true. Yes, the instructor is right.

But when the instructor suggests that there is not a hair's worth of difference when it comes to spiritual endeavor, that these most-favorably-educated people will have to do for themselves what no one else can do for them, these most-favorably-educated people scramble and demur: The instructor may be revered with flowers and ring-kissing prostrations, but his advice ... well, hold on a second! And the hold-on-a-second's are followed by other hold-on-a-second's. Reverence, sure. But get to work? Well, ummm....

I say that instructors must take patience pills because otherwise there would surely be more assault-and-battery lawsuits filed by these most-favorably-educated disciples. In the old days, there weren't so many lawyers. Perhaps there weren't quite so many favorably-educated adherents either, but I have a sense that there was a lot more ass-kicking going on.

Sometimes I marvel at the patience of instructors. Why don't they just say, "Look, if you don't want my advice, go find another instructor." Or, alternatively, "Get the fuck out of here!" when faced with favorably-educated nitwits like me.

I guess instructors are stuck taking their own advice ... but I can imagine they're not always happy about it.
Posted by genkaku at 8:09 PM

Thursday, December 17, 2009
no relief, no release
Given the uncertainties and sometimes downright anguish that people can feel in their lives, it is understandable and perhaps forgivable that spiritual endeavor should be couched or imagined as a relief and a joy. Christians go to a very pleasant heaven; Muslims get 77 virgins (or so I've heard); Buddhists get an enlightenment, which, even if it is not easy to nail down, at least has a quotient of imagined freedom, release, and relief.

And even if the spiritual endeavor does not exactly 'fit' into some recognized framework, still, why would anyone set out on a spiritual path if things were not somehow out of kilter ... and the path did not offer a more fruited plain? Yes, Virginia, there is a better mouse trap ... something like that.

And of course, the uncertainty and anguish anyone might feel is no philosophical Tinker Toy. It is real and confounding and painful and who in his right mind would not seek some better approach, some relief, some pleasure? Spiritual endeavor holds out a helping hand, a hand that spells assured relief and an outstanding joy.

But, however human and however sane and however inspiring and however forgivable all this may be, I wonder:

What if the point of spiritual endeavor had nothing to do with pleasant and unpleasant, with anguish and relief? Such a question may defy the imagination and arouse awful fears ... but still, seriously, what about it? The anguish-filled, relief-driven mind may sputter and choke and cry out, "What's the fucking point, then?" All the hand-holds of spiritual endeavor suggest a wiser, happier, more-certain outcome. But what if there were no hand-holds, no limits whatsoever?

What if pleasant and unpleasant simply did not apply?

What if, instead of relief and release, there were just a place where people might say, together with Ikkyu:

"I am not a Buddha. I'm just an ordinary fellow who understands things."
Posted by genkaku at 5:49 AM

Wednesday, December 16, 2009
superficiality of groups
Zazen is the only group pastime I can think of that does not display an increased superficiality according to the increased number of participants.

Interesting thought.

I wonder if it's true.
Posted by genkaku at 7:18 AM

Wednesday, December 16, 2009
Christmas presents
Yesterday, I went to Wal-Mart to buy a toaster oven. The one on the kitchen counter has slowly but surely been on the wane and this was a kind of Christmas present for the house. After noticing again that the parking lot was littered with an increasing number of Saabs and Hondas and Mercedes, I wandered in, found the appropriate aisle and picked out something I could afford.

The problem arose when, having looked at the model displayed on the eye-level shelf, I searched the shelves below for a boxed version of what was on display above. And there it was -- one boxed version ... but the box itself was gouged and sliced in several places. Since I really didn't want to have to come back (shopping, even when it's not Christmas, is not my favorite pastime) I took the beat-up boxed version up to the service desk and asked if someone could find me one whose box did not suggest the merchandise might be damaged. The woman made a call on her storewide pager, and suddenly Danny appeared ... willing as a labrador. He understood my concerns, wrote down the serial number and asked me if I would wait a few minutes while he went to the back.

Within the promised few minutes, he returned, box in hand and smile on his moustachioed face. He called out to the service desk representative to let her know he had done what he had been asked.

Danny, whose name I gleaned from his Wal-Mart ID badge, seemed to be about 30-35 and took his duties seriously. He may have been mildly handicapped mentally, but that was just my supposition: Danny had done his job well and I let him know I appreciated it as I took the box and got in the checkout line.

But as I stood in line getting a bit irritated that the man in front of me had a stack of stuff, but suddenly realized he had forgotten his wallet and had to run off to find his wife, Danny approached me again, this time with paper and pencil at the ready.

Would I write down that he had done a good job, he asked? What did he want me to write, I asked in return? "Oh, anything is fine," he said. And so I wrote, "Danny has been a BIG help!!!!" and I signed my name. He took the paper, nodded his thanks, and I returned my attention to the man in front of me who had finally found his wife and was concluding his overdue business.

Only as I walked out of the store did it occur to me that Danny had given me a Christmas present worth having ... a lighter step.

Two Christmas presents for the price of one.

I think Wal-Mart got rooked.
Posted by genkaku at 5:40 AM

Tuesday, December 15, 2009
what if God says OK?
As I was cooking dinner yesterday, my older son shambled into the kitchen and said conversationally, "I've started reading 'Siddhartha.' Good book?"

Out of wispy memory I said I remembered liking it pretty well -- that it had led me to read pretty much all of Hermann Hesse's books, even "Magister Ludi," and that, at the time, I had gobbled them with pleasure. I did not say that once I discovered Hesse was writing the same book over and over again, some of that pleasure dissolved. Perhaps my assessment was unkind or unfair, but it was just what I honestly felt: Same book, same theme, same ground, over and over again.

Not that I begrudged Hesse his turf. The ground he covered or focused on was human stuff and stuff that interested and beguiled me ... the spiritual adventure clothed in accessible garb. If there was adoration in those books, it was an adoration I could stomach, a plausible adoration because it did not strike me as too adoring or smarmy or presumptuous.

In my eyes, Hesse wrote about the human longing for peace or happiness. From a writer's point of view, it was fertile ground -- human and humane in its parameters. There was Siddhartha, for example, before he became known as 'the Buddha,' searching for some settled ground, some steady and peaceful life, some assured time and place and state of mind. That search was not easy and the difficulties were what made the book accessible and, for those who liked Hesse's choices, worth reading.

Hesse, for my money, was writing about hope.

For classroom and conversational purposes, hope is a wonderful theme or drive or condition. Priests and politicians praise it ... and the human heart responds: Who does not have hope ... from the vast edgelessness of God, perhaps, to the concrete particularity of a dream vacation or a bite of chocolate or a wondrous relationship? Hope inspires action. Hope inspires a willingness to sweat. Hope inspires attention. Hope, the priests and politicians of our minds will say, is a good thing.

In one of his metaphysical thrillers, the Anglican Charles Williams creates a stone (stolen from Mecca) that grants the wishes of those who hold it. The stone can be divided and yet never lose its size or potency. The characters in the book are dying to get their hands on this stone, dying to have their wishes granted and their hopes met. The stone, from Williams' perspective, might be called God. And Williams tells a good tale of the people who get hold of the stone, make their wishes, and find, in the granting, that trouble ensues. Williams has little difficulty with these characters.

But then he goes the extra step: One character, a woman, only wishes to understand the essence of the stone itself. She isn't looking for a new car or a new lover or vast wealth. She just wants to understand the essence itself. And Williams is, as I imagined it, stymied: In what way can he portray a hope that is realized and in that realization, finds all difficulty erased? In what way will he portray a world without need or hope ... a world at peace, a world in which there is nothing more to hope for? It would be too prosaic, too ordinary, too uninteresting to read, too much like you and me. If you ask God for God and God says "OK," what do you get? It is unimaginable.

Williams resolved the issue as any good fiction writer might -- he kills his woman character... and leaves his perhaps-Christian audience to hope for a heaven beyond the grave, an unknowable realm, a realm apart from the ordinary and prosaic and difficult. To hope for peace is credible, but to attain it is, from a writer's point of view, impossible. And more than impossible, it carries with it a kind of horror: What lies beyond the prosaic and the ordinary? If what lies beyond the prosaic and the ordinary is only the prosaic and the ordinary, well, that hardly seems to be worth hoping for since it is what happens all the time without any hope or effort whatsoever. When God says "OK," hopeful people run and hide. Hoping to be free from difficulty is delicious, but where difficulty ceases, the first thing anyone does is to retreat into difficulty and hope.

Within and without, our priests and politicians are insistent. "Hope springs eternal." And the human heart responds, "Yes!" I'd call it pretty ordinary stuff, human stuff, touching stuff ... and stuff worth examining.

Over his gates of hell, Dante posted a sign that read, "Lose hope all ye who enter here." But I wonder ....

Where shall we find and put into action the patience and courage and doubt to be at ease when God says, "OK?" When did a world full of politicians and priests ever assure the peace anyone might long for, cry out for, hope for?

Maybe Dante should have rewritten his sign:

"Welcome to heaven."
Posted by genkaku at 4:19 PM

Tuesday, December 15, 2009
Tupperware spirituality
The Vedanta Hindu, Sri Ramakrishna once said, "Always speak to everyone of God."

Such an encouragement is probably a sop and a satisfaction to those inclined towards a Tupperware spirituality, always selling colorful plastic implements that look good and end up getting in the way.

"Always speak to everyone of God."

My question (whether banging our gums or silent as salt) is ... what other option is there?
Posted by genkaku at 10:09 AM

Monday, December 14, 2009
dog days
Did you ever bring a new dog home? The dog, when not afraid, will sniff here and sniff there, making itself familiar with its surroundings. It demands nothing. It just sniffs around, acquainting itself with the surroundings. Later, outside the house, it will do the same thing, peeing in widening concentric circles, to mark the place and assert a presence and not get lost.

It is good to know the surroundings ... the surroundings of whatever environment presents itself. Being ignorant of those surroundings is both foolish and potentially dangerous. Whether in the wider world or the mental world, check out the environment. Making demands is not necessary. Checking things out is, for my money, necessary.
Posted by genkaku at 4:29 PM

Monday, December 14, 2009
hey stoopid!
Sloppy thinking can drive me nuts. It's not just that I may want others to see things my way, but also the internal inconsistencies or the willingness to substitute sincere feelings for examination. Yes, I can grind my teeth.

It takes some patience, but a little at a time the dime seems to be dropping: People are just as stupid as they need to be. Me too. Corrections or counterpoints may be offered, but in the end, we're just as stupid as we need to be. The only real question is, do we really need to be stupid? And no one can answer that question for another.

One of the things that the smart (and therefore 'un-stupid') can overlook is this: No matter how smart anyone becomes, no matter how adroit and logical and well-educated, still they are not smart enough ... there is no end to the smart rainbow, no pot of gold. Like an addiction, it goes on and on, relying on fixes like 'stupidity.' Only a stupid person could imagine that 'smart' implies happy.

Some segue from the argument made above into a kind of willful stupidity, rolling around in self-centered activities and occasionally delicious emotions: No point in expending a lot of effort to be smart if all you end up with is another brick wall ... another expenditure that doesn't offer some peace and happiness in this life.

But this is a mistaken conclusion. Thinking things through is a good capacity to have. Smarts are OK. It's just that their place in the tapestry of anyone's life needs to be examined...assuming anyone didn't need to be stupid about it.

Oh well, for my money, Swami Vivekananda summed things up nicely when he wrote, "The mind (he meant intellect) is a good servant and a poor master." Naturally, the words are easy, but the effort to actualize those words can be hard.

I'd call that effort a smart move.
Posted by genkaku at 8:05 AM

Sunday, December 13, 2009
once upon a time
A freezing-rainy evening and wonderful time to escape the drivulous Christmas fare on TV, sink lower on the couch, and watch one of my favorite movies, "Jeremiah Johnson," a 1972 tale of what so little is known about -- the American mountain man.

Robert Redford is a little too pretty for the central-character part, but the story is my kind of story ... quirky, caring, wistful and grounded. There is meat on the bone without any waving of meaty bones. There is nothing jarring or inane in the pace and progression of the story ... it's just life...or at least a credible tale about life.

Sometimes I think all anyone would have to say to gain my unwavering attention would be, "Once upon a time...."

Sunday, December 13, 2009
cold day
The heater in the zendo hardly managed to cut the cold today.

But the candle was just as bright as ever.

And the incense just as sniffilicious.

Sunday, December 13, 2009
tending our children
My daughter has a boyfriend -- a big, outgoing, personable guy. I like him. And I am happy for my daughter, who is clearly happy. The distances and disclaimers I can see when looking back are not really relevant to my daughter's need to learn and experience. No one can transmit the taste of tea ... everyone's got to take a sip. I am glad I like her boyfriend and I am glad she is happy.

In a mailbox this morning, there was a note asking about the monastery I flunked out of and the teacher who ran/runs it. The writer was thinking of going there ... and was uncertain in the way that any new adventure might make anyone uncertain. I answered the questions as best I could, in much the same way I would answer any questions my daughter might ask. Who would not love their children? (Don't answer that.)

We all tend to our children -- sometimes in fierce and devoted ways. This is true of our literal children, our fellow Zen students, our most insistent longings and opinions ... we all tend to our children.

But no one can transmit the taste of tea and so we have to gather the strength and clarity and patience and love to observe and take delight in the tea our children choose to taste ... irrespective of our fierce love and hope ... or possibly despair.

I guess we tend our children. It's just what we do. But maybe as well there is a small prayer that we won't screw things up by trying to transmit the taste of tea.
Posted by genkaku at 8:19 AM

Sunday, December 13, 2009
you're right
I'm not sure that the question can be asked without inviting a whole lot of posturing and explanation, but I'll ask it anyway:

If everyone in the world feels that s/he is right in one way or another, if there is a sense that this point of view is true and clear and perhaps even kind, then wouldn't it be reasonable to ask why there is so much sorrow and and uncertainty and strife? People who are true and clear and perhaps even kind don't don such clothes without hoping to be happier and more at peace. But if happier-and-at-peace does not seem to factually devolve from being true and clear and perhaps kind, something is clearly out of kilter.

And if, having asked the question, the questioner could set aside the habit of pointing fingers and laying out philosophies and repairing other people's wagons, and just sit still with the question and let it percolate or steep, wouldn't it be a natural conclusion that my being right or true or perhaps kind contains within it the honest-injun seeds -- entirely personal -- of sorrow and uncertainty and strife?

And if this is the case, then the question may arise, what can anyone do -- personally do -- that will indeed insure the happiness and peace that being right and true and perhaps kind cannot? And it is at this point that philosophers and believers may begin to bang the drum for their particular true philosophy, true religion, true kindness ... and once again the need to be right and true and perhaps kind reasserts itself.

It is easier to be right and true and perhaps kind than it is to make an effort. But the trouble with not making an effort is that the peace and happiness anyone might seek -- and indeed be entitled to -- goes begging.

Maybe the easiest thing would be to say, "You're absolutely right. Now what?"
Posted by genkaku at 6:39 AM

Saturday, December 12, 2009
face to face with....
The peace pickets gather on Saturdays on Main Street here. It is a kempt and rosy Main Street. Shops display pinch pottery. Smith College is the General Motors of the community, bringing both imagination and income into play. Blacks and poor people are in short supply. Northampton is known as a lesbian-friendly community. What many of the upper middle-class residents fail to recognize is that below the surface, quiet as a vernal pool, is a backbone of blue-collar conviction.

As far as I can figure out, those who join the peace picket are largely philosophically opposed to war, philosophically for health care, philosophically for and against the various issues that eddy and swirl. None, to the best of my knowledge, has ever gone in harm's way. But they vote, and so that small picket line has its importance to those who are dying to get elected ... again. The pickets are kind and sometimes impassioned.

Today, what is usually eight or ten people on a more usual Saturday swelled to something like 25-30. A physicians-for-social-responsibility group had joined in. There was a young folk singer with a nice voice and a lot of anti-war lyrics. There was a woman with a loud voice (a neighbor or mine) who shouted encouragements and beat a small tambourine-like drum. She used words like "solidarity." The whole thing felt like the 1960's all over again ... trying to gain critical mass, sincere as a tie-dyed shirt ... a bit showy for my taste, but I could certainly see the point. For the first time, I heard Obama, the darling of not so many months ago, tagged with criticisms and disappointment.

It only lasted an hour, but towards the end of that hour, a grey-haired woman who seemed to be in her 50's walked up to me and asked me if I (in my robes and rakusu) were a Zen Buddhist. We chatted amiably. I asked her if she liked Buddhism and she said she had practiced in Cambridge, Mass., and Providence, R.I. Mostly Korean Zen, she said. But her practice had kind of slacked off ... she wasn't quite as disciplined as once. And when I asked why (not pushing, just curious), she said with the kind of still face that people reserve for horrific tragedies, that her son had died and after that, her practice, like a lot of other things, dissolved. She did not say how or why her son had died.

With three children of my own, I could not even imagine the sort of anguish she -- with her composed-composed-composed face -- had suffered. All my imaginings were meaningless and hypothetical and philosophical. But hers was not a philosophical tragedy, a hypothetical horror. There is no voting on a loss like hers.

We chatted quite a bit. She said she was a social worker ... and I ached for the barriers that that profession might present. I offered her what I could. And as we parted company, I realized I was at home with that woman in ways I was not at home with the peace pickets. I didn't feel that the peace picket was somehow unwarranted or useless, I just felt at home with a person whose difficulties -- even if they were less searing than the death of a son -- looked me in the eye and underscored our unstated and utterly common humanity.

Funny how the most honest and straight-forward difficulty -- the time when consuming screams reach up and out of reach -- is precisely the time for a Buddhist practice and yet a Buddhist practice can seem so extraneous, so philosophical, so pretty-please and useless.

I guess people save themselves in the ways they find most useful, most credible. It's the only credible way, however credible someone might call "Buddhism." And in fact, the only credible way is Buddhism ... but we don't have to call it that. That would just be philosophy and voting booths.
Posted by genkaku at 9:18 PM

Saturday, December 12, 2009
locked rooms
The Vedanta Hindu, Sri Ramakrishna, whom some considered an avatar, once invited his disciples to take a holy text, lock it securely in a room for a couple of days, and then return to find out if anything had changed much.

For those making the spiritual-endeavor effort, this suggestion was and remains a pretty old-hat challenge and statement: No text or temple or religion can do anything on its own. There is no intrinsic, stand-alone value or virtue or usefulness to such things. It is only with the effort of those who consider such things useful or holy that the usefulness or holiness stand a chance of coming to life.

And even then, when we look at the argumentation and bloodshed of the past, the issue is far from assured.

I think I think: It is not so much those who are not convinced of one thing or another who need convincing. It is those who are convinced who need convincing.

Those who proclaim their convictions and beliefs are the very ones who need to investigate and plumb what they proclaim and believe. How else could those convictions stand a chance of becoming more than a golden idol (to borrow from the Christians)?

Everyone has something they believe deeply or are convinced about ... not just the spiritual-endeavor crowd. Family, love, income, fear, anger, virtue, war ... the list is endless. Those who do not share such convictions are sometimes derided as being out of touch. But I think those who do share such convictions are in the greater danger. Their convictions may be very noble indeed, but without the willingness to investigate thoroughly, how could such convictions differ from a holy text locked in a secure room? The willingness to rest-easy eviscerates the life of the convictions espoused.

Maybe it's like this: First the convictions, then the honesty and effort required to enliven those convictions. I know plenty of Buddhists, for example, who are convinced they are Buddhists when what they have really done is lock the holy text in a secure room. But I don't mean to pick on Buddhists ... it seems to be a human trait to pick a conviction and never do the work required to make it truly convincing.

Convincing those who proclaim their conviction ....

It's hard, of course. Personal effort is always hard. But without it, don't even the most deeply-convinced consign themselves to locked and lifeless rooms?
Posted by genkaku at 8:57 AM

Saturday, December 12, 2009
toasty times
I know people who cringe at the sight of poverty, who make their best efforts not to enter the place or converse with those who are poor. Perhaps -- as with the place of the dying -- it is just a fear of being in such a predicament themselves ... dirty, homeless, cold and alone. Or perhaps they suspect that those who are in desperate straits will deprive them of their relative comfort. I too have felt such suspicions.

In the days when language was not so prissy, "hobos" and "bums" could be seen in the chilly night, gathered around a 55-gallon drum blazing with fire ... somewhere along the railroad tracks or down some littered and forgotten street. It was a passing sight, something seen from a car window, perhaps, a nice predicament not to have to share.

This morning is cold and I will head out later to the peace picket line -- a place where, despite the relatively well-heeled environment in which I live, the cold will reach and nip. I will put on layers and be as grumpy as a child donning a snow suit about it...I hate putting on a lot of clothes. But, feeling the nip as I sat on the porch watching the sun rise, I know it will be cold when standing still for an hour on the line, and as one of my too-many-goddamned doctors told me, "your health is your job."

Wouldn't it be nice, I fantsized as the chill on the porch reached around me, to have one of those 55-gallon drums blazing on the sidewalk where the peace picket stands? Toasty. Warming. No matter if the fuel is designer-label mesquite or gutter-gathered rags and twigs and stray newspaper inserts. Everyone likes to be warm.

And the fire warms all comers.
Posted by genkaku at 7:25 AM

Friday, December 11, 2009
a kinder, gentler ....
Sometimes I wish I could change my tone and text ... speak more sweetly and less loud; be more soothing and indirect ... a cuddle-and-hug demeanor and delivery. I like to make people comfortable ... feel at ease ... unthreatened.

Well, it's probably too late now, but I do notice I seldom raise my voice to dogs.

Dogs know what they're doing.
Posted by genkaku at 1:11 PM

Friday, December 11, 2009
human nature
In the almost-dawn, a fat crescent moon lingers, hoping to be noticed before she is no longer noticeable. It's nippy.

In Oslo, Norway, U.S. President Barack Obama accepted the Nobel Prize for Peace yesterday and was gutsy enough to try to explain how a man who had just ordered another 30,000 American troops to go and fight in Afghanistan -- to make war -- could accept a peace prize. His approach was a little less self-serving and a little less self-aggrandizing and a little less pompous than what other presidents might have offered, but it was a tortured thicket. Right, wrong or indifferent, at least he seemed to be thinking about that thicket instead of donning another American-flag lapel pin. War relates to human nature, he said, and he is right: That's the elephant in the living room.

My human nature, your human nature, our human nature. None is exempt from the limitless possibilities. Praise cannot paper over that limitlessness. Blame cannot correct it. Mention the saints and sinners clamor. Mention the sinners and the saints appear. If there's an elephant in the living room, the first thing to do is acknowledge it: Limitlessness has no lapel pin and elephant shit is not some silly joke or religion.

How long can anyone run around pinning the tail (to mix the animal metaphors) on someone else's donkey -- praising and damning and explaining and finding meaning and believing and hoping? "Endlessly" seems to be the answer if history is any guide. And how many will be fortunate enough to reflect: Does it work? Is it useful? What settled peace is to be found in pinning my tail on your donkey? Sure, it's a long-standing habit; sure, it's human nature; sure, it's socially-acceptable ... but does it work? Does it honestly address the elephant in the living room? Does it provide a steady peace in the heart? To put it politely, I don't think so. To put it less politely -- and to add another animal to the metaphorical corral -- it's bullshit.

In whose living room has this limitless, this human-nature elephant taken up residence? In whose heart does this elephant roam freely and poop at will? In whose mind does the longing spring up for ... for ... for some relief, some ease, some peace? Whose house is this and for how long is anyone willing to pretend that this house is a rental? Many, if not most, will go to their graves playing pin the tail on the donkey, but do you want to? Do you really want to live according to your excuses? Your wise nostrums? Your explanations? Your blindfolded children's games? Does it work? Is the elephant impressed or moved?

Gautama summed it up much as anyone might: "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."

May his words become tomorrow what is called human nature today.

May his words today become the human nature of tomorrow.
Posted by genkaku at 6:50 AM

Friday, December 11, 2009
I'm not sure which, if either, is harder: Thinking or not-thinking.

Thinking is an option.

Not-thinking is an option.

I imagine the important part is to be at ease and at peace with the one who has the options.

"Because" is a very strange word.
Posted by genkaku at 6:35 AM

Thursday, December 10, 2009
Did you ever notice how certain you were of your uncertainties?
Posted by genkaku at 9:32 AM

Thursday, December 10, 2009
There is a woman in the memoir class who writes exceptionally well. When I hear her words read aloud, they swirl in my mind like some lavish 18th century ball, full of wealth and brocade and undercurrents. If her writing were cooking, it would rate four stars in a Michelin guide.

The woman herself is in her early seventies and has a still, immobile face. She listens to comments on her work with a silence that would serve well at the World Championship of Poker. She waits. She absorbs. She gathers life to her as a magnet gathers metal filings. But she does not engage with much delight. I suspect she is shy, but it is a shyness like many others -- filled with a clawing need to shine, to be noticed, to sit on the pinnacle, to be a star.

Naturally, I could not see what I could not be and I am too old to think any of this, to the extent that it may be accurate, is somehow unusual. Whether dressed in saffron robes or decked out for a trip to the laundromat or strutting your stuff on some Hollywood runway or at an artful art opening in New York, who does not have to address the star they long to be?

There it is, twinkling in the distance. Some day everyone will recognize and applaud my brightness.

And yet, did you ever notice: If anyone becomes the star they longed to be, it is no longer the star they long to be? Like an addiction, the injection that you desperately needed turns into the injection you desperately need. The pinnacle is no longer high enough. Brightness attained is no longer bright enough. It's endless, it's circular, it's human. And, as often as not, it's not terribly attractive or humane or satisfying. The relief anyone might imagine in stardom is never realized in that stardom.

It may not be a pleasant observation for the starry-eyed, but Buddhism (and common sense) point out a better, brighter and less-addictive approach -- one that has some meat on the bone and offers some peace in the heart.

Better to be the star you inescapably are than to try to escape to stardom.
Posted by genkaku at 6:07 AM

Wednesday, December 9, 2009
men, women and imagination
The mother of a teenaged girlfriend of mine once asked me casually, "Which do you think are more imaginative -- men or women?"

Because I was desperate for a girlfriend and desperately confused about women at that age, I replied without thinking, "Women." "That's funny," she said without rancor. "I would have said men."

The question is obviously miles too broad-brush for any serious conversation, but within a beer-drinking format, I still wonder ... which is not to suggest I am any less confused about women. :)
Posted by genkaku at 8:20 PM

Wednesday, December 9, 2009
one-legged man
Fidgeted and tweaked and rewrote and deleted and gnashed my teeth and finally pulled the trigger on a small article called "What's Wrong with Death?"

I'm not sure which is worse -- working on something like that or the post partum emptiness that ensues.

It's not a big deal. I've been there before and survived, but you'd think that previous experience might grant some grace. Instead, it's the same old one-legged man at the ass-kicking contest.

Oh well, if I weren't failing at one thing, I suppose I'd just find something else to fail at.
Posted by genkaku at 4:22 PM

Wednesday, December 9, 2009
First snow of the year today.

It's the little flakes and lots of them, a white-ish haze in the pre-dawn darkness.

As usual, there is a silence that comes with them. Not that things would be much noisier without them, but somehow there is an extra-silence in their white, white whiteness. And, as usual, I wonder if the silence comes from the flakes themselves or from the space around them or from some dance between the two.

And if they are dancing, what music do they hear?

I like not-knowing.

I like the music.
Posted by genkaku at 6:10 AM

Tuesday, December 8, 2009
debutante Zen
I guess it's par for the course and entirely understandable in one sense, but it certainly can rub my fur in the wrong direction in another: Debutante Zen.

Deciding to take up a Zen practice leaves the initiate, if s/he's anything like me, with a sense of ignorance, a lack of hand-holds, and a desire to catch up with those who seem to know what they're doing. So there is a period of gathering together the language and history and understanding of day-to-day operations and philosophies...who's the roshi, what's the ritual, how to meet the apparent demands of meditation and walking and eating and ... talking. How else is anyone to get the drift and find a home? It's par for the course.

But once a few years have passed and this information has pretty much stabilized -- you know the drill, have a handle on some of the difficulties and have digested the local vocabulary -- there comes the hard question: What the hell am I doing with all this stuff, all this information, all this ability to join with other club members and expend quite a lot of energy. What's the point?

And it is here that the debutante lifestyle can kick in. Right pedigree, right schools, right language, right companions, right parties, right interests, right solemnity, right 'compassion' ... all the right stuff and the question goes unanswered: What's the point? If it's all worth something, is that really the point? It's a hard and scary question and some prefer not to be scared and to rest instead in some sly, white-gloved haven, issuing and occasional "katz!" as a means of assuring the scene. They know what they know, but what they know leaves the unknown a forlorn and abandoned child. In the midst of a debutante's certainties, uncertainty reigns supreme. On the one hand it's sad and in another it is unmitigated horseshit, misdirecting not just the one issuing that horseshit but others as well.

What's the point? What's the point really?

To my mind, there is nothing wrong with hand-holds. The trick is not to hold onto them. This may be easy to say and hard to do, but without doing it, the question will never get answered:

What's the point? What's really the point?

The debutante's world of white gloves, perfected canapes, fine colleges and astute marriages is as safe and sound as a militant Muslim's conviction. Oh goody, Buddha! Oh goody, Dharma! Oh goody, Sangha! Oh goody, emptiness! Oh goody, compassion! Oh goody, the Tripitaka and koans! Oh goody, zazen! Oh goody, sesshin! Oh goody, Zen Buddhism!

I see nothing wrong with these things ...

But what's the point?
Posted by genkaku at 6:33 AM

Monday, December 7, 2009
Tomorrow, Dec. 8, is by some reckonings the day on which Gautama the Buddha attained enlightenment. His enlightenment (seldom if ever adequately defined, though praised volubly by his admirers) came after six years of hard practice, after false starts, after determined efforts that saw challenges from every quarter. To read or retell his story is to be filled with wonder, perhaps, or awe or maybe just the walking-around admiration anyone might offer to someone who found success.

Success. How many have come in Gautama's wake, seeking a success whose parameters cannot be defined and yet are repeatedly defined as a means of inspiration and encouragement to others? Unparalleled success. Beyond the wind. At least, in Buddhism, you don't have to shoot yourself in the head in order to attain it, and you won't get punished if you don't.

After close to 40 years of Buddhist practice, I don't know what to say, although, like other purveyors of enlightenment, I may spend a lot of time saying it. Gratitude hardly covers the ground, but I am grateful. Inexpressibly grateful sometimes. What a lot of common sense! What a kindness beyond kindness! What a lot of ... wubba, wubba ... my mind's tongue simply doesn't work. Belief and hope and relief and bliss and joy and light ... none of them are worth a fig.

I would like to write something that would give examples of what I am talking about, but every example slips through my fingers like water. Those who practice will know what I am talking about because practice -- get-down-and-boogie practice -- is the only way to know what Gautama taught, to know what Gautama knew, to slip through the fingers of the universe without ever a backward glance.

After 40 years, I don't mind if people speak of enlightenment, but it always feels somehow childish in my mind ... sort of like inarticulate teenagers who pepper their explanations with words like "awesome." Not that I am any more articulate than they ... it just feels kind of silly.

Anyway, tomorrow, like today, may be marked as Gautama's enlightenment day. I do wish for tomorrow as I wished for today that everyone will succeed -- truly succeed -- in their own successes. I do hope that their courage and patience and doubt are accompanied by a determination that is as bright and gentle as a sunrise. Gautama was a wonderful man, but that, in the end, is not our problem.

As the breath comes and the breath goes, let's not miss the point.
Posted by genkaku at 5:02 PM

Monday, December 7, 2009
I have always been a sucker for beauty. Or, more accurately, what I find beautiful. The Mona Lisa, for example, is a nice painting in my eyes, but it doesn't shiver-me-timbers the way other art works can. Beethoven and Mozart can dissolve me. There are hymns and folk songs that just plain melt my butter. I have seen configurations of wood in the forest and rocks in the mountains that take my breath away. And I have witnessed acts and heard words that have left me speechless with wonder and joy.

Art classes, of course, would be out of business if they didn't pick some parameters within which to describe and dissect something called "beauty" or "art," but art classes never appealed to me ... in fact, I can find their explications downright offensive when it comes to something I find beautiful. I don't mind if someone enjoys this route, just don't barf on my shoes, please.

I have heard people say that seeing "beauty" means little more than that something is out of balance in the seer. OK, I am out of balance. It's not a criticism, just an observation. But within that imbalanced world, I experience beauty and am lifted up to something that might be called heaven.

Lifted up, erased, subsumed, convinced beyond a shadow of a doubt, open, free, delighted -- all of these aspects strike me as very good pointers to an imbalanced life. Follow the beauty, not as an addict might seek out the next injection, but as a means of knowing that there is honesty to be had in what cannot be described.
Posted by genkaku at 9:56 AM

Monday, December 7, 2009
It's curious: Leading a happy and peaceful life (or practicing Buddhism) requires restraint.

Yet life itself cannot be restrained.

Did you ever experience a 'restrained' sneeze?
Posted by genkaku at 7:29 AM

Sunday, December 6, 2009
give it time
Funny ... I was just working on some writing and when I got done, I could feel a sense of satisfaction rising: Whatever I had written, while not perfect, was OK and perhaps worth shipping out for a rejection slip.

But I will let it sit overnight and see if I feel the same satisfaction tomorrow morning. Funny how genius turns to idiocy (or vice versa) with a little patience.
Posted by genkaku at 8:18 PM

Sunday, December 6, 2009
wading through the camouflage
Does anyone else get tired of wading through the camouflage of others?

I am thinking at the moment of my stepmother, who really is a kind person. But wading through her camouflage of kindnesses is pretty tiring. What's the matter with just being kind, I want to ask.

And if I am tired of wading through the camouflage of others, how extra-tiring it must be to wade through the camouflages of my own.
Posted by genkaku at 8:36 AM

Sunday, December 6, 2009
A friend wrote to (sort of) complain that his Korean Zen teacher treated him too well. There was other news in the note, but that was what grabbed my attention. I wrote back:

I agree with you: Sometimes kindness can be the cruelest teaching. Here we are, in one sense, beating ourselves up with something called "Buddhism," and along comes someone we may acknowledge as a "Buddhist" who fails to agree with our kick-the-crap-out-of-me scenario. It would be so much easier if someone cussed us out and pointed to the flaws ... and here they are, implicitly, saying, "Wake up! There are no flaws!"

It's an interesting aspect of training ... complaining we are treated too poorly; complaining we are treated too well; never finding the pat-on-the-head agreement that would be, Goldilocks-fashion, "juussst right!"

It's hard to get over complaints. They are just so damned delicious ... deliciously self-serving.
Posted by genkaku at 8:15 AM

Sunday, December 6, 2009
blue sky
A frosty, clear dawn around here.

The sky is as empty as the 'page' on which I write these words.

I wonder what I will write upon that sky.
Posted by genkaku at 6:49 AM

Saturday, December 5, 2009
leadership roles
One of the things I like about the memoir-writing class I am 'teaching' is that no one really leads the class. Each person brings a little something to read, s/he reads it, and the others offer their feedback. Class size varies from 6 to 10, depending on who has a couple of hours to spare.

This amorphous style nagged gently in the back of my mind. Maybe things weren't directed enough, goal-oriented enough, productive enough. But during the last class, I pointed out that the initial four-session series would end next Thursday and did anyone want to continue ... and everyone was pretty enthusiastic about saying yes.

I took this as a reflection not so much on my 'teaching' abilities and leadership as it was an amiable chemistry within the room. Everyone, for whatever reasons, wanted to do something and welcomed some feedback and perhaps an easing of the loneliness of creativity. In point of fact, I had kind of hoped that class might slip quietly into oblivion ... I don't care that much any more about writing. But I like the company and I like lending whatever hand I can.

All of this made me think a little about 'leadership,' or, more loosely, the roles anyone might insist on for themselves. No one likes equality much (however much they may yowl about it). It is important that each of us maintain our persona within the relationships we enjoy or detest.

Such roles offer a surface stability to relationships. But do they any lasting assurance? Try suggesting to someone in a leadership role that you might both be on an equal footing and see what happens. Like as not, a leader will consider him- or herself to be on call 24/7 as a 'leader.' And I imagine we all do that to ourselves as well: No way could I eat a greasy hot dog ... I, after all, am a gourmet. No way could I find anything good to say about war ... I, after all, am a pacifist. No way could I 'X' ... I, after all, am 'Y.'

On the one hand, you can see the social stability. On the other, you can see the walls getting higher and higher around you, hemming you in, limiting something that longs to be limitless. Good mother, good father, good Buddhist, good leader, good bread-winner, good tennis player, good thinker, good artist, good driver, good doctor, good cop, good friend .... subtle brick by subtle brick.

But it's kind of nice, now and then, just to stop being the leader, stop being important, stop insisting to yourself or others. Just let things alone. Say what you like. Do what you like. Take the responsibility that freedom implies and, well, be free.

Just a thought.
Posted by genkaku at 6:49 PM

Saturday, December 5, 2009
dire warning ... not
Received in email. Not sure if it's an ad for Viagra or not.

Clever Scam - taking advantage of older men. If you have older men in your life please pass this along so they don’t fall prey to this.

Women often receive warnings about protecting themselves at the mall and in dark parking lots, etc. This is the first warning I have seen for men. I wanted to pass it on in case you haven't heard about it. This will only become more commonplace with all the holiday shopping.

A 'heads up' for those men who may be regular Lowe's, Home Depot, Costco or Sam’s customers. This one caught me by total surprise.

Over the last month I became a victim of a clever scam while out shopping. Simply going out to get supplies has turned out to be quite traumatic. Don't be naive enough to think it couldn't happen to you or your friends.

Here's how the scam works:

Two seriously good-looking 20-something girls come over to your car as you are packing your shopping into the trunk. They both start wiping your windshield with a rag and Windex, with their breasts almost falling out of their skimpy T-shirts. It is impossible not to look. When you thank them and offer them a tip, they say 'No' and instead ask you for a ride to McDonalds.

You agree and they get into the back seat. On the way, they start undressing. Then one of them climbs over into the front seat and starts crawling all over you, while the other one steals your wallet.

I had my wallet stolen October 4th, 9th, 10th, twice on the 15th, 17th, 20th, 24th, & 29th. Also November 2nd & 4th, twice on the 8th, 16th, 23rd, 26th & 28th, three times on the 27th during the Black Friday Sale and very likely again this upcoming weekend.

So tell your friends to be careful. What a horrible way to take advantage of older men. Warn your friends to be vigilant.

Wal-Mart has wallets on sale for $2.99 each. I found cheaper ones for $1.99 at K- Mart in Texarkana but I bought them out.

Also, you never will get to eat at McDonalds. I've already lost 11 pounds just running back and forth to Lowe's, Home Depot, Costco and Sam’s.
Posted by genkaku at 6:10 PM

Saturday, December 5, 2009
forsaking all others
Las Vegas, Nevada, is the home to quick marriages and quick divorces. It was the first place that popped up as I searched the Internet for the traditional (Christian) wedding vows that included the words, "forsaking all others."

The marriage vows have a stately pace and wording, a hopefulness and seriousness that betoken a serious promise in life. I'm not sure if the divorce proceedings include a similar solemn liturgy. The phrase that interested me was "forsaking all others."

What a promise! A consecration on the one hand and yet utterly ridiculous on the other. It sounds meaningful and it is important, and yet ....

It reminded me of the Buddhist precepts. Those who take the precepts promise more or less not to lie, cheat, steal, kill, etc. It's meaningful on the face of it and yet most people who take the precepts and continue to practice Buddhism become keenly aware not of how well they can keep the precepts, but how poorly they do so. It's an important and yet impossible arena.

On the face of it, "forsaking all others" means to be monogamous. No screwing around on the side. On the face of it it is a narrowing of the human capacity, a promise to keep in check what otherwise might run rampant. All sorts of reasonings -- ethical, social, philosophical, religious -- are brought to bear: This makes sense, the reasonings argue.

And yet Las Vegas is home to the quickie divorce, a testament to the human breadth and depth ... or frailty if you like. And there are likewise plenty of Buddhists who stray from their vows ... perhaps all of them.

But what brought "forsaking all others" to mind was the thought that such a line might have a wider and perhaps less simplistically-limited application. "Others" is what make the world go around -- other people, other thoughts, other emotions, other places ... it is the 'otherness' of things that seems to provide zest and aliveness and growth. But 'otherness' also provides its share of problems and those problems may show themselves with increasing insistence as attentiveness gains a foothold.

"Others" is a matter of the mind and its capacities and attachments. The only problem with otherness is that it doesn't pan out on examination. The same can be said for the sometimes much-praised "oneness," but let's take one thing at a time. Otherness is created in the mind and so straightening the mind out is the first order of business.

What occurred to me was that "forsaking all others" might be a good suggestion when it comes to the mind. Not pushing away as in some simplified wedding ceremony, but simply seeing through the fabrications and imagined freedoms of otherness.

It's just a choice, but I think "forsaking all OTHERS" might be a pretty good choice ... just vowing to see and become easy with the circumstances that come and go in anyone's life. But of course it requires more attention than anyone might be willing to expend ... attention and responsibility and a hell of a lot of patience and courage.

It may be good business in Las Vegas -- marriage and divorce, marriage and divorce, marriage and divorce -- but it is a poor man's world when it comes to the mind and heart ... constantly relying on some other approach, some other person, some other place, some other philosophy, some other religion, some other limits.

The only function I can figure limits are good for is the one that points out the limitlessness of any man or woman's life. "Forsaking all OTHERS" strikes me as a pretty good pointer.
Posted by genkaku at 8:04 AM

Friday, December 4, 2009
part two
Because there seems to be a part one to things, I guess it's natural to assume there will be or was a part two. Cause and effect, right?

Part one: The intention, the hope, the belief, the effort.

Part two: The payoff, the result, the gold star, the relief, the reward ... hell, even the punishment.

But if I had a vote in the matter, I think I would say there is no part two. And because there is no part two, there is likewise no part one. There is this ... and it is enough.

And even if it's not enough, still, there is this.
Posted by genkaku at 7:55 AM

Friday, December 4, 2009
good one
I saw it scrawled over a urinal in a Berlin bar. It was the 1960's, a time that included some imagination and fun-loving literacy. It banged my chimes then and still does -- a good one:

A kiss that lasts forever is a strange gift.
Posted by genkaku at 7:13 AM

Friday, December 4, 2009
a waste of time
Yesterday, after returning from two hours of memoir-writing class, I found that Adam, a friendly, sinewy young man, was already at work dismantling a backyard swing set. He was there as promised, at noon, and had brought, as promised, a chainsaw with which to cut up the swing set members. I like people who keep their promises, whether to others or to themselves, and gave Adam a brownie as a small indicator of that appreciation. We consulted a bit about the nails that held things together and the need to steer clear with the chainsaw ... and then I left him to his work.

None of it was a big deal, although the swing set had acted as a backyard landmark for the better part of twenty years. I'd like to say that the kids had many a lively time on those three swings, but the fact of the matter is that the swing set was another example of a parent's imagination vs. a child's reality: The kids used it occasionally, but otherwise had bigger and more involving fish to fry. By financial outlay standards, the swing set was a bust.

Sometimes I wonder how much waste anyone accumulates in a lifetime ... material, intellectual, or emotional stuff which, on reflection and perhaps with regret, turns out to be a "waste of time." How does such stuff -- the faux leopard-skin shoes, the ruby necklace, the years of academic study, the spiritual adventures, the marriage, the drug addiction, the bank account, the face lift, the corner office, the wonderful car, the accolades, the ... whatever feels like a waste -- balance out against the achievements and thoughts and possessions that were not, somehow, a waste?

Thomas Edison was once asked about the 2,000 failures he experienced before inventing a light bulb that actually worked. And he replied, approximately, "I didn't fail 2,000 times. I discovered 2,000 ways that didn't work."

In the memoir-writing class yesterday, a woman in her early 70's read a short, gorgeous piece she had written about herself as a girl who grew up cloistered and tentative and afraid. A little girl. It was wrenching stuff -- most of it between the lines rather than in them. And yet now, in her early 70's, she was out of synch with the teachings and well-heeled atmosphere that little girl had learned so well. Her helplessness then was not her attitude now. In one sense, perhaps, she was examining what had been a "waste of time." Now she was inclined to revise and reshape and redirect what had been a consuming then.

I see nothing wrong with a little regret and a little shame in life. Doesn't it inspire anyone to do a bit better? But how does making a habit out of shame and regret really improve anything? It may compare favorably with the self-important ignorance that ego-trippers can indulge, but is comparison any way to find an honest peace? Now is now. Then is then. Now what? A little regret and a little shame can light a fire, but after that, isn't it just time to cook dinner?

Somehow, I think, everyone has to find a way to embrace the waste, to recognize, bone-deep, that there is no way in hell they could be where they are without having been where they were. Whatever the horror and whatever the pride and whatever the pain and whatever the shame ... still, will you look at that beautiful sunrise?!

Who would the frugal man be without the profligate? Who would the loving and compassionate woman be without the scornful, angry bitch? Who would the saint be without the sinner? True, comparisons are not enough to rest on, but somehow there is the imperative to recognize what is true and rich and lively. "Karma" never impressed me much as an "explanation." Too imaginative and diverting, like most explanations that cannot ease a restless heart.

A "waste of time?"

What waste?

Will you look at that sunrise?!
Posted by genkaku at 5:11 AM

Thursday, December 3, 2009
Once upon a time, a long time ago, I wanted to be a Zen Buddhist monk. When it came to Zen Buddhism, I recognized then as I recognize now that monks held the banner. Of course, the recognition was somewhat uninformed in the sense that once upon a time I had a kind of corporate view of monk-dom. Monks were a much-improved version of laymen and I certainly felt that as a layman, I was in need of improvement. Back then, I thought that if I became a monk I would become an improved layman...and have some kool clothes into the bargain...and maybe learn to talk with words that others found paradoxical. It was all rather childish and, in retrospect, completely understandable.

This evening, I received a note from a woman thanking me for my 'average Joe' and somewhat 'twisted' responses to her remarks on an Internet bulletin board. It was a nice note but it helped me realize how happy I was not to be a monk. Happy that monks were monks. Happy that I was not. Aside from anything else, being a monk might distract me from being irascible as a junkyard dog, which I can be from time to time.

Twisted ... average Joe. It's good enough for me. Once upon a time I was very serious about Zen Buddhism. Now, if anything, I am more serious, but I would prefer not to play the 'serious' card. Serious too often means getting solemn and reducing Zen to psychological pats on the head and hand-holdings and gold stars for kensho or 'authentic' citations ... the kind of stuff that makes my junkyard dog bark and lunge.

It requires less heart-felt but useless energy, being a twisted average Joe. I would give anyone who asked for a serious hand up all the assistance I could. No one likes the fallen-down position, the sorrowful position, the uncertain position. Everyone would like to stand strong on two good feet. Who wouldn't give a hand? Honest uncertainties ... oh, ouch! But I no longer care much for circular yowlings in which the demand is not for honest assistance, but simply for agreement that the fallen-down position is so piteous.

Ain't it awful?
You bet it is. Would you like a hand?
No, I'll just lie here: You do the standing-up part and let me marvel and adore and defer to you.

Woof! Woof! Snarl and WOOF!

I'm too stupid to be a monk. Maybe I should get a biker's tattoo or something. I am protective of my junkyard and monks are people who may, on occasion, rightly point out that there is no junkyard. That's one way to look at things, a good banner.

But as a twisted average Joe, all I can say is, "Watch it! I bite!"

In short, woof!

Thursday, December 3, 2009
Kodo Sawaki Roshi
Somebody posted this quote from Kodo Sawaki Roshi on Zen Forum International:

What’s zazen good for? Absolutely nothing! This “good for nothing” has got to sink into your flesh and bones until you’re truly practicing what’s good for nothing. Until then, your zazen is really good for nothing.

What a nice man.

Thursday, December 3, 2009
making peace with peace
Whether within or without, where there is war, everyone and his brother can concoct and expound a peaceful solution.

But where there is peace, the world becomes somehow confounding and the first thing anyone does is to create the conditions for another war.

It's human and it would be funny if it weren't so sad.

It is harder, I think, to make peace with our peace than to make peace with our wars. Or, as practicing Zen Buddhists sometimes say, "The hard stuff is easy. The easy stuff is hard."

Making peace with our peace ... that, I think, is a worthwhile effort.
Posted by genkaku at 9:25 AM

Thursday, December 3, 2009
the gods are made of chocolate
If you're anything like me, then chocolate is not just a guilty pleasure, it is a sinful necessity. Chocolate can open my doors of delight as surely and smoothly as WD-40. If chocolate qualifies as a sin, then send me straight to hell. Chocolate is beyond philosophy or meaning ... it is what is and I love it.

Besides all this fanciful hyperbole, I think there is something serious to be said about what anyone might love without demur. Home, family, friends, money, clothes ... pick your poison.

Whatever it is that we love without a backward glance leaves us open and assured. And this open assurance is precisely the tool anyone might apply when seeking out their gods, their peace, their at-homeness. Here there is no bloviation about "meaning" or "importance" or "holiness" or "purity" or "virtue." Here there is just ...


And the gods are made of chocolate.

Thursday, December 3, 2009
shoveling out
It would probably be easier and more pleasant to get hit in the head with a shovel than it is to practice Zen Buddhism. Getting hit in the head with a shovel requires no effort whatsoever; it is clear and clean and attentive ... a pure "ouch!" without any back-tracking or doubt; it is edgeless ... pure, unadulterated, right-now experience.

Zen Buddhism, by contrast, is ... well, make up your own story. It seems fair to say that Zen Buddhism as a practice requires some effort, some determination, some patience, some doubt, and some courage. And it goes on and on and on and on and on and on and on....

Yeah, I'd rather get hit in the head with a shovel.

But if anyone keeps after Zen practice, I imagine the experience is not much different from getting hit in the head with a shovel.

Only this time, there's no shovel.
Posted by genkaku at 7:07 AM
Wednesday, December 2, 2009
This morning I had a nice email from Kristina, a woman who described herself as "John's girlfriend." John and Kristina had stopped by Sunday on their way back from camping ... to say hello. For a number of years, John came here pretty regularly to practice zazen on Sundays. I didn't know Kristina, but on Sunday she was bubbling and forthright, tan in honor of her Syrian-Lebanese background, and sporting a blue-green nose earring or stud or whatever you call those things. I liked her immediately.

This morning's email informed me that she was about to try her first session of zazen with John. The two of them have created an altar, apparently, and Kristina was fizzing like a shaken Pepsi about having John as a "teacher" and to have met John's "teacher." (What a lot of teachers! :))

After reading her email, I thought happily and without disrespect, "She's gonna get her cherry popped."

Cherry ... fresh ... untried ... unbroken ... expectant ... excited ... and then ... and then ... and then ... who knows what? But the freshness, the unblemished quality of trying something new ... it was such a nice teaching, so important.

It made me grin to receive such an encouragement.

I look back with nostalgia on the teachers I have known, however fleetingly, and loved. Most of them are dead now: Kyudo Nakagawa, Dokai Fukui, Trungpa, the Dalai Lama, Jack Gallahue and others whose names, if I knew them, I cannot recall just now. All of them helping to pop my cherry in one way or another. I miss them and yet...

Here is an email from Kristina, popping my cherry all over again.

It's really nice to smile.
Posted by genkaku at 9:13 PM

Wednesday, December 2, 2009
An internet dictionary defines "infantilize" as:

1 : to make or keep infantile
2 : to treat as if infantile

On the one hand, much of what passes for religion might be accused of infantilizing its membership.

On the other hand, which of us has not been an infant, whether by ability or understanding?

I guess the delicate balancing act between these two speaks to the kindness and clarity of our mentors and mirrors.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009
hosannas again
If, as is rarely the case, anyone wanted to get a handle on their own deference and what it is that actually deserves that deference, perhaps it would be a good exercise to conger up that before which they offer their most ardent prostrations and then look on with a sure eye as he/she/it prostrates before them with an exactly-equal ardor.

It's a little like the old military suggestion: "You can just bend over and kiss your ass good-bye."

Wednesday, December 2, 2009
Last night, U.S. President Barack Obama ordered an additional 30,000 troops to deploy in Afghanistan to fight an eight-year-old war that the British and the Russians before us could not win.

The American government seems now to be fully committed to the convenient notion that even enemies who do not attack us are themselves worthy of attack. Having an enemy is a time-tested excuse for not exercising leadership.

Given the shaken state of the economy, I agree with the assessment that Obama is risking the loss of his most loyal support. Killing our children and the children of other nations when the same expenditures might nourish a stability at home could be just the thing Republicans need in order to retake a governing role ... not that they have the wit and decency to do anything different.

Enemies are politically expedient.
Posted by genkaku at 8:08 AM

Wednesday, December 2, 2009
Yesterday, I spent some time asking around and working on a small article called "What's Wrong with Death?"

One of the things I realized while noodling and stringing words together and reading responses to the question was this: The question has an impolite and unkind quality ... somehow it's too much of a much. It may be tantalizing to address veiled topics ... but being tantalized reaches only so far. I don't want to upset anyone and yet the questions and topics that interest me do, in fact, upset some people. I'm not trying to suggest that I'm smarter or kooler or more in control by asking such questions, but there is some socially-correct auntie in my mind who snaps, "Keep a civil tongue in your head!"

Maybe there is a more skillful way of coming at things -- weaving a tapestry that will allow others to ask their own questions in their own way. I don't like being unkind, on the one hand, and yet on the other hand, I too have questions ... and how do my questions differ from yours ... except for the fact that you may have had a more civil upbringing?

Oh well, it's too late now for me. Maybe others can learn something from my incivilities.
Posted by genkaku at 6:18 AM

Wednesday, December 2, 2009
middle men
Christians, Muslims and Jews all do their utmost to separate man from God. Buddhists and Hindus aren't very different except that their persuasions encourage some investigation.

Today I wonder: Who would we be without our middle-men, our separations and separarators? When it comes to acquisitions, including God or variations on that theme, the consumer may wail, "Eliminate the middle man!" but I'm not sure, aside from some lyrical thinking, that they really mean it: If they did mean it, why would they insist on middle men?

Whether he knew it or not, I think Martin Luther King was right when he said, approximately, "It's not what's wrong with the world that scares people. It's the fact that everything's all right." Middle-men like King -- or your next-door neighbor -- can really lend a hand. They stand between 'here' and 'there,' 'God' and 'man,' 'me' and 'you.'

In yuppie lingo, they are 'facilitators.' They seem to shoulder the responsibility others are not yet willing to shoulder ... they 'facilitate' the journey. They are the middle-men between here and there. And of course like all middle-men, they exact their slice of the pie. They are the great, the virtuous and the wise ones ... you know, the shylocks and slime balls.

They are the middle men ... minus the middle.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009
what's wrong with death?
In the same tone of voice that might be reserved for a question like, "What's wrong with bunnies?" I am considering elsewhere the question, "What's wrong with death?"

Munch, munch, munch.


In June, 2009, I retired from the newspaper business after 20-plus years. I was 69 at the time and the place had grown truly toxic as men with grey hair attempted to revive the salad years when profits ran at 20-25% annually. But there were fewer readers and fewer advertisers to sustain those coffers and whatever commitment had once been made to news and its social usefulness was diminished or erased: If you couldn't make money on the streets, you saved money by cutting staff. Fewer people did more work and the quality of that work was sharply curtailed ... rewriting press releases and calling them stories became acceptable.

Strangely, the grey-haired -- or perhaps just greedy -- owners were the same people who attached themselves to civic niceties like local symphonies, improved hospitals, and other quality-of-life works. Their pictures were in the paper, receiving awards for their support and leadership. These were affable and well-heeled people who liked being told they 'cared.' And perhaps they did when it improved their aura. But the news was no longer on their social-caring radar screen. Naturally, they had their reasons and explanations, but where the talk was smooth and well-tended, the facts were self-servingly raw. It was time for me to leave.

One of the aspects of retirement is perfectly plain: If you have been working, you now have eight hours or more of time in which to do something that is not called work. For some, this is an enormous arena and a time of floundering. But it is also an arena in which questions that once had little or no space to flourish can come to the forefront and, whether in horror or delight, dance in the moonlight: What about that fishing lure you wanted to invent? What about a trip to Tierra del Fuego? What about creating that garden for which there had never been time? What about learning Greek? A time without work is a time that lacks the usual hand-holds. It is free. And that freedom is sometimes disconcerting.

There are also the more reflective questions, the ones that got short shrift. One such question for me was this: "What's wrong with death?" It's a question I hesitate to mention to others because the uncertainty such a question can ignite brings out a host of what I think of as nut-case answers. No one can answer such a question and yet the question arouses a host of answers, all of them guesstimates and explanations that try to patch over the uncertainty that a no-answer question can arouse.

But with retirement offering me some room in which to flounder freely, I have time to ask: "What's wrong with death?" I also have a new-found freedom in which to relax: Answers, despite all their good press, just pose more questions and there is nothing wrong with not-answering.

Nothing wrong except for the fear anyone might feel: What's wrong with death is that I am going to die. I, me ... you know, the important one, the one who sees and hears and smells and tastes and touches and thinks and loves and creates a vision of the world around him. But what's wrong with fear? Is the fear honestly erased by trying to patch it over with guesstimates and explanations?

At 69, I guess I qualify as "old," though not yet as old as my mother, who, at 92, commented conversationally not long ago, "I'd die, but I don't know how. No one ever taught me." It wasn't an astounding or frightening or sympathy-seeking remark. Neither was it a suggestion that she was going to run off and sign up with the Hemlock Society. It was just a remark by someone who recognized that she had seen enough and done enough and worked enough ... and -- right, wrong or indifferent -- it was OK. The imperatives were no longer so imperative.

No one teaches us how to be born. No one teaches us how to die. And what's wrong with that?

Monday, November 30, 2009
The Zen teacher Shunryu Suzuki once wrote (in what context I can't remember) that he would be as patient as an island that was moving, inch by inch, up along the California coast. What good patience that would be!

But my own patience is nothing like that. Sometimes I get full of a kind of wrathful crankiness, 100% in sympathy with those who cloistered themselves and cussed out all comers or those who beat their students unmercifully.

What brought this to mind was reading words about "Soto enlightenment." In contrast, as I got it, to "Rinzai enlightenment." I hesitate even to write such words for fear that some poor schnook will think they might have any valid meaning. What utter and complete HORSESHIT, my impatient mind dumb can you get?! Find me "Soto" when sitting on a cushion. Find me "Rinzai" when doing zazen ... or picking your nose or gassing up the car or getting laid! Cut the crap!

Two people sit down to write a letter to a dear friend. One picks up the pen with his left hand. One picks up the pen with her right hand. One writes with an ass-puckering neatness. The other writes in great swoops and arabesques. How complicated is this scene? How worthy of anyone's analytical energies? What is the point, here ... what is actually going on? Does it need icing of some kind?

Yes, patience is less and less a strong point for me ... just blow the goddamned island out of the water! Who needs "Buddhism" when they've got Buddhism?

OK, I'll go sit now. I'll do my best to load it up with ooey-gooey virtue or well-schooled serenity or perfectly-credible doubts or some other extraneous shit.

I don't think it'll work, but I'll try.


Monday, November 30, 2009
a good goose
An email this morning informed me in detail I did not entirely understand of a change in leadership at a Massachusetts Zen center.

In the email, it referred metaphorically to a flight of geese. When geese fly, as they do around this time of year, they fly in roughly- and sometimes perfectly-shaped V's. The point position changes during the flight ... first one, then another goose assuming the role of leader. There is no static-state leadership role.

I like the analogy.

A good goose.

Monday, November 30, 2009
the peak, the pinnacle, the pits
In one of his fictional harangues, Albert Camus once observed that many people climb onto the cross in order to be seen from a greater distance. Leaving aside the smug intellectual's cross he chose, it's a pretty good observation, I think: Who, among the spiritually-inclined, does not envision some distant peak, some top-of-the-mountain time, some brighter arena, some achievement that others (those on crosses so to speak) appear to have achieved?

Which of us is not drawn forward by the 'masters' of our dreams? They have attained what we hope to attain; they have done the work we do our best to do and yet are keenly aware of how poorly we may do it. Maybe we proclaim them masters for their sage advice; maybe for their weird clothes; maybe for the facts and fictions that others attribute to them or they attribute to themselves. Whatever the basis for our acclaim, the 'masters' are not so gawky and bumbling and unassured ... see! -- look up there! Serene as butter! There they are at the summit! ... seen from a greater distance. It's more magical than sky-writing.

This is no tongue-in-cheek tease. This is just where the heart aches. These are just, however subtly, the masters of our hearts. Hope ascending to the higher, more assured ground. The masters know and we do not. They are beacons and destinations in our uncertainty.

Some may jeer that all heroes are bound to have feet of clay, but that's just another hero in the making, another cross from which to be seen. I think it's better to just choose a beacon, choose a peak, choose a pinnacle and then, using some real determination, to examine whatever bright light burns so brightly in the darkness. The object is not to tear anything down or to attain some smug observation point, but rather to gain the experience that will no longer demean or diminish what may currently seem like 'the pits.'

If relief were the object of spiritual endeavor, how could that differ from the pits anyone longed to escape? If a thin-lipped stoicism were the cross from which anyone might be seen ... where would there be room for laughter and dance? If lyrical distinctions between heaven and hell were the sum and substance of spiritual life ... wouldn't that be the pits?

Yes, it takes determination and patience. Sure, there are bright lights seen from a great distance. Sure there is stumbling and bumbling in the dark. But consider: Anyone stumbling and bumbling possesses two good arms and two good legs ... the very essence of the dance, the very necessities of any decent crucifixion.

Good arms, good legs ... what good beacons are these?

Monday, November 30, 2009
Jesus in the closet
I found it both forlorn and touching:

Nov 27, 1:54 PM (ET)
METHUEN, Mass. (AP) - A Massachusetts woman who recently separated from her husband and had her hours cut at work says an image of Jesus Christ she sees on her iron has reassured her that "life is going to be good."

Mary Jo Coady first noticed the image Sunday when she walked into her daughter's room.

The brownish residue on the bottom of the iron looks like the face of a man with long hair.

The 44-year-old Coady was raised Catholic. She and her two college-age daughters agree that the image looks like Jesus and is proof that "he's listening."

Coady tells The Eagle-Tribune she hopes her story will inspire others during the holidays. She says she plans to keep the iron in a closet and buy a new one.

In financially-fragile times when banks are scrambling to look good without actually doing good and their strapped customers are being asked to foot the bill; at a time when the U.S. government is about to send more of its children to die in Afghanistan for reasons that will benefit the banks and other 'captains of industry' but otherwise reeks of an obscenely illogical greed; at a time when many cannot afford to buy the 'things' that make Christmas what it is and yet remember a time when they could ... it is hard to begrudge anyone an iron with an image.

Sri Ramakrishna, the Vedanta Hindu whom some call avatar, was once quoted as saying that he saw Jesus, that the tip of Jesus' nose was flattened, and that Jesus walked towards him and passed into his own body. The greedy may see the credulous as another example of P.T. Barnum's "there's a sucker born every minute," but their own credulities go unremarked. Perhaps, when it comes to inspiration and hope and greed, everyone's a sucker; maybe everyone has Jesus in the closet in one way or another.

I don't know -- maybe the woman with the iron will generate enough publicity so she can sell her iron and help pay for her daughters' tuition. At least that way Jesus will have some edible, credible value. Inspiration and hope, like greed, only reach so far. A useless Jesus, a useless inspiration, a useless hope, a useless greed ... well, what's the use?

How hard it is to ask people to investigate their inspirations and hopes, to take a look at the Jesus in their closets. To suggest that solace doesn't really solace but that effort does ... well, those in need of solace are often at the end of their tether and are all out of effort ... that's why they sought out the solace in the first place.

Forlorn and touching and human: When no one is laughing, it is hard to point out the laughter. I guess everyone opens the closet door in their own time, but in the meantime ... well, it's sad, I think.

Sunday, November 29, 2009
transmission of mind
This morning, as I was battling the frustrations of online unemployment insurance, my older son, who was regaining his early-morning consciousness on the couch to my left, asked with a mild surprise, "Pop, aren't you going to go sit?" It was getting 'late,' what with all my fussing on the Internet and he was not used to my being late.

That one small question made my heart soar.

For 11 of his 17 years, I have gone out to sit in the zendo on Sundays. When people joined me, I would sit. When people didn't, I would sit. It was part of my Sunday routine and, by extension, his Sunday routine. I have never pressed Buddhism on my children any more than I would press it on anyone else. I do hope vaguely that people -- my children included -- will consider it, but I wouldn't push it.

And suddenly my son was, in some small way, pushing it on me. Buddhism was part of his tapestry because I was part of his tapestry. He was part of my tapestry because I was part of his.

And on top of that ... what tapestry?

I was smiling all over.

In what moment is Mind not transmitted with Mind? Seriously ... never mind Buddhism bullshit. In what moment is there something called Mind to be transmitted? No transmission and no lack of transmission ... that makes better sense to me.

Oh well, I guess you had to be there.

"Pop, aren't you going to go sit?"

Well, yeah ... as a matter of fact I was going to go sit. And I did ... poorly: I was too busy giggling all over.

Sunday, November 29, 2009
life among the straw men
If "heart-felt" were a light switch, sometimes I think we might benefit if it were turned off. Sincerity is so nice and yet, when examined, so often gets in the way of sincerity.

I guess I'm thinking, in a pre-breakfast fit of the crankies, of all the time and all the energy that is put into assessing a problem -- outlining, dissecting, sniffing, prodding, analyzing ... shaping straw men -- with great sincerity and care and social grace and becoming so enamored of sincere bullshit that there is no honest effort made to embrace and actually do anything.

Nothing wrong with sniffing the wind and assessing the prey. But there is a time to stop salivating and go hunting.

Yes, I am thinking of spiritual endeavor and the mewlings of sincerity. Fuck it! A mistake on the battlefield is miles more useful than a sincere appreciation of the difficulties of war.

Life among the straw men is really juiceless.

Sunday, November 29, 2009
think it over
As I see it, it is pretty much like pissing into the wind to ask others to think. First of all, asking others to think usually means that the person doing the asking wants the one being asked to see things in his or her way ... not think, exactly, just think my way. And second, what is more often than not left out of the request is any real recognition that those being asked have very busy lives. No matter how virtuous or true the truth being offered, still, the request is an interruption.

War, greenhouse gases, poverty, civic skulduggery, hunger, international complicity, enlightenment ... and John needs to get to work, the kids have soccer practice, and I'm already a Christian thank you very much. There is a framework of pre-existing hopes and beliefs. People are busy being who they are or who they imagine they are. Any request that someone think a minute is, more often than not, like trying to find additional space on an already-overstuffed book shelf.

If all this is roughly true, any request to see things another way is thrown back on the one making the request. This is where the piss ends up on your own shoes. Because the suggestion (think about it) is often filled with expectation -- really, the way I see things is the best and most fruitful way to see things ... dig my logic, dig my sincerity -- there is invariably disappointment. Even when people agree, even when they do find space on their bookshelves, still they do not agree perfectly.

I was just feeling lucky this morning to have been trained to consider other points of view. It is a good thing, I think, to think a little. My thinking includes the proposition that any expectation attending on the suggestion that someone might be well served to think ... is just pissing on my shoes. Better just to make the suggestion together with its attending arguments, and then let it be. I or anyone else either will or won't find room on the bookshelf.

Just make the suggestion. Or, as with children, you can try to bully them into submission. Either way, the expectation is probably unnecessary.

But that's just what I think.

Saturday, November 28, 2009
clothing the facts
Along the peace picket line, a short, grey-haired woman wearing a yarmulke started talking to me today. Her name was Cleo and she said she was very pleased to see me each Saturday, although we had never spoken before.

"What order do you belong to?" she asked, referring to my robes and rakusu. And when I said I was a Zen Buddhist student, she touched the rakusu and then the robes and wondered what they were about if I was just a student. I told her that the robes were worn during meditation practice, but that the reason I wore them on the peace picket line was that passersby pay attention to a guy in a dress and that by paying attention to me, they might likewise pay attention to the anti-war signs worn by fellow pickets.

A guy with a dress seemed to appeal to Cleo, who laughed and went back to holding her sign. She had noticed me before because of my robes, but now I was just an ordinary person ... a little serious and a little funny. That seemed to compute for Cleo. I was no longer a guy in robes: I was just another guy.
Later, walking back to where I had parked the car, a man in his fifties was walking with what looked like his family ahead of me ... 15 or 20 feet ahead, the four of them. I wasn't in a rush and I wasn't dogging them, but at one point the man looked back and his daughter (or was it a son?) did too. They both saw me coming. They both saw the robes. And, although I was not pressing to get by, both of them moved to the right, opening the sidewalk in a sort of deference.

Again, as I read the scene, I was a guy in robes ... and who knows what witchcraft or ill-fortune or wisdom guys in robes possess? Here I was, a Zen student who practiced paying attention to his surroundings, and a guy with no apparent Buddhist affiliation was doing precisely the same thing ... paying attention, warding off the evil eye, acceding to what may have seemed worth acceding to. Because of the clothes.

How ignorant I am about what presses other people's buttons -- teenagers with the hot cars who get the girls; guys and gals in very-expensive clothing; gold necklaces around rock-stars' necks; the religiously inclined adorned with a funereal rigor or swathed in brocade ...

"Clothes make the man" and I suppose there are men who believe such things. But it strikes me as sad ... understandable and sometimes useful, perhaps, but still sad. Here I was, basically a tail-wagger, being treated like some unsmiling mastiff. Yes, on the peace picket line I was playing into the attention anyone might pay to a guy in a dress (killing children strikes me as worth the price of a fib), but the fact that so many might actually buy in and believe those clothes ....

What's that about? Clothes don't make the man, do they? Clothes make the clothes. Men and women are a different matter.

Maybe it's all another reason why nudist colonies are a good idea. But if I showed up on Main Street nude, I have a feeling the cops would object and besides, it was 45 degrees F today ... with a brisk wind. Sorry, but the older I get, the colder it gets.

Saturday, November 28, 2009
If you live long enough, your own wise counsel will come back to haunt you ... people parroting things you said long ago and are no longer especially interested in or, quite possibly, disagree with.

Depending on the day of the week, your own regurgitated wise counsel can be flattering, irritating or a cause for remorse. You can tell from the delivery that this is something you did in fact say and it is being offered as a compliment or an assertion that the delivery boy has likewise got that bit of understanding under his belt. But it is second-hand stuff, stale and flavorless.

It used to be said that "imitation is the sincerest form of flattery." And which one of us has not learned by imitation? But flattering ourselves or others ... when has that ever assured much more than a let-down? No one wants to lead a second-hand life, a stale life.

Imitation is like lifting weights ... the point is not the imitation, but to grow strong. Buddhists, for example, imitate something called Buddhism not in order to elevate some lifeless, shining, regurgitated wisdom, but rather in order to tie their shoes or eat their breakfast.

Did you ever try flattering yourself or others by tying your shoe?

Saturday, November 28, 2009
plain stuff
What's the matter with plain? Plain shoes (even the sparkly ones), plain food (gourmet or otherwise), plain sorrow (enjoyable or not), plain joy (feigned or felt) ... just plain?

Is it that what is plain is somehow too prosaic, too tasteless, or too uncaring?

Somehow the lawn always needs mowing or the stars aren't quite bright enough or the man at the next table has a sliver of asparagus caught between his front teeth.

All of this and a lot more like it seems to require my help. Where I help -- where my appreciation and effort are brought to bear -- things are no longer plain. They have importance and flavor and zest. Life is no longer plain because I am no longer plain.

But what's the matter with plain?
Friday, November 27, 2009
dumb and dumber
An old and pointed insult I always liked was, "He's so dumb that he could fuck up a wet dream." And who has not been precisely this dumb?

What is so good that it cannot be used badly? What is so bad that it cannot be turned to good uses? And woe betide the one who can distinguish between the two!

An Internet friend -- better educated than I in the ripples and streams of Buddhism -- was kind enough today to help me understand my own edginess when it came to the magnetic warmth of a particular school of Buddhism ... combined with an occasional sense that followers of that school were stick-rigid in their approaches.

His email words made me feel foolish. Why in heaven's name was I troubled by a particular Buddhist school of thought? Talk about fucking up a wet dream! The magnetisms of kindness and the stick-rigid beliefs are not matters inherent in something called a "Buddhist school." They are inherent in human beings -- in some cases human beings who belong to a particular Buddhist school but a Buddhist school is just a tentative formation, a backdrop against which to notice what was perfectly apparent before anyone invented something called Buddhism ... it's people, or, if someone wanted to play the Buddhist card, sentient beings.

A magnetic kindness coupled with a stick-rigid hymn book. It's just people. People like me. People with wet dreams.

Friday, November 27, 2009
officially "old"
I woke up this morning thinking that on my next birthday, in March, I will be 70 and perhaps it is not too early to start planning for what might be called an official marker of old age. In March, my mind said with a rueful smile, I will be officially "old."

Leaving aside the ludicrous aspects of this proposition...

I was not brought up to be special -- to consider myself a warm place in someone else's universe, to be loved or worthy of love. I had no assured place in the universe. The lesson took and the result was that any accomplishment was not a place in which to bask or rejoice, however momentarily. When others did indicate their appreciation or love, I was not trained to accept and enjoy it. What I was incapable of in the presence of others I was also incapable of on my own behalf: When I did finish some job, even when I knew it was pretty good, still there was a deprecating cloud that hung over and informed the scene.

All in all, as my imagined "old" approaches, it was a foolish and imbalanced lesson, but, as I once read in some psych book, "the hallucination is as real to the person immersed in it as reality is to anyone else." I imagine those who have been given the gift of love have similar difficulties, but I cannot speak for them. Some people are born on third base and think they hit a triple. I was busy hitting homers and thinking I had, somehow, struck out. Once, after I had learned to trust my shrink a little, I can remember his saying about something we were discussing, "You're right." Two little words. And I heard them. And I was confounded ... my life's training was directly challenged. How the hell was I supposed to cope with that?

Of course, there were other hints and whispers about the training I had received, but they were never quite compelling enough to break the excellence of that training. Long after the fact, for example, I have looked at a piece of writing I had written or a table I had built or at the backyard zendo I also built and, as if someone else had done the work, marveled: "That's pretty damned good. Or anyway I really do like it." My pleasure is undiluted for a moment or two and since it does not harm anyone else, I can bask as I might have basked when I was a child.

The regrets and anger I have felt in regards to my training are very real. I might have been a better husband or father or friend or newspaper reporter or Zen Buddhist or carpenter or ... well, damn near anything else. And I am sorry I was not better ... really sorry on occasion. But one of the presents I will try to give myself on my 70th birthday, if not sooner, is some recognition that things simply are the way they are. My own sense of lacking a place in the universe really is getting kind of stale. It is just not very interesting.

Together with the aches and pains and slowing capacities of age -- what a pain in the ass ... and elsewhere -- a sense of fatigue (or is it street-smart education?) makes it harder and harder to take myself too seriously. And that includes critiques that once made a compelling sense. Rising to the pinnacle of the mountain and sinking into some darkened abyss have lost some of their allure. Things that matter ... do they really matter? Sure, if I want to. But otherwise?

To those inclined towards what "matters," this may sound like a descent into depression, and I can see their point of view. "Losing interest" is, when anyone is hip-deep in what "matters," a sad state of affairs. But in another way, it is really quite refreshing. What matters is a matter of choice and being at home with the one who makes the choice is probably more sensible than elevating a particular choice to a "mountain" or "abyss" status.

Getting "old" -- I guess it's a work in progress. I'm not much good at it and sometimes I go kicking and screaming. But a bit at a time it's a relief just to enjoy things as they actually are -- or at any rate, seem to be...either way, no matter. How could there be anything wrong -- except when I'm kicking and screaming, of course -- with this picture? And even kicking and screaming ... is there something off-center about it?

A little at a time -- not quickly or perfectly -- the bumper sticker lesson sinks in: "Wherever you go, there you are." And Suzuki Roshi's observation rings true: "It is enough to be alive." Never mind the answers. Never mind the questions. Just take some time to smile. It's worth it.

Thursday, November 26, 2009
On this Thanksgiving day, my family members are off to New Jersey and what I hope is a nice time of family, food and football. Although I enjoy company, I tire more easily and my stomach is more cranky than it might be, so I will remain at home.

Yesterday, on the radio, a woman who had written a book about gratitude was fielding listener calls and making observations ... all of it in aid of a discussion about Thanksgiving.

One of her observations, most of which were thoughtful, was that when children are taught to say "thank you" and "please," it is a matter of rote, formality and distance. Mom just drills it in -- say thank you! say please! And for many, the social-grace distances of a "thank you" remain throughout a lifetime ... one weapon in a defense-mechanism, I'm-kool arsenal.

But for many, there can come a time when what was once rote turns into an actual-factual reality. Suddenly there is a sense of honest gratitude that bursts forth from behind the dam and distance of social graces and "thank you" becomes an honest-to-goodness thank you.

Interesting function, I think -- practicing diligently within a realm of expectation and applause and then entering a realm in which neither expectation nor applause apply. Things touted as true actually come true ... but the truth is no longer something that opens itself to praise or manipulation.

I imagine the same function goes on in spiritual discipline and lots of other endeavors. Encouragement and applause simply evaporate and instead of seeking safety and relief, there is nothing but safety and relief ... but it's not as if anyone could name them or claim the experience.

Just ... thank you very much.

PS. The world of mom's thank-you discipline reminds me of an old joke. Mother and son are standing in the supermarket checkout line. The son begs his mother for a candy bar from a nearby rack. The mother looks down at her son and asks with a rhetorical sternness, "What are the magic words?" And the son replies dutifully, "You're thin and you're beautiful."

Wednesday, November 25, 2009
silly dreams
Once I took some Buddhist precepts and did what I could, mostly fumbling and bumbling ... but doing what I could.

This afternoon, after reading a longish piece that cited Dogen's views of right views and wrong views, I wonder if there are some precepts I can take that will allow me to become a non-Buddhist.

As once I longed for the purity and uprightness of some distant mountain or monastery -- in the company of like-minded seekers -- now a small voice yearns for some distant mountain on which no one ever spoke or heard of something called Buddhism.

How silly -- signing up for whatever it is that a non-Buddhist might be. I may be dead serious, but that doesn't mean it's not silly.

It's a childish dream, like the one that preceded it, and even if it were to become a reality, I'd probably fumble and a bumble there too.

Seeking relief ... what a persistent and wily pest. It's like circling mosquito in the darkness.

Smack it and get some sleep.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009
the dangers of (dis)agreement
I am as lazy and perhaps lazier than the next fellow, but sometimes I wonder: Which is more dangerous -- agreement or disagreement?

I'm really not sure. Agreement offers warmth that can nourish and encourage but can also segue willy-nilly into a complacency that does not accord with the moment. Disagreement can lead to peaceful resolution or unimaginable bloodshed.

I guess it's just something to keep an eye on.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009
mine's better'n yours
Based on a little observation, I sometimes think I was cut out to lead a life according to bumper stickers. Bumper stickers strike me as having enough wisdom to sustain anyone's life practice and they often have the further advantage of making people smile. Smiling people are open, where people who are claim to be serious are too often simply solemn ... meaning they are more willing to spill other people's blood.

Two bumper stickers of the same family came to mind this morning:

My lawyer can beat up your lawyer.

and a variation on the same theme

My honor student can beat up your honor student.

Both of these led me by the nose to thinking of spiritual variations.

For Buddhists:
My Buddhist teaching can beat up your Buddhist teaching.

For Christians:
My Jesus can beat up your Jesus.

For Jews:
My Torah can beat up your Torah.

For Muslims:
My Mohammad can beat up your Mohammad.

The same silliness and the same seriousness is inherent in each. The silliness may or may not encourage some serious reflection, but at a minimum, a smile means that people have not yet begun to slit each others' throats. Each does, of course, leave out further permutations, as for example when Christians and Jews match wits and salvors and then throw the tantrums that contrasting beliefs and texts can arouse.

Leaving aside helpless and whine-y wails like, "couldn't we all just get along," I honestly think there's a good lesson in all of this. A constant is apparent in all such bumper stickers. Pretty simple, don't you think? ... it's just "me" and "mine."

What others may deduce on further reflection is up to them. But it does make me think that I might like to examine my own willingness to puke up one certainty or another, contrast my certainty with your certainty, or slit your throat before you slit mine. What a waste of time...and I have wasted a lot of it in my lifetime.

"Tolerance" is a nice word, but I often feel it doesn't really hit the mark since it implies and to some extent encourages "intolerance." "Tolerance" as a selling point is better than nothing, I guess, but what hits the mark better for me are Gautama's words, words that might have come from anyone's mouth ... the source is irrelevant:

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.

Why not just believe what you like and follow your own Yellow Brick Road? As long as you are not slitting someone's throat in the process, isn't that enough? I think it is. Not easy, perhaps, but enough.

Can your Buddhist text beat up your Buddhist text? Can your lawyer beat up your lawyer? Can your Jesus beat up your Jesus? Can your certainty beat up your certainty? I think it can, but it takes some effort and willingness and attention. It takes some courage to place the blade against your own throat.

But it's worth it, don't you think? Aside from anything else, the experience is likely to point out the foolishness of putting bumper stickers on the car...and you get to smile without all the stick-on encouragements.

I hate explaining good jokes. It takes all the life out of them.


Tuesday, November 24, 2009
in the distance
In how many and varied ways do we hold things at a distance? Even the things we long for most ... at a safe distance. God, Buddha, enlightenment, compassion, love, freedom ....

It's so easy to pine for them, weep for them, be confounded by them and hold them at a safe and perhaps elevated distance.

I wonder: Perhaps there is some secret knowledge whispering that if we were to stop holding things at a distance it would be too scary, too dull, too prosaic, too ... well, who would I be if I didn't hold things at a safe distance? Who could I be without the space between here and there?

It's a knot of terrible proportions.

I guess that's why anyone might practice.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009
Along the far sidewalk, a slow woman, hooded against the raw and rain, walked a slow dog this morning. One step, two steps, three steps ... around the block. Slowly.

The dog's name is Champ, a golden retriever. I have forgotten the woman's name. Both were younger once. But both of them encourage me and fill my heart with gratitude.

One step, two steps, three steps ... patiently, carefully, dutifully.

Elsewhere in the world, Rohatsu sesshin, the very intense Zen meditation retreat time, is approaching.

Intensely focused. Intensely attentive. Intensely responsible.

Slow dog. Slow woman.

One step, two steps, three steps....

Tuesday, November 24, 2009
I don't wanna
Balky ... that's me.

I haven't had breakfast yet and already my mind is digging in its heels: I don't want to do my laundry; I don't want to take my shirts in to be washed and ironed; I don't want to go to the dump; I don't want to get to the bank.

All those socks, all that underwear piled in the bottom of the closet ... it needs to be sorted and compiled and separated from the shirts that have also collected there. It's not as if I haven't done it before or don't know how to do it ... it's just that I don't wanna! And more than that, I don't want to listen to some serene disquisition on cause and effect, past and present ... bleah!

Without being able to pin down what I actually do want, I am content to not-want these chores. Complaining has a delight quotient, don't you think? This sullen, I-deserve-better, get-me-out-of-this world is ... well, one thing for sure, I'm not giving it up any time soon. :)

Tuesday, November 24, 2009
no more guff
Funny how I go to the dictionary for answers and find myself filled with more questions. This morning, for example, it crossed my mind that the moment anyone espouses something called "virtue" -- in that moment exactly -- the unpleasant qualities that inspired "virtue" are born and flourish. This, to my mind, is not just moral or ethical or philosophical or religious flag-waving. It has practical and painful implications. And what are those implications? Well, take a look at your own life.

Anyway, I looked up "virtue" on the Internet and what I found was this:

▸ noun: the quality of doing what is right and avoiding what is wrong
▸ noun: a particular moral excellence
▸ noun: morality with respect to sexual relations
▸ noun: any admirable quality or attribute
▸ name: A surname (very rare: popularity rank in the U.S.: #36559)

Like a (wo)man who imagines that "peace" is the absence of war, the groundwork and support structure for what may be horrific and detestable rises up on the same wings that asserts the wonders of decency. If anyone were to concede such an observation, perhaps they would fall back in dismay on something like, "Well, nice is nicer than nasty and so I choose to applaud what is nice." But within this elevated compromise, doubt will always remain ... there will be a constant shoring up of this sort of virtue as a means of keeping the unvirtuous at bay. This sort of virtue is limited and limiting and is constantly under fire from the limitlessness of life and longing. And it's not as if virtue were the only one with this problem: A lack of virtue suffers from the same kinds of limitations. Stated in a raw form, if you do anything you want, you're screwed; if you restrain the impulses to do anything you want, you're also screwed.

It's a paradox.

"Paradox" is a word I am too lazy to look up. Paradoxes, for my money, are just another way in which the mind pats itself on the back. How very, very observant you are!
The problem is that the mind's ability to pat itself on the back never broke the cycle, never touched with any honesty the limitless peace that comes with a sneeze or a kiss or a yawn. And the frustration of this very personal paradox leads back to cultivated compromises: It's nicer to make nice than it is to make nasty.

Nobody in their right mind likes reading guff like this. Everybody's got bigger fish to fry: Yeah, OK. I'm a stumbler and a bumbler, just like the rest of the human race. I stand up and fall down. I do my best. I fuck up. What else is new? Now, leave me alone!

But for those inclined, the whispers nag, I think, and the limitlessness of peace beckons. Is it possible there is a way that is neither virtuous nor nasty, neither paradoxical nor clear, neither peaceful nor warlike, that is relaxed without tension?
Of what principle is a sneeze or a yawn or a kiss an example? Is there a time and place without compromise, without doubt, without ... all this virtuous nagging?

Yes there is, but it takes some effort. That effort may be best expressed with the word "attention." Over and over and over again, pay attention. In this way, bit by bit, we gather our strength and ability to acknowledge in the deepest possible way that things are impossible and there really is no need to make them possible. Correct nastiness, OK. Correct virtue, OK. Correct war, OK. Correct peace, OK. Refrain from evil, OK. Reprise what is good, OK.

Attention wears away the need for virtue or paradox. Not all at once, perhaps, but with attention we learn what we knew ... a sneeze, a yawn, a kiss, a fried egg, a new toothbrush, a terrific dirty joke, a construction site, a death, a birth, a world of paradoxes that does not accede to paradoxes. No more guff.

How about them apples?

It's just Tuesday after all.
Posted by genkaku at 5:34 AM

Monday, November 23, 2009
looking forward
Today, after doing various chores, I may just treat myself to "Chinatown," a movie I remember as being a deliciously murky mystery. I ordered if through Amazon and it arrived the other day and, well ... what an imagined treat!

It is nice to look forward to or even dread things.

But not at the expense of the chores at hand.

Time to get things straight.

Monday, November 23, 2009
fidget and fuss
When it comes to Buddhism, if you say to someone that something is absent, the first thing they wonder about or crave is its presence. And if you say it is present, the first thing they fidget about is its absence.

Buddha, Dharma, Sangha ... fidget and fuss. Compassion and peace ... fidget and fuss. Emptiness and joy ... fidget and fuss. Delusion and enlightenment ... fidget and fuss.

And what is the result of all this fidgeting and fussing?

Invariably you tie your shoe wrong.

Monday, November 23, 2009
stardom and the stars
Last night, a college student called to set up an appointment during which she wants to ask me about my mother, a woman who wrote fiction and non-fiction in the 1940's and '50's. One of my mother's books, "The Horizontal Man," won an Edgar Allen Poe award and is still on some bookstore shelves. I don't remember the book well and, when I talked to my mother, 92, neither did she. What use the student hopes to find in talking to the offspring of her research focus, I cannot imagine...literally, I just can't figure it out.

Does any child know his or her parents? I don't think so. A child, at whatever age, knows what s/he wanted or needed from a parent and knows something about how the parent acted in terms of those wants and needs. But a child strikes me as a poor source when assessing parents.

I guess I don't mind that assessing or depicting parents -- or anyone else -- should be an approximate effort at best, but I do somehow miss the honest disclaimer: This is just an approximation, a dutiful and heart-felt effort. Instead of such disclaimers, too often, there are statements like, "here is an intimate portrait" or "an accurate portrayal." And perhaps it is so, but without the disclaimer, it is also a dishonest effort, an effort that blurs the actual scene.

In her time, my mother was a writer -- a writer in a time when it took balls to be a freelance woman writer. She knew and hung out with the likes of Truman Capote and Carson McCullers, some pretty stellar company, from a writing point of view.

I think it's fair to say that writers are people who seek out a stardom with their expressions. They are like anyone else, except perhaps more obvious ... seeking out stardom at the expense of the stars they already are. Which is easier -- to be acknowledged as a star or to be a star? I think being a star is harder: All you have to do is look at the night skies to know that stars are not that unusual. Former poet laureate Billy Collins pointed this out nicely when he observed that meeting an author is "one of life's most reliable disappointments." Stars are miraculous to the earth-bound ... but what do the stars actually say?

In one sense, it seems like an endless, comforting cycle of misinformation -- agreeing without caveat that "this work" or "this research" offers a true picture. And I think people do the same things to themselves -- assessing and elevating and devaluing the star without questioning or investigation: Stardom becomes more important and more compelling and more convincing than the star itself. What the hell is wrong with being a star, for heaven's sake?

Oh well, the young woman and I agreed that she would come on Wednesday and we would have coffee and talk about whatever research she is doing. I will tell tales and enjoy doing it and she will try to winkle some 'truth' out of it and be graded in a world whose misinformation comforts us, one and all.

I love a good story, a good lie, a beautiful tapestry. Perhaps that is something I inherited from my mother ... who in turn inherited it from her family, who in turn inherited it from ...

Twinkle, twinkle.

Sunday, November 22, 2009
nice day
A cool, bright, crispy-crispy day came though the open door of the zendo this morning. It was accompanied by sunlight and squirrels skittering across the roof and a small plane from the local airport intoning nearer and further sounds in the sky.

What can anyone say about zazen? I don't know, but it sure is a nice day.

Sunday, November 22, 2009
being right
What do you suppose would happen if you woke up one morning and discovered you were right? Right about everything. Right about your job, right about your home, right about your bank account, right about your friends, right about your joy, right about your sorrow, right about your spiritual views, right about being right, right about being wrong ... just right about everything. What do you suppose would happen?

Would there any longer exist the need to be righ

Sunday, November 22, 2009
elevated compromises
Around the world and in the heart, I think it's pretty much the same: Entrenched ways of seeing and doing things meet a revolutionary challenge -- some new way that points out the flaws of the old ways and promises the dawning of a new and more nourishing environment.

And when the new and improved way gains ascendancy, its own capacity for dictatorship and horror and error becomes apparent. Winston Churchill's observation may sound wry, cynical and defeatist, but perhaps it is just clear: "Democracy is the worst form of government except for all the rest." And perhaps the same observation could be twisted for use in personal spiritual endeavor: "Kindness is the worst approach to life except for all the rest."

My father used to say, "it's better than the blow of a stick," and maybe that sense of elevated compromise -- altruism is nicer than egotism, etc. -- is as close as anyone can come to fulfilling their longing for peace, to ending this sense of uncertainty and sorrow in their lives.

But elevated compromises are still compromises and the revolutionary within longs for a star-spangled understanding -- something that doesn't fall into the endless circle of staleness and revolution, revolution and staleness. Conflicts lead to resolutions; resolutions lead to conflicts; questions arouse answers; answers arouse questions ... it's interesting and it's human, but it can also provide an occasion for the cranky, frustrated question we used to ask in the army: "How do I get out of this chickenshit outfit?!"

The advertising and propaganda mechanisms of spiritual life offer plenty of reasons to assume that a star-spangled understanding is possible. Books and temples and texts and rituals all seem to support the notion that a revolution without revisionism is possible. "Enlightenment," "heaven," "God," "compassion," "freedom," "joy," "emptiness" and perhaps 77 virgins over the rainbow. They are wonderful and enticing invitations to revise our lives and our ways of seeing things. But is that advertising really enough to escape this sense of staleness, this elevated compromise, this chickenshit outfit of nagging uncertainty? The answer is no, although there is plenty of evidence that people work their tails off to maintain a bold and assured front.

The only revolution that amounts to much, as far as I can see, is the revolution that consents to examine the revolution, consents to be still and investigate, that puts all the assumptions and hopes and fears and elevated compromises on the table and then ... pays attention to them. If "God" is a favored assumption, well, isn't it time to ask who, precisely, this "God" is? If "enlightenment" sparks a revolutionary interest, isn't there a time to wonder what, precisely, this mouth, this propaganda mechanism, is talking about? Of what experience is this star-spangled longing an expression?

The only way to overthrow the bad old government effectively is to assess the revolutionary troops and ambitions.

Some may feel that having recognized their own hamster-wheel approach to prosecuting a revolution, all they have to do is put their foolish assumptions aside: These, after all, are not the true answer to a star-spangled question. But disdaining or diminishing our own propaganda ministry is not effective. It amounts to another elevated compromise ... and it doesn't get me out of this chickenshit outfit. It amounts to more of the same. To my mind, we should honor our propaganda as that which, though its ineffectiveness, can inspire an honest effort.

Better than a life filled with compromise and longing for star-spangled solutions is just to put all of the hopes and beliefs, of whatever quality, on the table and watch them. Watch the "love" and "God" and "a better job" and "marriage" and "travels to Tahiti" and "eureka" and "eek" ... watch all of it, whether frivolous or profound ... and see what happens. Watching takes a lot more patience and courage and doubt than the usual, elevated-compromise revolution, the overthrow of old gods so as to replace them with new ones. But paying attention -- day after day, week after week, year after year -- teaches lessons that no elevated compromise ever could.

This is experience, after all, and experience trumps propaganda -- even our own -- any day of the week.

Saturday, November 21, 2009
extraordinary stuff
Today I heard on the news that the only five-star hotel in Kabul (or was it all of Afghanistan?) -- the Serena -- had been hit by a rocket.

And I felt a small jolt of surprise: Rocket attacks in a war-torn country are ordinary, but ... Kabul has a five-star hotel???? I hadn't known that ... which of course says more about my ignorance than it does anything else. For a small flicker of a moment, it struck me as extraordinary.

How blood-pumping -- the extraordinary. Suddenly, a perhaps-lackadaisical attention is all eyes-and-ears. Things are more exciting and lively somehow. Oh wow, a wise man! Oh gross, puke on the sidewalk! Oh horror, the Nazi death camps! Oh surprise, an unexpected kiss!

But which is more extraordinary -- the fact that some time or place or event is extraordinary or the fact that we imagine things to be ordinary or humdrum or same-ol'-same-ol' in the first place?

Saturday, November 21, 2009
assessing others
What is it that makes anyone believe they have the capacity to sum up someone else's existence ... and be somehow 'right' in their assessments?

Jesus, Gautama, Mohammed ... these are good guys.

Hitler, Genghis Khan, Rasputin ... these are bad guys.

TV sitcom personalities are happy and have solutions.

Drug addicts are fucked-up and confused.

My neighbor has a better life than mine ... or a worse one.

So-and-so presents a 'mixed picture' and that 'mixed picture' somehow tells the tale.

It just strikes me as an odd and fragile exercise.

If, upon inspection, we cannot even assess and completely describe our own lives, under what flag can we encapsulate another's?

Saturday, November 21, 2009
escape from uncertainty
As I watched another segment of a documentary on World War II the other day, my younger son, 15, opined that Adolf Hitler had done good things for Germany. Specifically, he had revived an economy that had been decimated during World War I.

There were a couple of other pieces of evidence he brought to bear but what interested me more than his somewhat sketchy depiction was what I thought I heard between the lines: Powerful and apparently assured people are magnetic. They are certain and when you're 15, or perhaps any age, certainty can look like a distant bliss.

I didn't try to beat my son down with counter-arguments. I'm much more interested when people follow their own noses, their own dreams stated in their own ways, and come to conclusions (sometimes called certainties) they can live with.

So, because my son has expressed an interest in history, I asked him if he were interested in history. He nodded. That gave me the room to ask rhetorically what the study of history consisted of. Wasn't history, when it was any good, the gathering of as many points of view as possible and then, hopefully based on some collated facts, expressing a conclusion or thesis or argument? A historian has to slow down, set aside his or her preferences, and do the grunt work of looking at something with care and patience. Sometimes it takes a lot of heavy lifting, a lot of effort, a lot of patience.

Roughly speaking, I liked my argument, though I'm not sure if my son did. When you're a teenager, you are a person filled with uncertainty, someone looking to others for a certainty you don't feel and long -- sometimes desperately -- to feel. Powerful people, people in the spotlight, people who receive accolades, even people whose depredations are palpable all can look pretty attractive. A quick answer -- one that requires no patience or effort -- beckons like a Greek siren.

I wonder if people aren't hard-wired to search for certainty, for respite, for peace in their lives. Eight years of George W. Bush, I would argue, proves the magnetism of certainty, of answers my 15-year-old son might be drawn to and approve. But I'm not trying to single out men like Hitler or Bush. I think the aphrodisiac of certainty draws us all ... to be able to say "yes" or "no" and there, by God, is an end to the topic.

But isn't it funny? -- if you look around at the people who have expressed certainties, no matter how deliciously fact-based -- the result is pretty much the same: Certainty may hold uncertainty at bay, but it is a closed system, a walled city, and lacks the possibilities that life presents in little and large ways every moment of every day of every week of every year. Certainty lacks freshness and freedom ... and often does a lot of demonstrable harm.

And yet, whatever its drawbacks, we seek out certainty or The Answer or The God or some certainty that will put a period on our sentence. Never mind what evidence various certainties display, what history may show ... still I want my certainty, my heaven, my nirvana, my resting place.

It seems to me that anyone who follows their own nose, who is patient and careful about whatever interest s/he may have, who really takes the trouble to study and delve, will end up a modest person. Studying any aspect of life with thoroughness leads inevitably to the conclusion that conclusions are purely tentative, that since we cannot know everything about any topic, we will stop making all this effort and simply express ... a preference. That preference may be extremely-well or extremely-poorly founded in the amassed evidence, but it is, in the end, just a preference and therefore worthy of modesty rather than immodesty.

My feeling is that we seek certainty in the face of uncertainty and yet it is the uncertainty that brings freshness and liveliness to any life. Perhaps the search for certainty could be summed up by saying, "I don't want to die," but since the fact is I do and will die ....

Funny, the same certainty I imagined my son was searching for in a man as immodest as Adolf Hitler, is not counterbalanced by a search for uncertainty ... and uncertainty that has a hell of a lot more evidence on its side than certainty has on its. And if there were a search for uncertainty, what would be the result? Wouldn't it be the same as the search for certainty ... an impossible chore, worthy of philosophers perhaps, but really pretty silly since uncertainty is as plain as the nose on anyone's face.

Certainty strains to escape uncertainty. Uncertainty strains to escape certainty. The two are locked in a DNA-helix of a dance. Each seeks to escape, but what is it they are seeking to escape from. Is escape the key to a certain life? I doubt it.

Well, all of this muddling and noodling, seems incredibly distant and philosophical when put into words ... above the human fray somehow; standing at a distance from the sorrows that rise up in a very personal, human life...another search for some certain answer or solution. Death, disease, drugs, divorce, delight, damnation ... these are honest things in the human experience. They are compelling and utterly personal and where things get personal -- as in being a 15-year-old seeking some safe haven in a man who acted with apparent certainty -- there is a tendency to say "Fuck philosophy! Fuck thinking things through! Fuck attention and effort! Give me a solution! Give me a certainty! Give me a peace I can live with without being nagged! Give me an escape!"

A hangman's noose, certainty. Tighter and tighter it draws, choking the life out of things. A hangman's noose, uncertainty -- drawing tighter and tighter and firing up a longing for some magical reprieve, some last-minute stay of execution, some Hitler, some Bush, some god or other being filled with assured and certain activities.

It's worth examining, I think, though I hardly expect my 15-year-old to be consoled much or inspired enough to investigate the scene. Patience, attention, responsibility ... hell, if adults decline the invitation, why would a child be much different? Enter the bastion of certainties, slam shut the doors ... "I yam who I yam" the cartoon character Popeye used to say. It was a glorious certainty.

But then there's the question, "Who yam I?"

Escape from what?

Escape to where?

Friday, November 20, 2009
important things
The newspaper says that a 107-year-old silversmith plant has shut down operations, a victim of hard times.

I tried unsuccessfully to find the name of the metalworker who created the massive doors on St. Patrick's Cathedral in New York. I remember reading an article in which it was said that during the Depression, he used his own considerable funds to keep his staff employed. He felt that it was important to nourish and maintain a craft and art that could too easily be lost. Despite dwindling commissions, he paid his workers to stay on. It was more important than money.

After the Chinese intercession in Tibet, a Buddhist monk was asked what it was he had feared most about the armed events. He replied, "I feared I might lose my compassion." It was more important than land or who rules the roost or even death.

It is wonderful to think that such people exist -- devoted to a harmless and perhaps beautiful way and refusing with steely determination to surrender that way for any mundane reason. Fear, perhaps. Surrender, no.

It speaks well of a human race that can so easily sell itself out.

Friday, November 20, 2009
that time of year
A swarm of honking Canada geese crossed the the grey sky this morning.

It's that time of year.

Noisier than a Tupperware party.

Friday, November 20, 2009
the reason ....
An inspirational little email I received today concluded with these words:


One of the best things to hold onto
In this world is a FRIEND.

Woven together for a reason ... really? What 'reason' might that be? Is it that we find the company of friends reassuring in what can be harsh circumstances? Is it that each fears death and mutual support mitigates the blow? What 'reason' would compass the reality of being 'woven together?' ... as if we were separate in the first place?

I really don't understand this well. If there were 'reasons' for things -- reasons in reality as distinct from intellectual or emotional understandings -- wouldn't that just detract from the settled peace of the things themselves? Wouldn't 'reasons' simply add fuel to the fires of uncertainty?

I agree, inspirations and encouragements are warming in their time. But doesn't there come a time when facts, without any emotional or intellectual add-ons, challenge the limited nature of things like 'reasons?' It's not a matter of unkindness or kindness. It's just that the limited -- if warming -- nature of 'reasons' cannot reach the unreachable nature of a blue sky or a hard-boiled egg.

I'm not trying to play the spoilsport. I just find 'reasons' pretty dubious when it comes to solutions.

Friday, November 20, 2009
the lion's roar
In the world of metaphors, Zen Buddhism has one I like:

Having some attainment is the jackal's yelp. Having no attainment is the lion's roar.

Jackals survive pretty well in their own world. They are fleet and savvy and are capable of hunting small prey. But frequently, they rely for survival on the leavings of others. They follow in the footsteps of some 'other' animal. They survive, it's true, and survival is no mean feat. Even a jackal can be proud. The perfect jackal.

The lion rests in the shade of the baobab tree. S/he is lion; what else would s/he be? The tailings of others are not her food. When it is time to hunt, s/he does so with incredible power and skill, moving soundlessly through the shoulder-high grasses that are as tan as s/he. Sometimes s/he wins, sometimes s/he loses ... but this is just the yapping of jackals. It is outside her ken. When it is time to hunt, s/he hunts. When it is time to protect, s/he protects. When it is time to fight, s/he fights. When it is time to play, s/he plays. When it is time to roar, s/he roars ... and the universe stands still.

S/he is lion. What else could s/he be?

Thursday, November 19, 2009
supremely unkind
The other day, when I asked them, the Jehovah's Witness ladies at my door told me that God was omniscient and omnipotent but not omnipresent.

What sort of idolatrous God is omnipotent and omniscient but not omnipresent? It sounds lily-livered and supremely unkind to me.

But what do I know?

Thursday, November 19, 2009
the safe haven of hell
I probably won't say this well, but I'll try anyway:

In the start-up days of whatever might be called spiritual life, I was awed by the chores stretching out in front of me. I was drawn by longing and uncertainty to (let's call it) enlightenment, but the steps suggested by people or writings I imagined to be enlightened ... Jesus! what a boatload of effort. Looking at the situation, it seemed insurmountable and huge and ... how could a person like me ever do it? My characteristics and abilities were all wrong. I really wasn't good enough, determined enough, virtuous enough. I imagined that all of the requirements were asking me to not be as I was, to be something else, to revise every fiber of my fragile and fucked-up being. If this endeavor were a kids' baseball team, I would have been picked last...and deserve to be picked last: After all, you want people on a baseball team who can hit and throw and run and when it came to spiritual life, I often felt like a quadriplegic with sleeping sickness. What...a...flop.

Naturally this self-flagellation was not 100% of the picture. If it had been, I would never have kept making some effort. But it was enough of the picture so that I failed to notice a salient feature:

In critiquing my own potential and elevating the capacities of other people and other states of mind, I was really quite comfortable and comforted. If I were down here and you were up there, then, of course, there was someplace else to get to, some better and more serene and more clear-headed arrival point ... an arrival point that was up ahead and, at the moment, out of reach. That arrival point was fixed and certain ... for all people in all times. Anyone who wanted to reach that arrival point would, under the rules laid out, reach the same, chiseled-in-stone arrival point.

The arrival point approach (which I think is normal) allowed me to sidestep the one thing I feared even more than I feared my inabilities ... the reality that anyone can be 'here,' but 'here' varies according to the user. This wide-openness, this edgelessness, this easy freedom (how could anyone not be 'here?') was too, too, too scary for words. I was far more comfortable imagining a steady-state, one spiritual- life-fits-all scenario. If anyone could be 'here' and 'here' could be anywhere and everywhere... if that were true, then the comforts of inadequacy and failure were not enough and I would have to, have to, have to ...

Learn to enjoy myself.

Zen students, among others, will quibble and duck: Since there is no 'self' to enjoy, enjoying yourself is impossible. But that's just a nice Jesuitical way of returning to the safe and soothing confines of inadequacy and imagined effort. But how much effort does it really require to be 'here?' The answer is 'none whatsoever' and THAT is pretty spooky to anyone who loves God, or imagines they do. It's easier to pick the scabs of failure and inadequacy than it is to take responsibility and pay attention.

Writing all this down -- poorly, I'm afraid -- makes it sound comprehensible and cloistered and surmountable, but for anyone involved in the fray, it is hard work. The love of failure and inadequacy and worry -- and the comforting safety it can offer -- cannot be overestimated. Whole religions base themselves on nourishing a sense of inadequacy: You cannot know God because God is unknowable ... come to church and put a buck in the plate; we will keep our promises, but only after you are dead. Meanwhile, of course, people are alive.

It's all par for the personal or human course, I think. Nothing to scorn or look down on, nothing to elevate or look up to. It is just so comforting to imagine and adore 'somewhere else' or 'something else' ... something else like inadequacy, something else like God, something else like enlightenment. I'll do anything, anything, anything ... anything not to be here; anything not to be attentive and responsible; anything to remain inadequate. But 'here' will have none of it and whispers true whispers ... no false gods, please. Inadequacy, like adequacy, is just not enough.

It's a tough nut -- tough enough so that some fall down in a comforting despair.

All I can think of is this: Gently, firmly, watch and keep on watching.

What the hell would anyone do with God if s/he had it? What the hell would anyone do with enlightenment if it could be achieved? If inadequacy or adequacy were true, how true could they possibly be? Comfort is not enough. Discomfort is not enough. The self-helpers' bloviations about 'here' or 'the present moment' are not enough.

Being responsible and at peace and getting over the woo-hoos of despair and comfort may not be easy, but the whispers keep whispering and are probably worth hearing ... gently, firmly hearing:

Enjoy yourself.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009
this and that
Skittering around ...

-- If you cannot yet be a sane person, at least be a moral one...not because some God will hit you on the nose with a rolled-up newspaper but because you will be happier.

-- Watching documentary footage of World War II last night made me think that politicians these days must be delighted: Where once the enemy had a face and philosophy and where once his actions proved his enmity and galvanized a response, now the public has largely bought into an unexamined vision of 'terror' as manifested in an amorphous enemy whose vision, depending on the day of the week, shape-shifts in its ways of instilling fear. How lucky the politicians must feel, having the electorate fearful of an enemy ... fearful enough to send their children into harm's way. Elections, as always, are not far off, and having something or someone to defend against is ever so much easier than shaping a nourishing vision.

-- If a man or woman walks into a greasy spoon and has a couple of eggs over easy, some toast, juice and coffee and then pays the bill and goes about the business of the day, s/he doesn't think much of it. If by chance the subject of breakfast comes up as the day goes by, s/he will retail the morning menu without fear or other emotional investment: It is just what s/he had. But bring up spiritual endeavor -- another sort of nourishment -- and Nellie-bar-the-door! -- suddenly there is the touchiness of a scorpion. Chiliocosms of meaning and importance are brought to bear when all the time, well -- how do such things differ from a couple of eggs over easy?

-- If there really were someone 'else' to tell you what to do, how would that honestly compute?

Tuesday, November 17, 2009
poetry and prose
Jonathan Aaron, a longtime friend, poet, and college English teacher recently took pity on me and, when I asked, sent me this small description of poetry, what it is, and what it does.

As for a short description of what poetry is and does? Well, for what it's worth: Poetry is about asking questions, not giving answers. Poetry is basically antithetical to the world--it pushes against any and all predominating currents (or it should try to). Poetry is about how things really are and not about what you'd like them to be.

As a poetry-ignoramus, I thought that was a pretty good description.

By association, his description led me to think of the complexities that language can indulge in, whether in compressed poetry or more expansive prose. And how about the sometimes-obscure language used when discussing Buddhism?

And what crossed my mind was, the less-accessible language becomes, the more the one using that language should redouble his or her efforts to understand the topic. While it is true that some subjects (experience, for example) lead down some paradoxical written byways, still the camouflage of complex and obscure language more often betokens a lack of understanding and a fear of exposing that ignorance.

Well, true or untrue, I know I prefer it when I understand what someone is saying and I imagine they do too. Lyrical writhings don't impress me much...even when I use them.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009
While I was doing zazen, two Jehovah's Witnesses rang the doorbell on this sparkling, cool day -- an older woman who had some trouble climbing the front stairs, and a somewhat younger one with flowing grey hair and a lot of wedding rings. Both were scrubbed and carried Bibles.

I asked them if they were Christians and they said they were. The younger one asked me if I were and I said no, but I was happy if they were. We talked for a while and it was pleasant enough, but it was obvious none of us were going to see eye to eye. They wanted to "share," as the younger one put it, but it seemed clear to me that they actually wanted to "sell." I didn't have the cash to buy in with.

I didn't want to set their hair on fire or give them a hand-hold, so I didn't mention Buddhism. Salesmanship doesn't impress me much. We chatted and smiled and offered different points of view and eventually they went across the street to seek out more fertile ground. I hope I didn't insult them or make them feel unwelcome. It's hard to know with Christians.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009
peculiar stuff
It's peculiar:

Anyone with two brain cells to rub together would concede that no one can predict the future. Predicting the future with perfect accuracy -- whether from moment to moment or two hundred years hence -- faces mountainous and compelling evidence to the contrary. A fool's errand might sum things up.

OK ... so we've got that clarified: No one can predict the future with certainty.

And yet, without ever a glance at our inability to predict the future, we are willing to assert and perhaps have a variety of emotional responses to the rock-solid assertion, "I am (or anyone else is) going to die."

It's peculiar.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009
the "Last Man" club
Described occasionally as "the ultimate disaster movie," "2012" came out recently and has enjoyed a bonanza of income. Maybe it's somehow consoling to watch a disaster when there is a creeping sense of living one ... when the old assumptions and hand-holds slip away and a lonely desperation kicks in. In a movie theater, there is a beginning, a middle and an end and things are under control. On the street....

I won't pay to see horror or disaster movies, but I did watch a television show last night about the Dust Bowl drought that savaged the plains states in the U.S. from roughly 1930 to 1936 ... and in some places lasted until 1939. One man said that there was a time when the wind blew and the topsoil dust flew for 27 days straight -- 27 days, 24 hours a day, without relief -- and he was afraid his mother might go mad. In Texas, a newspaper editor created the "Last Man" club, a collection of farmers who vowed not to move away even as others left the plains in droves, headed for the starvation wages they might get in California: Starvation wages were better than no wages at all.

The faces of the people depicted in black-and-white photos showed a bereft and beaten picture ... people beyond desperation since desperation still implies hope. They were struck dumb, immobilized, and worn down to a human place where there was no more left to give because there was nothing left to get. They knew nothing ... they simply were. The documentary only made passing reference to religion (churches were boarded up): Religion, it seemed to me, was the kind of self-satisfied luxury reserved for those who might go to see "2012" ... or write and read blog entries.

The "Last Man" club. Imagine that. Coming together to defy the fact-based heavens under a banner of clear understanding: Which of us is not or does not dread the notion of being the "last man" that we already know we are? Even as we come together -- perhaps to see a movie, perhaps to practice Buddhism -- still there is the challenge of being alone, of being the "last man."

With or without horrific and disastrous circumstances, still the question whispers or screams: Who, exactly, is this last man? Where no one can speak or hear the answer ... who is this last man?

This man who longer acknowledges disaster or hope?

This man who no longer...

This man...




Monday, November 16, 2009
old age, sickness and death
It was a scatter-shot of events today:

Tonight, the ambulance lumbered down the street again, flashing lights blazing, going slow between the cars parked on either side. It was the second or third time it had come for my neighbor Joan, who has heart irregularities and is old enough so that each visit to the hospital is enough to stabilize but not really halt the problem. I talked to Mike, Joan's son-in-law, offering whatever small services the family might need, but basically felt ineffectual.

Mike said thanks and half-joked I might like to take care of his father, who is in the early stages of Alzheimer's and had to be tended because he was due for an intestinal exam Tuesday that required him to drink a bunch of purgatives. Meanwhile, Doreen, Mike's wife and Joan's daughter, was recuperating from having a cyst removed ... nothing serious, but she was feeling beaten up and was resting on the couch.

This afternoon, my son got home from high school and announced that the had to get his tail in gear. He was going to the wake of a friend's grandmother who had died unexpectedly.

It was he who told my daughter that one of her friend's mom had died and asked if his sister had seen the obit. She hadn't, but she too was getting her tail in gear: She and a friend were driving down to Boston to pick up another friend whose boyfriend's father had had a heart attack.

Old age, sickness and death ... how nice it might be if such things were just words appearing on someone's blog.

Monday, November 16, 2009
tidy resentments
Doing memoir-writing homework the other day, I led with the line: "Jack Gallahue was not a man with tidy resentments."

"Tidy resentments" -- I like that even if I did write it.

Monday, November 16, 2009
Some verses from Kipling's "Mandalay" ...

Ship me somewheres east of Suez, where the best is like the worst,
Where there aren't no Ten Commandments an' a man can raise a thirst;
For the temple-bells are callin', an' it's there that I would be

Just liked it.

Monday, November 16, 2009
The important part is not that people are not Buddhas.

The important part is that they are.

There is nothing exemplary or extraordinary about it.

It's just the important part.

Monday, November 16, 2009
the delights of anger
I was reminded this morning of a time in the past when I attended meditation sittings at a nearby karate dojo. On Mondays -- a day that I had off from work -- the instructor would hold a karate class, which I did not attend, followed by a couple of periods of zazen, which I did. It was the only sitting schedule I could find locally that dovetailed with my own.

After the sittings, the instructor would read something Zennish and then comment on it. With, at that time, 27 years of practice under my belt, I had learned how to sit through such talks. The fact that I got to practice zazen with others made the talk-time worth it.

Until one night when, after sitting, the instructor pulled out a sheaf of papers that seemed to be entitled something like, "How to Tell Who the False Teachers Are." He began to read these papers. And the more he read the more infuriated I became. Somehow, for me, this was the worst case of unmitigated bullshit I had ever heard. This asshole seemed to be asserting that, by reading someone else's words, he could lay claim to an understanding of what a false teacher might be ... that he, himself, was able to discern and stand above the fakers of the Buddhist world. I was livid with scorn. I vowed and kept my promise -- I would never go back to a place that reeked, through its instructor, of pure cesspool.

Man, was I pissed!

But I was also between a rock and a hard place. I wanted a place in which to sit with others and this instructor's place was the only one in the area whose schedule would allow me the luxury. Mentally, I grumped and groaned and injustice-collected and wallowed in my righteous anger for a while and then ... and then ... and then, I just decided to build my own small meditation space in the backyard. It took some time and money. To this day, my right thumb's nail is split from a time when I was pounding a nail and missed. But finally there was a small house in which to practice my own brand of bullshit.

So how false was the false teaching I received from that bullshit instructor? Looking back and then looking out into the backyard, I imagine that false teachings aren't really all that false, any more than true teachings are all that true. Out of the cesspools of this life come the flowers. Out of the flowers of this life come the cesspools. And it has nothing to do with namby-pamby relativism.

Anyway, cesspool or flowers, I now have a place to sit in peace.

Sunday, November 15, 2009
Various events convened today and prompted the thought:

Anyone can be smart. It takes an intelligent (wo)man to be kind.

Sunday, November 15, 2009
family time
Here we are half way through November and the day is warm enough -- sun struggling to appear -- so that the zendo door could be left open during zazen this morning.

I always like that ... air tiptoeing in, quiet and soft and friendly; small-gong echoes flowing into the out-there like an enormous smile.

All save my older son have left for the weekend, but ...

It feels like a big, happy family.

Sunday, November 15, 2009
a simple matter?
Is this a complicated matter? -- Don't we all choose a course of action based on one need or another and then FIND OUT in experience whether that chosen route actually addresses the needs expressed?

Whether it's cooking an egg or seeking enlightenment ... we choose a direction and only later find out.

To my mind, the course chosen is always limited in nature, but the experience is limitless. Maybe it's the limitlessness that convinces people to rely on a course -- to bolster and adorn their philosophies -- rather than find comfort in the unknown of experience.

I don't know. It seems pretty simple to me ... though God knows I can make it complicated enough.

Saturday, November 14, 2009
your teacher's wish
Posted a similar question at ZFI, but, because I suspect it won't get much interest, I'll post it here as well:

What do you suppose your teacher or guru or hero or god might wish for you? Would s/he long for your adulation and love, your prostrations and pocketbook, your kisses and puddling praises? Seriously, would s/he wish it?

How I have praised and longed for and loved the teachers I have known. And yet I suspect that, assuming they were truly any good at all, each would have had bigger fish to fry than my hosannahs.

Looking back, I would say that my heartfelt devotions were solely for my benefit. And benefit I did. It is all I can do today to keep from praising the men and women who did not fall prey to my tear-stained prayers.

Think about it: If the best a teacher could offer were a home in Rome or a temple on the corner or a relic in a museum or a bursting treasury or a serene touch... how could any student hope to survive?

I am thankful beyond measure to those who had bigger fish to fry ... and fried them.
Saturday, November 14, 2009
what a let-down! :)
I think it's true and if it's not, it probably deserves investigation:

Every teacher or teaching you esteem is bound to let you down.

Every teacher or teaching you despise is bound to let you down.

What principle is this?

Is this principle really a let-down?

Saturday, November 14, 2009
rainy day
It's a raw, grey, rainy day around here -- a good day for crackling fires and s'mores. The stripped trees and dead leaves floating in the gutter beyond the porch seem to add to the gloom. Rain plops on the window sill to my right.

I'm glad I know where my umbrella is.

It's gonna be a wet one on the peace picket line.

Saturday, November 14, 2009
the edge of the cliff
When I was a newspaper reporter, one of the things made me curious was the apparent incuriosity of reporters when I met them outside the office setting. The same people whose curiosity was required in order to write a decent news story could be strangely incurious and narrow when, say, we met at a party. Not that I was exempt from this phenomenon, but I stopped going to parties.

Reporting is a gated community when it comes to curiosity -- a safe place in which to premise activities on the fact that there were things that are unknown. It is safe in the sense that once the particular unknown becomes known, once the story is written, the person who was once curious, who conceded his or her ignorance of the unknown, could return to the familiar turf of what was known ... the beliefs and judgments with which s/he had gotten out of bed that morning.

But curiosity imposes greater demands, I think ... demands worth allowing and investigating. To be curious about some particular aspect -- how much does the car cost; who's marrying whom; how high is the sky; how fast does a shark swim -- is not truly satisfied by the answers that answer. Each answer -- when curiosity is allowed to germinate -- is just grist for some new bit of curiosity, some new I-don't-know.

Last night, on television, Bill Moyers interviewed actress, playwright and chronicler of American life Anna Deavere Smith. It was pleasant to listen to curious people. Smith is currently on stage, as I understood it, portraying a variety of people she has met over time ... ordinary people, people who, in their own ways, are full of interesting questions and answers ... just like everyone else.

At one point, Moyers asked Smith what tools she used to get people to open up, to (as I heard it) go beyond their own answers, to enter their own worlds of curiosity. And Smith said she invariably used three questions as a means of getting to the good stuff -- the stuff that went beyond the convenient and satisfied. I can only remember two of the questions, but I thought they were good ones: 1. What do you think of death and 2. Have you ever been falsely accused of anything? Smith said that such questions almost always brought people out of their conventions and away from their safeties.

Isn't it curious how our own incuriosities can smother the curiosities of what is closest to home, the unclothed and unprotected I-don't-knows that seem somehow unsettling and antisocial in their implications? We may be dying to talk about death and yet know that anything we say will not still or bring peace to the curious heart. It may be easier to talk about a car accident or a designer label, but sometimes the smothering and smoothing of our curiosities can be a soul-searing burden.

What is so wrong or unsettling about a simple I-don't-know? I don't know. I guess it is comforting to know and yet, where curiosity is given a bit of room, such comfort can be so discomforting. Sidestepping curiosity doesn't seem to work and making a philosophical fetish out of I-don't-know doesn't work either.

Curiosity takes us to the edge of what self-helpers might call a cliff. Our curiosity knows that what is right posits, by necessity, what is wrong. Our curiosity knows that what is good carries with it, by necessity, what is evil. Our curiosity knows that a promise made carries with it, by necessity, a promise broken. Our long-winded and heart-felt philosophies -- our assertions that we would like to be right or good or keep our promises -- can not change the curious facts, the cliff, the possibilities or the uncertainties.

The edge of a cliff.

What if there were no cliff?

It's all pretty curious to the one who feels wounded by being falsely accused.

Friday, November 13, 2009
clothes shopping
If the whole of this life is nothing more than a longing and effort to stand naked and at ease, then perhaps the only question is:

With what nakedness will you clothe this body ... this life?

Friday, November 13, 2009
popping the bubble
There were five of us sitting around the brightly-lit table in the memoir-writing class yesterday when a woman arrived late. Each of those already assembled was pink and scrubbed and attentive to what others were saying. Our focus was on writing and the difficulties it could present. It was about like any other gathering -- focused and friendly within a particular bubble.

The woman who arrived late had a head of shot-with-grey hair and a very straight face, as if she had some interior interest besides the meaning of the gathered group. As it turned out, she had. She excused her lateness by explaining that her husband was dying as we spoke. She had taken the trouble to tell him before she left the house that she hoped he would wait to die until she got home, but that if he needed to die before her return, she would understand. She said she had cared for him for 42 years.

What a bubble-popping moment, in one sense: There we were, pink and scrubbed, discussing one matter while, simultaneously, other, perhaps more important, matters and experiences were taking place. I live within my momentary bubble, my momentary interests and concerns, and then find that others are doing precisely the same thing ... sometimes in ways that seem more important than my own. My own concerns may pale by comparison ... how could I have been so careless?

But when you think about it, isn't it impossible, no matter how caring and sincere and altruistic anyone might be, to provide attention and care to all the aspects of any given moment? Self-centered ways of thinking and acting are pretty unattractive, not to mention debilitating, but caring about every unexplored aspect and possibility ... is such a thing really, honestly possible? Sure, people can wave philosophical or religious kindnesses in your face, bemoaning the state of affairs, but what does it really mean to be attentive and kind?

The best I can come up with is the willingness to meet the moment on its own delightful terms, living with attention to the bubble we all share, but ...

Pop the bubble.

Thursday, November 12, 2009
letter to Eido Tai Shimano
What follows is a letter I wrote in 1982 to Eido Tai Shimano, the chief executive of Zen Studies Society in New York and Dai Bosatsu Monastery in upstate New York. Mr. Shimano is a Zen teacher.

The reason for posting a letter of so many years ago is not to open the old wounds that bled freely in their time. Nor is it to deny that Zen Buddhism in America has made great strides when it comes to the sexual and financial abuses that it has faced and continues to face from time to time. Nor is it to suggest that I have not been a hypocrite. Nor is it to elevate my own status as a rebel or nay-sayer or promoter of some one true virtue. I too love Zen Buddhism both in its directions and in its experiential truth.

I am posting it as a reminder that the past is or can be very much the present and further that the 'scandals' that have occurred involved very real and particular people and that those people suffered in ways that are contrary to Zen Buddhist teaching. Not for nothing did the teachers of the past make upsetting the sangha a no-no. Not for nothing did they encourage repentance when it was warranted. And not for nothing were they aware that in the human sphere, however elevated and adored, the room for error was and remains a very real possibility.

November 1, 1982

The Rev. Eido Tai Shimano
New York Zendo
223 East 67th St.
New York, NY 11021

Dear Mr. Shimano:

Thank you for your creative letter of Oct. 19, 1982 with its equally masterful enclosure of Oct. 21 to Mr. George (Jochi) Zournas. I must say that as I began to read your work I felt some vestigial hope that you might in fact clear the air, turn some metaphorical corner and clarify what, over the years, has become murky with the stuff that Soen Roshi has learned to call your “lies.” By the time I finished reading your words, I was, of course, disappointed if not surprised.

“So much sitting, so many sesshins, so many dokusans…” and still Soen Roshi calls you a liar. Could you tell me why? Is this perhaps another encouragement to “bravely march on?” Coming as Soen Roshi does out of a society that takes pride in indirection, still he uses this most direct word, “liar.” Why? Coming as he does out of a discipline that enjoins confession and straight-forwardness, he calls you a liar. Why? Among the monks at Dai Bosatsu last summer you managed to plant the idea that Soen Roshi was an alcoholic and/or senile. But why would a senile alcoholic even bother to call you a liar? Politics, you say? – because Soen Roshi wants Dai Bosatsu, to become king of the some American Zen castle? If Soen Roshi actually did want Dai Bosatsu, why not give it to him? Do you not owe him a great debt for his teaching, perhaps as Torei felt he owed Hakuin? As a ‘true man without rank,’ with so many sesshins, so much sitting, and so many dokusans behind you, surely you recognize that the toys of Zen Buddhism – the robes and monasteries and power – are only dreams. Could you, a ‘Zen Mater,’ be fooled by a dream?

But this, of course, is not your understanding. Your understanding seems to be that They are all out to get you – you who are blameless in administration, honest in the dokusan room, pure and “fair” and deserving of respect from those who support and make possible your meaning as a person of rank. It is the questioners who are “insane” or full of “intense personal hatred” or want Your zendo or want Your monastery or hate you because you have money and they have not or don’t understand the ‘Japanese’ group and you…you bear it all so remarkably well, so staunch and patient. You are really very good at it: masterful, if not the master.

Besides those Jochi George Zournas mentioned in his letter (those Others who were out to get you), I would like to take this opportunity to recollect some others, perhaps not quite so august, who have left our own sangha. I am not now referring to those who left because they moved or to those who made an easy personal choice, but rather to those who left after some discovery in that beautiful zendo where there is room for our lifelong practice. True, some left in anger or confusion, but what was it they really discovered? Is it possible they discovered what Soen Roshi called your “lies?” I really don’t know, but I recollect them now and express my sorrow at their leaving: Daishin Peter Gamby, Maishin Mike Sopko, Reimon Ray Crivello, Genmyo Elihu Smith, Sojun George Seraganian, Bunyu David Bogart, Roca Lorca Morello (all of whom were residents as Sho Bo Ji with your blessings),Kanzan Bruce Rickenbacker (your monk who memorized the whole of the Diamond Sutra), Daiko Charles Carpenter (another of your monks), Shoro Lou Nordstrom (another of your monks), Kozen Peter Kaufman (another of your monks), Jonen Sheila Carmen, Wendy Megerman, Nennen Merry White, Toni Snow, Reishu Jim Gordon, Shinso Merete Galesi, Ishin Peter Mathiessen, Jean Day, Carol Binswanger, Jochi George Zournas, Wado Vicki Gerdy, Rinko Peggy Crawford and Mushin Frank LoCicero. You will recall, or course, that, over the years, the list has grown much, much, much longer and is filled with people who did not show sufficient “skepticism about rumors,” as you so quaintly put it.

How many of them came to you directly in 1975 and 1979 (when what were humorously referred to as the “Fuck Follies I” and the ”Fuck Follies II” were unveiled)? How many? Was it 10 or perhaps 20? Without any exception I know of, each of those who came to you directly came in a spirit of admiration and love, in hopes of clarifying a delicate matter without public exposure. The situation: your manipulation of the dokusan setting for your own periodic sexual satisfaction (seducing women); treating lovers taken from within the sangha with contempt once you had finished with them; and taking no candid responsibility for your own behavior but rather answering direct, honest and caring queries with, in one form or another, the line you used in a jam-packed zendo in 1975: “It’s none of your business.”

The line of people outside your door is long, very, very long. In my mind, they wait silently – the They and Them whom you so easily accuse of insanity or intense personal hatred. A long line of crazy people outside your door. What brought them there? Even crazy people have their reasons, don’t you agree?

Look! There’s Merry White. Remember her? She was the one who sent a letter to the Board of Trustees in 1979 outlining without rancor your sexual blackmail. It was she who wrote: “Personally, I found his (your) seductions very distracting and jarring during the first Kessei…I wonder now if I would not have been a better student in the long run without it. ... And last year (1978) during my second stay at Dai Bosatsu, it hurt me that he treated me very distantly for quite a while. When he warmed up, it became sexual again. That kind of either/or situation made it very difficult for me (or, I would think, any woman) to be his student. You want his attention and his help, and that, I think, is how it begins. He takes this emotional opening-up, which is normal and right in a spiritual student-teacher relationship, as a sign of sexual readiness.” Clearly the Board of Trustees, your Board of Trustees, took the only possible sane action by never fully discussing the matter and by issuing a letter, signed by Korin Sylvan Busch stating, “we affirm our confidence in Eido Roshi and his leadership of our sangha.”

And there’s Laura Hawkins! Remember her? December 24, 1977, Room 1100A at the Statler Hilton after dinner at Mama Leone’s. Remember how the board of Trustees covered that one when Jochi and Korin, at whose instigation I can only guess, spread lies and rumors about Laura – how she was only dreaming of an affair with you? And how even Laura was drawn into the lies and told them on herself because she believed the truth would be harmful to you and to Zen practice in America? She was the same one who commented later in front of witnesses that “he (you) never even said thank you.”

And Carmen!… But of course you will recall this and much, much more.

On and on and on it goes down that long, long line. Person after person, Bodhisattva after crazy Bodhisattva, each of them willing their suspicions to silence. How is it possible they were so willing, so stupid? Perhaps it was because many people begin their spiritual practice with the understanding that the ascendancy they have previously granted to their emotions and intellect is the source of much suffering. Because of that pain, they were willing to set aside their own emotions and intellect (to the extent possible), and to be as faithful and obedient as possible. Perhaps they counseled themselves that intellect and emotion are more delusion. And perhaps they trusted that your emotions and thoughts were not based in delusion. This trust, however misguided, was surely human and understandable. Unfortunately, it was and is open to manipulation and deceit. There are many I know, myself among them, who practiced with you and were grateful to you, until, a little at a time, they began to wonder. In their wondering, they came to you in their twos and threes and tens, not even caring very much that you took lovers on the side, but curious about a wider pattern of contempt and manipulation. No doubt you saw them as insane people out to take your toys. Well, they didn’t get them, did they?

To some you said your Japanese heritage and samurai code of honor kept you from understanding or responding to these puritanical “barbarians.” Isn’t it odd for a so-called Zen Master who has lived in America for 20 years to claim he understands neither his students nor his environment? Isn’t such a person in the wrong line of work? No doubt it is equally insane to suggest that a real Japanese man would know something of discretion and that a true samurai would not exhibit contempt and dishonesty towards those in his own circle of honorable endeavor.

Of course it was more difficult to use this line on Dr. Tadao Ogura, the psychiatrist who offered to act as arbitrator in the present upheaval. He was the one who suggested taking three “impartial” observers from the sangha with him when he listened to the direct testimony of those involved. The group would then have reported to the Board of Trustees, your own Board of Trustees. Perhaps he too was one of the insane ones, the ones who had to be stopped. And stopped he was when Korin Sylvan Busch, at whose instigation I can only guess, let it be known that three “impartial” sangha members could not be found.

The long line outside your door does not say these things. They are silent. They are gone. It is I who say them, I, Kigen. I take responsibility for saying what I have said and doing what I have done. I have company, but I take responsibility for myself. I am one of Them, those Others whose fault it all is, one of the ones who supported you well, offered you gratitude, did his best to practice the Zen Buddhism of the Patriarchs, lied or remained silent for you on numbers of occasions, lied or remained silent to myself about you, endured and perpetuated your deceits, and, finally...went...”insane.”

It is out of that insanity that I also offer you my most sincere and honest thanks. I offer thanks without irony or sarcasm. You have taught me well and I am grateful. Besides the mechanics of Zen Buddhism, you have also taught me what a Zen Master is not – a teaching worthy of a true Zen Master. Although your teaching lacked the creative clarity, the nurturing of the Buddha Dharma, and the straight-forwardness of a truly enlightened man, still I say your teaching was fine. As I value my life, my Zen practice, so I value this teaching.

This is a time for potential new beginnings – yours, mine, the sangha’s. Always new beginnings. I pray now and will continue to pray that each of us may one day face death with strong, even breaths and perhaps a small smile of true understanding.

Thank you and goodbye.

Adam Fisher

It was during that same time period that I heard perhaps the sharpest rebuke I have ever heard in my life. At one point, Soen Roshi was talking face to face with Mr. Shimano and discussing the reported disharmony Mr. Shimano played a role in. Mr. Shimano offered his responses. And Soen Roshi reportedly said sadly, "Now it comes -- dead rock!"
Posted by genkaku at 6:35 PM

Thursday, November 12, 2009
caught off guard
There were six people at the memoir-writing class that began today, two women and four men. Each person read a little of what they had written and then received reactions from the others. Everyone gave nice balances of positive and negative and everyone was old enough not to be destroyed or elated by what they heard. Most of the comments about the particular piece segued naturally into discussion of more generalized problems or observations. It was pleasant.

Finally, I read my version of the assignment I had given to the others -- my own two-page obituary. No one liked it much because I had taken a newspaper format and pretty much written it in spare, descriptive language. Everyone wanted more juice, more emotion, more personal reaction, more heart. And I agreed with those comments, but defended the exercise because I thought it pointed out some of the difficulties in writing a memoir of any sort.

But in the midst of the ensuing, meandering discussion, one fellow, Sandy, said he wanted to hear more and then said off-handedly and as a way of supporting his argument for more sex-appeal, "You're someone who has seen the light." And when I asked him what light he was talking about, he replied calmly, "Whatever light you were looking for."

It is so much fun to be caught off guard by other people's perspectives. Never in a million years would I have said such a thing about myself and yet here was a relatively sane, funny, observant human being making what he obviously thought was an obvious observation.

It was peculiar and somehow delicious to get that kick in the ass, even if I didn't know what it all meant, what Sandy thought it meant, or whether it was in any way true.

Thursday, November 12, 2009
memoir class
Because the first of four memoir-writing classes will be held today and because I asked those who expressed an interest to write their own obituary in two pages or fewer, yesterday, I tried writing such an obituary myself. It came up at about a page and a third. I will be interested to see what others came up with.

I suggested the exercise because anyone who is interested in writing a memoir is thinking about death and death is spooky. Writing a memoir asserts the fact that there will come a time when I am no longer around to clarify or expand or refute the words of any memoir. Many of us may be reluctant to consider such a time, but, simultaneously, the memoirist hopes to be remembered and understood in that unimaginable time that demands imagining. It's a sticky wicket and the same honesty required by any memoir also requires a recognition of our future prospects, i.e. a time and place in which we have no prospects at all and are remembered by our own obituaries or memoirs ... falsely.

Two pages in which to sketch out a lifetime. What a confoundingly small amount of space in which to do ourselves the justice we may imagine we deserve. Alternatively, what a vast amount of space in which to tell a tale that is hardly worth telling. Either way, it's a confounding project ... or anyway that's what I hoped when I suggested the exercise.

It will be interesting to see what people come up with.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009
my Buddhist sect
Crossing my mind ... the old ego-popping ditty from a more innocent time:

I love myself.
I think I'm grand.
I go to the movies
And hold my hand.
I put my arm
Around my waist.
And when I'm fresh,
I slap my face.

And somehow this morphed and became directed at any favored Buddhist sect:

I love my sect.
I think it's grand.
I go to the movies
And hold its hand.
I put my arm
Around its waist.
And when I'm fresh,
It slaps my face.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009
idiocy heaped on idiocy
OK ... I did it: But having re-opened the old can of worms marked "Eido Tai Shimano," a friend sent me a nice article by Aitken Roshi ... not that any of the 'answers' really answer much.

And another friend sent me his recollections of times past ... times that continue even into the present.

Having brought the subject up all by myself, I wrote back to this second friend in part "It all makes me want to stamp my foot like a cranky child who is denied a candy bar: 'Doesn't anyone around here care about the Dharma!?' he storms. It's a fruitless question from a stupid child, but I can't deny being that child from time to time."

The whole thing drives home points that can feel like a crucifixion: 1. There are reasons why someone created the injunction against upsetting the sangha and 2. Gautama's alleged encouragement: "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."

None of that wisdom stops me from acting like an idjit male driver who refuses to look at a map: Somewhere inside is the on-going notion that if I stamp my feet hard enough, there will be (has to be) a nice cozy solution.

Idiocy heaped on idiocy.

I purely hate this shit. Welcome to the manure pile, Adam.
Tuesday, November 10, 2009
Eido Tai Shimano
Today, after a long phone conversation with Kobutsu Malone, I received in email a copy of an article about the unsealed letters of Robert Aitken Roshi concerning his many-year connection with and fears about Eido Tai Shimano (Roshi).

The article harks back to times I remember and, to some extent lived through -- times when Eido was accused of sexual misconduct with his students. The pain and disruption that this misconduct occasioned can only be guessed at in the article, which is written in a carefully-quiet voice, one that hardly echoes the raw-flesh tears and disappointment and confusion of those times. I too studied at Eido's Zen Studies Society in New York and, briefly, at his Dai Bosatsu Zendo in upstate New York. I was never much of a student.

Kobutsu told me that he had talked to many of the women involved and not one of them was willing to go on the record, even when the events were many years in the past. Those whose experiences are closer to the present were still too wounded. Those further from the events would just as soon not dredge up and un-heal what they had made their best efforts to heal. It is completely understandable. Kobutsu alleged that the same misconduct continues to this day.

Short of someone stepping up to testify and short of anyone's finding a factual and illegal misappropriation of funds, nothing if anything will ever be done. Outrage and white whine don't cut it.

I think it is worth noting that the Zen Buddhist lineage that I have experienced, there is little or no mechanism to assure accountability. Without rancor, this may be important to those embarking on a Zen practice. The teacher is alleged in a variety of ways to the an embodiment of the Dharma and the Dharma holds out an assuaging hope to those who may be uncertain or confused or sorrowful. There is much to be said for this umbrella assumption, but when the teacher cannot or does not hold him- or herself to account, well, there is not much anyone can do about it. Whine, gnash, rage, explain, analyze, weep, dissect, criticize ... yes, yes, yes. But accomplish much? I doubt it.

So for those starting out, it may be useful to know ... it is conceivable that they will be hurt, just as it is conceivable that they will be helped. And which is which can be a dicey business. A certain toughness of resolve is a useful tool ... if the emperor is not wearing clothes, well, whose clothes will actually keep you covered and warm? I don't mean blame-the-victim. I don't mean extol-the-teacher. I do mean that the practice and search for what is edgeless and nameless requires an element of steel... an open heart that can shed red and pulsing blood; a blade of steel that cannot be stopped.

Another arrogant prick. Another self-centered CEO leaving bodies in his wake. Another sicko who may even be convinced of his own conniving assertions. Why should the world of spiritual endeavor be exempt from the behavior we can read about in any newspaper any day of the week? Isn't it because we pray with all our hearts that in a world of 'kindness,' kindness will prevail?

My teacher, Kyudo Nakagawa Roshi, once said of Eido, "I am finished with him." And this strikes me as sensible. Criticism goes nowhere. Blame does not correct what is blameworthy. The best we can learn from fools is this: "Don't you do that!" Speak up when asked. Speak honestly and forthrightly. Confess and repent where necessary. But in the end, "Don't you do that!"

Tuesday, November 10, 2009
closing St. Mary's
A front-page article in the local newspaper today announced that the Roman Catholic Diocese had pulled a "switcheroo" and decided to close St. Mary's Church, perhaps the most visible of all the Catholic churches in the heart of a "secular Northampton." Its location, across the street from Smith College, is a wonderful reminder of different points of view, different approaches, and the deliciousness of a diversity that goes beyond an assertion of someone's homo- or heterosexuality.

Originally, the diocese had planned to keep St. Mary's open even as it closed down other churches. But the projected $1.3 million in repairs apparently caused a change of heart.

Even as a non-Catholic and even as someone who can find in Christianity a callow and unkind flavor, the closing makes me sad. Sad for those who are sad. Sad to lose an emblem of what I may disagree with. Enemies, after all, are just friends in different clothing.

As Buddhists may observe aptly, what is composed of parts is bound to come apart, and why should religion be any different? It is a consolation to me as a Buddhist that Buddhism looks forward to its own demise, its own coming apart, but that doesn't alleviate the sadness I feel when hearing the news about St. Mary's.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009
ordinary magic
I can never remember if it was the Hopis or the Navajos who used the line, "All around me as beauty." I don't suppose it matters much, but with an increasingly forgetful mind, something inside would like to get the 'source' right. Still, with a small and cranky sigh, I would say the observation is correct and worth heeding, no matter who said it. "All around me is beauty."

I never knew my Zen teacher's teacher, Soen Nakagawa Roshi, well, but I was around him enough to hear him repeat, in all sorts of circumstances, the mildly-explosive "Wonderful!"

And I never knew my own Zen teacher, Kyudo Nakagawa Roshi, well, but I was around him enough to hear him repeat, in all sorts of circumstances, "thank you very much!"

But I have been around myself long enough to recall with wonder and thanks the moments when a painting or bit of music or set of circumstances consumed me with their beauty. Wonderful! Thank you very much!

Such moments, for me, were not an everyday occurrence. They popped up like some strange magic in the midst of a life that was a bit of this and a bit of that -- sometimes not so wonderful at all. It wasn't every day that I could say "thank you very much." Sometimes things were pretty ugly.

But whether days were ugly or beautiful, still I remembered those blow-me-away, 'wonderful' moments, those melted times. How I sometimes yearned for their return. But there was no fabricating or recreating or faking it: Those times seemed to come unbidden and uncontrolled, as marvelous as a wizard's wand. I might beg all I liked, but magic had its own schedule.

Is it the same for everyone? I imagine it is.

One of the aspects of such moments, to the extent they can be described at all, is the naked aloneness of them. In usual circumstances "naked" or "alone" can make a person edgy and defensive, but when the beautiful moments arise, there is no fear -- only a profound delight and a lightness of being. I am, quite literally, blown away. No more me. Just the magic.

But what is wonderful just now is accompanied later by a skeptical fear: What blows me away may not blow you away. Or, worse, even if it does blow you away as well, neither of us can be assured that we are 'sharing' the same experience. Such things cannot be known. I am alone ... and when I think about being alone, I get lonely and don't like that feeling. So the wonder of the right-now magic serves, after the fact, as both a magnet and as something I fear ... being naked and dissolved and ... vulnerable and lonely. I am threatened by delight even as I long for what threatens me. Is it any wonder that I keep the magic at bay?

Usually, when people talk about Jesus' walking into the desert alone, there is a sense that he went in order to confront the demons of this life, the hell of an uncaring landscape, the death that is inescapable and scary. Usually, the tale carries with it a lot of dangerous and heroic baggage. Shit ... I could never do that; I could never walk into hell and meet my demons head-on and alone. It's too much. Jesus was special. Buddha was special. I am not special.

But, given our wonderful and magical and thank-you-very-much moments, perhaps there is another point of view. Perhaps Jesus walked into the inferno in order to confront and reclaim his natural state ... heaven. And it was a heaven filled not just with angels and harps and halos and 77 virgins or other fairy-tale goodies. It was a heaven filled with a profound threat. A heaven in which there was no melting because there was nothing left to melt.

"Wonderful!" said Soen.

"Thank you very much!" said Kyudo.

"All around me is beauty!" said the Indians.

Is there any other choice? How could heaven or hell enter your blow-me-away, melted moments?


Where I am going you cannot go.
Where you are going I cannot go.
But we can go together.

Monday, November 9, 2009
anywhere and everywhere
Funny how we choose one thing as an entry point to everything else. Look at the academic tomes on Beethoven or the American Revolution or ... well, pick your poison. Each of them taking a newish tack on an already-existing sea. The sea doesn't seem to mind.

I once read 200 or more books about the Russian Revolution. Each had its own tack, brought a new prism to old facts. One that made the best-seller list in its time focused on the hemophilia of the tsarevich (crown prince), the maternal concerns of the tsarina (queen)for her son, and the influence of the wily spiritual adviser, Rasputin, over the tsarina. Rasputin's enemies felt that his influence over the tsarina gave him indirect and undue influence over the tsar. It was a nice, sexy approach ... Rasputin was a wonderful and wicked character and maternal concerns for an offspring are touching, so there was a nice hook for regurgitating the Russian Revolution. The argument struck me as a kind of 'because of the nail the shoe was lost; because of the shoe the horse was lost; because of the horse, the rider was lost ... because of the rider the war was lost ... all on account of a horseshoe nail.'

Just because we pick a particular approach, a particular tack, a particular nail, a particular way of addressing some wider 'everything' doesn't mean we can lay claim to really nailing down that 'everything.' It's OK to start anywhere -- really, anywhere at all -- when addressing 'everywhere.' But 'anywhere' is invariably limited and 'everywhere' is not...

Just like 'anywhere.'

Monday, November 9, 2009
many questions, one conclusion
With a snort that fell somewhere between derisive and sympathetic, I remembered a time this morning when I was smitten with wonder that so many wise men and wise women worldwide -- men and women from many different religious traditions -- should reach similar conclusions.

At the time, I studied and read and thought about it and then studied and read and thought some more. It was really miraculous and enticing and delicious in my mind. How marvelous! How warming! How soothing! How ... how ... confusing! How could such a thing be true? And yet it was true. My reading and studies and thinking confirmed it.

The next stop on this 'ecumenical' line of thinking was the question, "Is it really enough to be wowed? What, precisely, are the implications of such an agreeable oneness of conclusions? And what am I prepared to do within the domain of those implications?"

OK ... it's old-hat stuff, but it did make me snort mentally this morning:

Snort: "What the fuck did you expect, dimwit?!"

Snort: "It's OK, dear. Doing an awe-struck number is part of the game. Go ahead and be awe-struck. Just don't get stuck in the awe."

Oneness: Don't be ridiculous!

Snort ... I do take a guilty pleasure in snorting. :)

Monday, November 9, 2009
Q & A
Setting aside the intellectually-obvious ascendancy of nitwits, I wonder what it would be like to leave questions out of the equation when seeking some peace of mind. Just for a little while -- no more questions.

If there were no more questions, the insistence on answers would likewise fall away ... answers, after all, are just another way of positing questions.

How much lighter things might become.

The sun rises and the sun sets; the sky is blue; sorrow and laughter.

Just for a little while -- no more questions.

Sunday, November 8, 2009
turn of the screw
A Hindu swami once told me, "If the screw took sixteen turns to put in, it will take sixteen turns to take out."

I heard his words and, because he was so nicely dressed and the setting so serene, I assumed they were true. But of course I was impatient and in a terrible rush to leap into some delicious, wondrous, soothing understanding. Now! I wanted to rip the screw out in one fell swoop and issue the victor's sublime "ah-ha!"

If it took all this time to create and shape and refine and fine-tune this person and personality, why would it not take a bit of effort to re-see things? Why? Because instant gratification is the way of the child, and when it came to spiritual endeavors, I was a child.

Nothing wrong with children as long as they grow up.

Sunday, November 8, 2009
the artist
Maybe the gnashing and wailing an artist can exercise amounts to little more than the fact that s/he has taken up a pastime in which s/he answers questions that nobody has asked...and it feels lonely.

If no one asks, then the question arises, why offer this answer? The importance within is not matched with an importance without. How important, then, could the answer possibly be?

Sunday, November 8, 2009
fact and fiction
Like the dappling of sunlight and shadow in the woods, fact turns to fiction and fiction turns to fact ... or maybe I'm just making it up, another fiction if it's not a fact.

What was once a fiction in spiritual interest, for example, can turn to fact with a bit of focus and effort. But, with facts in hand, the fictions seem to gain a renewed force, asking with a gentle insistence where fact leaves off and fiction begins, where sunlight leaves off and shadow begins. It's just a question -- no need to fret and fidget and find answers.

I suppose it all sounds a bit airy-fairy and ethereal, but I think it happens in anyone's life: So much energy and attention devoted to the facts of one particular endeavor or another -- profession, marriage, driving, money, God, drugs, numismatism, enemies and friends, birth and death, distance or closeness -- and then, with the experience in hand, what is not in hand begins to whisper, "Pssst!"

Today, perhaps, I will go with one or more of my children to see a newish movie called "Men Who Stare at Goats." I love the title. The movie seems to concern a group of military men gathered to exercise their paranormal powers. If I look at the themes at the movie theaters, mega-disasters and solutions found in extraordinary realms seem popular. If no one can solve the actual-factual, day-to-day, real-time economic tumult by ordinary means, it is nice to think that there is some kind of solution out there ... some power not yet thought of that can wave the magic, make-it-better wand. And if that doesn't work, perhaps we can all delight in the importance of annihilation.

The facts are not enough. Movie-goers require fictions as well ... much as sunlight requires shadow. Fact and fiction are not so much the point. Better and worse are not so much the point. Credible and incredible are not so much the point. Serious and silly are not so much the point.

And what is the point?

If I had to guess, I guess I'd guess ... delight.

Saturday, November 7, 2009
mowing the leaves
Mowed the leaves this afternoon, mostly the reds and yellows of Japanese maple and ginkgo respectively.

A hummock of chopped leaves settled under the maple and I like to think the tree will be somehow cozy come snowfall.

The ginkgo, like some soaring teenage boy, is now taller than its neighboring maple. It has grown by leaps and bounds and makes me feel a bit like a person who once thought a baby alligator was cute ... this tree is going to be enormous ... and then what?

The maple, by contrast, has grown slowly, starting as a shoot in a paper cup and now perhaps six or seven inches through at the base. It is strong and steady, an even hand to the ginkgo's dervish leaps. Mourning doves nested in the maple this year, as if sensing a reliable home. From the zendo steps, not eight feet away, I could not see the nest, but I could hear them during zazen and, when I walked slowly around the base of the tree, glimpse tail feathers jutting out beyond the edge of the at-last-seen nest.

In my mind, the ginkgo holds out no lush promise. It is full of dash and sass and narrow opinions as it reaches recklessly for the sky. It will be the Yao Ming of the yard or, for all I know, the neighborhood. But in the time between now and then, it drops its leaves like any obedient tree.

And I fire up the lawnmower.

Saturday, November 7, 2009
the amputee
Have you ever noticed that the same insistence an amputee might bring to knowing and feeling the missing limb is similarly applied by people with two good arms and legs?

They are absolutely sure -- really, they are -- that something is missing. They will insist, whether within or without ... something is missing! "I lost a leg," they may tell you in one way or another while standing on two good legs. And they will ask for crutches to ease their plight.

It's not silly or insane.

But it is interesting.

Saturday, November 7, 2009
In the sunrise, the frost clings to the west side of the houses on my block. Crisp, white and singing close harmonies with the biting air.

People will bundle up today or anyway wear more clothes than they did in summer. It is nice to be protected and warm.

But too, I like the old fellow who mentioned,

When it's hot, sweat.
When it's cold, shiver.
Saturday, November 7, 2009
but enough about me....
Sometimes I wonder if the whole of what human beings take seriously in their lives couldn't be boiled down to the old joke about the guy who, when out on a first date, says winningly to his companion, "But enough about me. Let's talk about what you think of me."

In making such an observation, I'm not trying to belittle or dismiss what anyone might take seriously. There is some heart-rending and horrific and sometimes joyous stuff out there. And as Anne Morrow Lindbergh once said, "I think everyone has suffered a tragedy." Hers is not simply some smarmy, religio-philosophical observation. Serious stuff is serious stuff.

AND ... not "but," just AND ...

As a small experiment, how about bringing the same focus that attends upon what we take seriously to the possibility or reality that ... it's not serious at all? Just for a moment. You can have all the outrage and sorrow and pain and delight back at any time you like. But just for this moment ... it's not serious at all. No need to see it as serious ... or frivolous either. Just for a moment.

Maybe it's an experiment worth trying.

Friday, November 6, 2009
stephen lynch
My daughter and younger son were talking during dinner about going to a performance by comedian/musician Stephen Lynch, a name I had never heard before. Being curious, I looked him up on youtube and the very first clip I found may not be in 'good taste' by some lights, but, for what it's worth, here it is

Friday, November 6, 2009
good incense
When I asked Kyudo Nakagawa Roshi to be my teacher, I did it over a kitchen table at which we were both drinking tea. I imagine there are more formal settings and more carefully-constructed rituals with which to make such a request, but, well, it's just what happened.

I accompanied the request with a small offering -- three sticks of incense tied together with a thread. He took the incense, sniffed it, said "good incense," and that was that. Not "yes," not "no," just "good incense." Today I am so grateful he did not say "yes."

I guess this came to mind because just now, there is a roast cooking in the oven and I can smell its invitations. I slathered it with mustard and sprinkled it with garlic salt and some pepper before I put it in the oven ... and now the smells are all over the house.

Somewhere I think I read that the sense of smell is the most powerful of the senses -- full of distinct recollection and suggestion -- and it certainly seems true to me ... reaching everywhere, yet invisible; touching the body and mind and yet ungraspable; singing songs where there is no music.

I love good incense. Who knows -- maybe the roast will be good as well. In the meantime, the music is everywhere.

Friday, November 6, 2009
I always liked the distinction between ethics and morality that goes, approximately, "Ethics is what you do on behalf of others. Morality is what you do when no one else is looking."

No doubt philosophers and moralists will dissent and quibble and dissect, but it sounds close enough for folk singing to me.

But assuming it's pretty close to the mark, I do sort of wonder what morality might be and what a moral (wo)man might look like.

Friday, November 6, 2009
A squirrel burying a nut just outside the porch today made me wonder if squirrels ever forget where they bury their fodder. Do they have some internal Global Positioning System that remembers in spring what they did in the fall? Do they have fail-safe noses? Can they hear the nuts singing? What guides them to a place as small as a hole in which a nut might rest?

Or do squirrels goof ... like the rest of us?
Friday, November 6, 2009
the skipping child
A man with a neatly-trimmed white beard worried that his sexual exploits -- and between the lines there seemed to be quite a few -- might upset his daughter if he were to write about them. A woman wanted to be accurate, but was afraid to name the actual names of Berliners who had been involved in bringing East Germans to the West so many years ago. Another woman said she was just not sure whether she should use the word "I" or "she" when writing her memoir. And yet another wanted to use poetry as a medium for painting her life.

We were all sitting around a large table at the senior center on Monday. The participants were gathered for a generalized writing class and I was there to plug a four-session, memoir-writing class I will try to instruct beginning next week. At the end of my spiel, which, of course, was longer than I had intended, I asked those who planned to attend the memoir sessions to write their own obituary -- "two pages, not more than two pages, long."

I could almost hear -- or perhaps I just hoped I heard -- the mental groans: "How could I possibly sum up my life in two pages?!"

But, assuming anyone might explode at the indignity and inaccuracy implied by such an assignment, a couple of things are interesting:

A. Anyone who reads an obituary -- or a news story or a novel or a fat bit of non-fiction or a poem or ... any tale at all -- comes away satisfied and somewhat smug. The tale has been told and the reader is content that the story-told told the story. The reader knows that Joe Jones, age 75, died and that he had a lifelong fondness for parakeets and ... it is enough to know about Joe Jones. Joe Jones has been summed up. Joe Jones or the fighting in Iraq or a love story or a history of World War II or a pointed, poetic observation is complete in the mind.

B. But my own obituary, my own story, is very different! It is much longer than two pages ... much, much longer. The same completeness I can ascribe without a backward glance to others is not so complete when it comes to me. My story reaches out in a hundred directions and is full of wisps and interconnections and, and, and ... well, it's a hell of a lot longer than two pages. It's limitless. Even if I had 1,000 pages in which to write my obituary, still it would not be enough to be "complete."

I once heard a radio segment whose subject was people capable of remembering everything in their lives. Literally everything. They could remember the time and place in which they had bought a No. 2 pencil 20 years ago. They could remember what sort of day it had been and what they had thought when buying the pencil. They could remember it all. The radio segment marveled at such a feat. It was pretty wow compared to the rest of us.

Aside from thinking that such a feat might be quite a curse, I wondered if these people who could remember everything felt as if they knew everything ... if they were satisfied with the story they could tell, even to themselves. Were they as content with their own 'completeness' in the same way the rest of us might be satisfied with the completeness of some obituary or haiku or economic treatise? Did their complete memory complete the story for them? I doubt it, but the reporter weaving the story didn't touch on that aspect ... the perfect, the complete, the the-end memoir.

On a daily basis, I am satisfied that you are complete and you are satisfied that I am complete, but none of us is satisfied that the words on the page or even the words in our minds can actually capture our own completeness. Any limitation is one too many. Any word is one too many. Our own limitlessness snickers when we try to put limits on it. We recognize this when it comes to ourselves and are less likely to recognize it when assessing others. But why should others -- other people, other topics, other music -- be any different from our own teeth-gnashing when it comes to writing a two-page summation of our lives?

Somehow, I think, we would all like to capture or express the limitlessness of our own lives, our own memoir, our own music. And yet any formulated expression expresses too little and limits too much. Our limitlessness feels 'important' somehow and yet the minute we try to pin down that importance, it skitters away like a skipping child. Putting edges on the edgeless, finding 'meaning' and 'importance,' detracts from the very accomplishment we might seek.

Anyone who runs across this problem in their heart may grow depressed or grumpy: My limitlessness is important and I will defend to my death the effort to capture and assert that importance. I would rather compromise limitlessness with my longing to control and own and have an explanation for it. Dig my religious understanding! Isn't my philosophy or psychology kool?!

Go ahead and try it: Try writing a two-page obituary or memoir. Gather up all your seriousness and all your importance and all your meaning and -- if you're on that frequency -- all of your sense of meaninglessness and just try it.

Alternatively, go ahead and try writing or telling yourself a 1,000-page tale, a memoir to trump all memoirs. Try nailing down your completeness completely. Try finding the handholds and limitations that will do the trick. Can you catch the skipping child of this limitless life?

I doubt it, but go ahead and try.

Skipping, after all, is just for fun.


Thursday, November 5, 2009
vicarious helplessness
Vicarious helplessness.

The words just crossed my mind.

How often is this a description of what is called empathy?

Thursday, November 5, 2009
snap out of it!
A young, Muslim, email correspondent seems to delight in refuting and disdaining any suggestion I might make. He knows me as a Zen Buddhist, but when I mention Buddhism and its practices, his reaction is, "bullshit!" So I have stopped mentioning Buddhism and stick to the actual topic. I seem to be like a case of bad breath for him -- stinky and yet unavoidable. And he keeps on sending emails detailing the bullshit of my ways.

An older, Buddhist, correspondent seems hell-bent on extolling or elevating or shaping or expressing her understandings of the wonders of a Zen Buddhist practice. She would like to be a "Buddhist" without being a Buddhist.

I too am like these people -- capable of deep suspicions and/or the desire to remain at a smarmy distance and in well-articulated control.

I dislike taking refuge in the words of others, but it really is like the old metaphor of the (wo)man floundering in a lake and crying out in thirst. "Snap out of it!" I want to say. But what good would that do?

The best I can think of is to wish people what they wish -- bullshit or hallelujah -- and then point out that the blue sky is blue. It's the best I can manage for myself.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009
Writing to a fellow Zen student today, it occurred to me:

Buddhism does not exclude anything. If anything is excluded, it just encourages us to return to practice.

Buddhism does not include anything. If anything is included, it just encourages us to return to practice.

Buddhism has nothing to do with inclusion or exclusion.

Buddhism has to do with practice.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009
first things first
The first thing I do in the morning is to replace the edges on things. I don't really know where those edges have gone during the night, but in the morning, I replace them.

Since my feet are cold, I tuck them further under the warm blankets ... until my bladder insists on the need to get up and get going. Across the street from the porch, Doreen's Toyota pickup is once again green in its parking spot beneath the Japanese maple whose leaves are going-going-gone. The sky asserts an intensifying blue as the sun comes up in the nippy dawn. Around the house, there is talk of the car that is due for a free oil change. And yup, the Buddhism is there. All of it takes a renewed shape and sense and direction.

The edges snap into place like rocker panels on a Chevy, although, as I say, I'm not quite sure what happened to those things before I reset their edges. Were they lonely or somehow less without the edges? Did they fly apart into some unspeakable chaos? Were they happier like children whose parents have left them in charge of the house ... did they party?

First things first. And the first thing I do in the morning is to replace the edges on things.

But there is wistful, whispering question that comes with all these familiar edges, all this first-things-first: What 'first' could there possibly be? It's just another replacement edge, another bit of apparent familiarity ("what 'first' could there possibly be?"), but still ... what 'first' could there possibly be?

It's just a wistful, whispering question. Nothing profound or wise. Nothing elevating or threatening? Just wistful and whispering: What 'first' could there possibly be?

I guess, like some silly dog on the living room carpet, I am after my ever-receding tail, circling back on my own words, and observing the inability to take my own good advice:

Just because you are indispensable to the universe does not mean the universe needs your help.

First things first ... don't be ridiculous!

Tuesday, November 3, 2009
school crucifixes banned
The European court of human rights has banned crucifixes in Italian schools. The Vatican is not amused and the Italian government plans an appeal.

As someone who went to a high school in which there was a morning chapel, prayers at lunch and a mandatory class on Christianity, I feel lucky to have gone to a school that included the religion that is woven into my country AND provided a good enough education so that critical thinking was encouraged. It was a less 'sensitive' and more thoughtful era, I suppose.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009
the praise barrier
Immodesty can really set my teeth on edge ... unless, of course, it is my own.

Today I read an online posting that offered a partial quote of the book-jacket copy for Thich Nhat Hahn's "Living Buddha, Living Christ." It said:

Buddha and Christ, perhaps the two most pivotal figures in the history of human-kind, each left behind a legacy of teachings and practices that have shaped over two millennia. If they were to meet on the road today, what would each think of the other's spiritual views and practices? ... In lucid, meditative prose, [Thich Nhat Hanh] explores the crossroads of compassion and holiness at which the two traditions meet, and he reawakens our understanding of both. ...

Aside from the poor writing and inept sincerity ...

At what point can we point out that however warming and 'compassionate' praise may be, it really is a counterproductive diet, one that is precisely as useful as blame? If soaring praise is the best anyone can manage, how could they avoid falling flat on their asses? And how kind and compassionate is it to point people in a direction that will simply produce more bruises and sorrow?

Don't get me wrong: I too have been warmed by the fires of 'holiness' and 'compassion.' I too have sought out 'virtue' and 'improvement.' I too have wept as the music soared. It was a wonderful invitation and its softness was welcome in harsh and uncertain times. Yes, the ouches do find some relief when mom-kisses-it-better. Life can be well and truly painful and all hugs are welcome. But for how long does anyone want to be a mama's boy or girl? And aren't the best moms the ones who set their children on sturdy feet and send them on their way?

Oh well, I guess there is no escape. Cozy, cuddly hugs provide some relief, some welcome, some home. In a hard world, who could possibly say no; who could take exception to praise and wonder and wonderfulness? It's so sincere. It's so touching. It's so inspiring. It's so forgivable. Blessings on us, one and all!

But it strikes me as immodest not to ask, to what end do praise and sincerity and a bandied 'compassion' point? Isn't there a danger that anyone might just remain a mama's boy or girl, always seeking relief from some new and improved bruise, always relying on an imaginative goodness or virtue? Will such an approach help or hinder a journey from talking-holy into the living realm of holiness?

I guess it's just a plain, immodest fact: I hate seeing people make the same mistakes that I have. I promise to work on that, but in the meantime, I really hate it.

Monday, November 2, 2009
once upon a time
Once upon a time, the New York Times ran a front-page article about a box that had been dug up in Japan. Inside the box, if I recall correctly, there was another box bearing the seal of a princess and accompanied by a note. The note said, "Do not open this box." And they didn't.

Once upon a time, a man who slipped and fell on the ice outside a church in New York sued "God, his heirs and assigns" for personal injury. Buildings in New York were responsible for keeping the walkways passable and safe. I never did find out if the church took responsibility for the connections it claimed on Sundays.

Once upon a time, a man in New York sued the doctor who had operated on him and left, if I recall, a watch inside. The man sued for $15,000 because, he explained, "that's what I thought it was worth."

Sometimes I do wonder why anyone bothers to write fiction.

Monday, November 2, 2009
Nitwits are like jellybeans in a one-gallon jar -- who could hope to guess the exact number? Who but a nitwit would worry about counting them in the first place?

Jellybeans are for savoring, don't you think? That way, only your dentist or your waistline will know what a nitwit you are.
Monday, November 2, 2009
World Series
Lately I have taken to watching the World Series, the contest that this year pits baseball's New York Yankees against the Philadelphia Phillies. In general, I know little or nothing about baseball and care less, but I find myself watching the games with interest.

Partly, I like the winner-take-all tension. Whoever wins the World Series gets to be called 'the best' ... until next year's World Series.

But what I guess I like best about sporting events on TV is that it is actual-factual stuff. No matter how much the announcers may try to analyze or shape the situation, still what actually happens is wide open to the possibilities of the moment. True, there is the format called "baseball," but within that format anything might happen. What is easy may turn difficult in an instant. What is difficult may prove easy. What is skillful may become sloppy. What is inexpert may prove its expertise. There is just no way of knowing, no way of scripting or limiting what actually happens.

Since most of television is scripted -- usually predictably, sometimes not -- it is nice to watch something more life-like. Facts are so much more interesting and so much more refreshing and sometimes so much weirder than the usual fictions.

Funny how we all train and sweat and groom ourselves for one success or another and yet when the moment comes to test that training -- when we get up to bat, so to speak -- there is just no way in hell to know what is going to happen. We can pray our tails off that things will turn out as hoped, but, no matter how successful similar efforts have been in the past, still ... we simply don't know.

On the one hand, this uncertainty can be pretty unnerving. But look at it this way: If we actually did know what was going to happen, how refreshing could life possibly be? How could we laugh? How could we be comforted or assure our own easy peace?

Sunday, November 1, 2009
into the past
Tomorrow, as a kind of precursor to a four-session class in memoir writing, I have been invited to speak to a writing class, some of whose members may want to give memoir-writing a shot. I don't want to talk too much (a tendency once I open my mouth) or get too far afield (a corollary to opening my mouth), but my mind is going over the ground as I see it ... writing.

As with any other endeavor, there are all sorts of levels at which anyone might take up writing. From the purely communicative to the self-serving to the weaving of tales, it's all part and parcel of the writing arena. None better, none worse, all just possible.

But there are aspects or difficulties that a writer may face and one of them is this: All writing refers to the past and yet the one writing exists in the present. Thus, for the writer of memoirs (or any other sort either), it is impossible to write the truth. Since many writers might like to think they were writing or telling the truth, this recognition can be upsetting. They may twist and turn and try to evade the fact, but the fact keeps staring them in the face: Put pen to paper or open your mouth and almost invariably you are referring to a past that cannot be truly grasped, however good the writing or speaking skills may be.

This difficulty -- which is one that writers have to face or continue to evade for themselves -- is something I will do my best NOT to refer to tomorrow. No gum-banging can ever resolve the conflict. Only a willingness to investigate or enter into it can ease the scene.

And it is this same difficulty that a non-writer faces when going through life ... telling a daily tale, moment after moment, and yet never quite able to catch up with the tale that is being told, this right-now that self-help enthusiasts may refer to as "living in the moment." No one can 'live in the moment' -- anyone claiming to 'live in the moment' is just living in the past -- but who is this 'no one' that is being referred to?

These considerations, assuming anyone is willing to assess them, may lead people to start treating the past with all its wonders and regrets as if it were a second-class citizen, a 'fantasy' that cannot compare with the reality of a limitless present that betokens some imagined 'truth.'

This is a mistake. A gentler, firmer and more courageous approach is required.

Yes, I tell myself stories, construct fantasies and lies and imaginative scenarios. Yes, I am tall or short, happy or sad, successful or a failure, loving or selfish. Yes indeed, I do all those things and a lot more like them. I gotta be me and every day I set out to reassert the truth of my tale. It may all fall on its face when I consider that "everything changes," but that doesn't stop me from reconstructing this person, this Adam. It's an old habit that deserves my attention more than it deserves opprobrium. The past rises up to construct and reassure the present. OK.

But this activity does not deserve disdain, no matter how holy or profound the alternative may seem. Everything -- everything, from A to Z ... every word and thought and deed from out of an ungraspable and limited past -- points out precisely a present that is limitless. The past, in short, is a lie that gives recurring proof of the truth anyone might seek. To enter the past is to enter a present that is deliciously ungraspable. And when we try to rely on the past, to rely on our stories and memoirs and truths, we are equally, deliciously stuck: Who, after all, might be capable of such a reliance? The second-class citizen is none other than the first-class citizen. In the world of Buddhism, Buddhists are no longer capable of 'seeking' enlightenment. Rather, they are stuck with the farm: They are enlightened. Get used to it! Past, present, future ... get used to it!

Thank God for blogs. If I barf it up here, perhaps I will have the good sense not to barf it up during tomorrow's talk.

Saturday, October 31, 2009
enlightenment time
I wonder if practicing Buddhists ever notice how much energy it takes to be deluded, to be unenlightened. Talk about blood, sweat and tears! Grasping, holding, attaching, rejecting, saving, regretting, improving, separating, unifying ... really, it's Herculean, isn't it?

Any Saturday-afternoon couch potato seems to have a better bead on things: Get the beer and chips, find the remote, kick back, and pretty soon it's time for the kick-off.

Maybe practicing Buddhists should relax as well. After all that hard deluded work, don't they deserve it?

Relax ... it's just enlightenment after all.

Saturday, October 31, 2009
knocking on the door
Funny how we all get the teachers we need. It just never seems to fail. Ever.

This morning, before going to the peace picket, I got a call out of the blue from Brian, a fellow I had never met. He had done Zen practice in the past and was looking for a little re-start encouragement. So we talked on the phone for a while. Brian had returned to cocaine after kicking the habit. He was currently hospitalized after having fallen off the wagon. From what he said, it sounded as if he were in the psych ward at a local hospital. I said what I could to encourage him to focus on the cocaine problem and, if he had any leftover energy and felt inclined, to do just a little zazen every day.

Then, on the picket line, a nice woman with a mouthful of apple walked up to me and began a conversation, saying it had been a while since she had seen a rakusu. Catherine (sp?) had spent eight years at San Francisco Zen Center and now had been off the Zen circuit for about three years. She was getting back into formal practice, but was not much interested in a formal setting. We had a smile-filled chat about mutual Zen acquaintances and tales.

Nice to run into people who are making whatever effort they are making and are not too obscure when talking about those efforts. Nice serendipities.

Saturday, October 31, 2009
rules of the road
For some reason, I woke up wondering why it was that riders mounted from the left side of the horse. Would the horse get cranky if the rider mounted from the right? Are horse and rider so accustomed to this habit that any deviation would be a breaking of some social contract between them ... sort of like saying "shit!" in a nunnery? Is there some inherent usefulness that is not apparent to a person like me who knows little or nothing about horse-handling?

Rules are kind of interesting. Without them, understanding and the experience understanding implies go begging. And yet with them, there is the danger of forgetting that rules are just useful tools, not lock-down laws.

Rules of riding.
Rules of philosophy or religion.
Rules of carpentry.
Rules of marriage.
Rules of driving.
Rules of prejudice.
Rules of wealth.
Rules of conformity.
Rules of non-conformity.
Rules of self.
Rules of other.
Rules of freedom.
Rules of love.

As a means of assuring the satisfaction of understanding, rules are followed. And yet in following those rules, a sense of constriction can weave itself through anyone's life ... as if you were snared by some glue-y spider's web in which every effort to escape only fortified your imprisonment. Things become too narrow, too stale, too desperately disabled.

And yet this sense of being trapped is probably a good thing.

How else would anyone discover the useful nature of rules and the source of them?

Friday, October 30, 2009
My older son, Angus, has been diagnosed with Swine Flu, a disease that is endlessly in the news lately as drug makers attempt to crank out a vaccine for both seasonal flu and the feared pandemic of H1N1 ... the swine strain.

How did the doctor know he has Swine Flu? There was no testing, but the doctor was "99% sure," Angus reported back after being examined.

Whatever it is, it sucks, if I judge by the way Angus looks and acts. He's not a whiner, but given the way he looks and acts, I, as a parent, am willing to whine for him.

Friday, October 30, 2009
a 'credible' religion
I really am quite fond of religion -- any religion as long as it does not rely on beliefs.

The most fervent religion held by by anyone usually centers on a belief in themselves. This sort of religion -- the kind that sheds blood and creates uncertainty -- is a juvenile and uncertain realm, but it is the starting point for those inclined towards religion.

Starting with a most fervent religion, those inclined towards religion must, by necessity, investigate in the most intimate terms, the beliefs they hold. That's 'investigate' -- not 'judge' or 'criticize' or 'elevate.' Such an investigation instills experience, and experience, whether in religion or anything else, trumps belief.

Beginning with the bloodshed and uncertainty of religion, the religious (wo)man investigates and learns from experience, and that experience leads to a kindness that accords with facts rather than fictions. No longer is it necessary to rely on beliefs. It's a terrific relief.

Not only is it a relief to the one who has done his or her homework, it is also a relief to those who have to live under the same roof with the religious person. No longer is there a need for unrelieved and unrelieving belief. There is kindness. Not just a smarmy super-altruism, but a kindness that accords with hard-won experience.

Kindness is enough.

It's not a bad religion.

Thursday, October 29, 2009
The Zen teacher helps the Zen student from the enlightenment point of view.

The Zen student helps the Zen teacher from the delusion point of view.

This is the nature of all things ... to be equitable.

Thursday, October 29, 2009
this exhalation
Once upon a time, at a Zen center I attended, a fellow student -- a nice young woman who would later almost die of a fallopian tube (ectopic) pregnancy -- was giving a talk about her practice. When it came to counting exhalations, she said in passing, students should recall that there would come a time when 'this' exhalation would be the last. She was encouraging a strong focus, I imagine, but the line carried with it a seeming menace, sort of like the Christian arm-twistings that center on post-mortem possibilities... do it right or you'll be sorreeeeeee.

Carried menace and yet was perfectly straightforward. Any fear was just my own. The facts were just the facts and the facts didn't mind if I felt uneasy.

I wrote my first story in the fourth grade. Now I am pushing 70. Yesterday, after finding a hundred excuses not to do it, I returned to a piece of writing that a cousin of mine had been kind enough to read and mark up. The topic -- "finished with the eternal" -- was one that really interested and interests me and the writing I worked on was vaguely imagined as the first chapter of a book.

I went through and made additions and subtractions. It was an OK essay -- not astounding and not rubbish. But after I had finished and skipped around to other segments of writing I had collected on behalf of the 'book,' I realized that I wasn't that interested in my own observations. They were OK and some of them were pretty pleasing, but a writer ought to be interested in what s/he writes, don't you think? Skipping around felt like listening to someone who was smitten with baseball -- not good, not bad, but sort of bland, like over-chewed bubble gum whose sweetness is all in the past.

The chapter might make an essay, but a book was probably too much. The factual importance of the focus and consideration was the kind of thing anyone would have to address for themselves, whereas the menace or delight or even information was not all that important.

After writing and cooking and watching the BBC news, I took a shower. I remembered from old habit to chant in the shower, but when I got into bed, I passed by the old habit of pre-sleep reflection or prayer and just went to sleep. It wasn't a conscious decision. It just happened, the impetus and importance of an old interest just moving on.

More refreshing, as I went to sleep, was the recollection of a couple of guys who came by the house to estimate the cost of installing a storm door and patio-deck slider. Nice, straightforward people -- people who wanted to make some money and yet whose work I knew from past experience was careful. Or the phone conversation I had with a fellow who teaches writing at the senior center ... the same senior center where I will 'teach' memoir writing in a couple of weeks. It was pretty plain fare, but both incidents were honest in their moments ... uncontrived and straightforward and flavorful... like an exhalation.

Funny how, having worked so hard to get out from under our own secrets and the weight that they impose, having learned that there are no such things as secrets, what was once held secret seems to keep itself. The door guys had no clue I know of that I was a Zen student just as I had no idea that, perhaps, one of them was an ardent numismatist or the other had suffered a hip replacement. And yet how refreshing to enjoy our conversation in this moment. What a burden, asking 'why?' What a delight ... the unknown.

Sort of like this exhalation.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009
Were anyone to attain anything -- anything whatsoever -- in their spiritual endeavors, wouldn't that just be a good indicator that they had been short-changed? Wouldn't that be a good warning, an excellent encouragement to redouble the efforts?

Some Zen teacher said, "Having some attainment is the jackal's yelp. Having no attainment is the lion's roar."

Who ever prayed fervently to come in second?

Wednesday, October 28, 2009
trickle-down eyewash?
Who knows -- maybe it is time for Americans to take back their government. Somewhere or other, I did read an article that said Washington had made contingency plans in the case of civil unrest.

Every week, there are news stories that say the recession is easing ... but job losses would continue. Unemployment is now around 10%. Last night on public television there was a documentary about middle-class people looking for and in some cases frantic for work. These were skilled people with no place to apply their skills. The middle class pays the bills and, perhaps more important, is capable of understanding what it means to vote.

The recession is easing but job losses would continue. How is that not a Depression? It's hard not to think, "It's not about the numbers. It's about the people, stupid!" Trickle-down eyewash is less and less convincing.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009
nailed to the cross
Maybe it's true:

I have heard that Christians believe "Jesus died for our sins." And there is a good deal of awe and wonder associated with the notion that anyone would suffer so much on behalf of others. What a truly nice guy; wish I could be that nice.

But, setting aside the awe and wonder and thanks for a moment, what other choice is there? If we cannot embrace the ignorance and delusion of this world, how could there possibly be a satisfactory outcome? Nothing fancy or awe-inspiring or praise-worthy ... it's just that that's how things work and anything less simply doesn't work. No one is surprised to find that a car doesn't work without a carburetor and spark plugs, right? Well, being at peace doesn't work without embracing -- not believing, just embracing -- our own ignorance. Or, put another way, the ignorance of the world.

Is there some other choice?

No need for the histrionics of getting nailed to a cross. That's just advertising. Embraces don't require advertising.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009
If it's not one thing, it's another.

Over time, I have gotten my knickers in a twist about a lot of things -- war, peace, Buddhism, unkindness, hypocrisy ... the list is long and, of course, compelling. Just about the time that any knicker-twister seems to be under control, another one comes along that is equally, if not more, compelling. With enough time and practice, I have learned to live with these knicker-twisters the way anyone might suffer visiting in-laws who were not especially welcome: Oh well, it's just for the weekend.

And one of the knicker-twisters that seems to recur is this: I really, really, really don't like religious persuasions that provide no exit strategy. I appreciate the fact that most of these persuasions make some attempt to address human suffering, to extend a helping hand, to console and make whole. Which of us could not use a helping hand or a bit of direction? So, thank you very much.

But the persuasions that can only point back to the mother church, however that may be defined, the ones that trap their adherents on a hamster wheel of endless adherence to that mother church and its views ... well, I think it is obscenely unkind and hypocritical.

It's bad enough that adherents might long to remain in the hamster wheel -- to have a significant other who/which would heal all wounds. But for the comforting persuasion or institution to do no more than encourage an endless adherence to that persuasion ... without pointing to a certifiable relief that does not rely on past or future ... honestly, it makes me roar and yowl within: Put 'em up against the wall and I will gladly pull the trigger! I haven't got enough dirty words to describe my disdain.

Without a get-out-of-jail-free component ... well, I'm sorry: I dislike lies. Without such a component, those who would comfort become the arbiters of the very ignorance the claim to relieve.

I'll probably feel more forgiving if I have some breakfast.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009
greed and belief
Greed and credulity -- today I wonder if these two human aspects aren't more tightly-woven than a DNA helix, more comfortable together than a couple of 50 years ... practically synonymous in their loving and reliable embraces.

What brought this to mind was a TV show last night about the stock market crash of 1929. I had read about and seen depictions of the events often enough so that I did not dote on the outrage and sorrow and cruelty and stupidity. As economist John Kenneth Galbraith noted more or less at the end of the show: "These things happen every 20 or 30 years. That seems to be how long the financial memory extends ... time enough to create a new generation of suckers."

But beyond the disdain or fury or 'social conscience' that the scene could evoke ... well, it just seemed human ... the need to believe in something and the willingness to act on that need. In the stock market crash, the well-informed and well-heeled found ways in which to increase their wealth and then told tales that less wealthy and less well-heeled people were willing (in fact longed) to believe.

It was nothing to look down on: Who wouldn't like to take care of their family, send their kids to college, own a house and nice clothes, or have fine food to eat? And when the fantasy was upended, when everyone lost their money (or anyway a lot of it), what was the first thing -- as today -- that anyone did? The very first thing was to promote a need to believe ... in government, in Wall Street, in America, in the 'system' ... the voices were/are urgent: "You have to trust. You have to believe." And the longing to believe is so strong ... well, it has happened before and will happen again.

The dismay and outrage that suffering can induce may be a good thing. But are they really enough? Aren't they, in their own way, just another belief system that rises from the ashes of an earlier belief system? The desperate and believable response comes back, "We can't just sit on our hands and do nothing. This is too unkind. Too cruel. Too irresponsible." And it's true ... little or large, personal or social, the cruelties of greed cry out for a kinder response, something more loving, something more humane.

Belief begets greed; greed begets belief. Sometimes the results are good. Sometimes the results are painful. But whatever the results, the impetus seems unending. Compelling. Human....

And worth investigating. Perhaps we begin with the objectives of others, point out the outrages of others, dissect the beliefs and greed of others ... and set about correcting them. Only later, perhaps, does the mirror ask, "What about my beliefs, my principles, my greed, my mistakes, my humanity...?" And perhaps we forgive ourselves under a banner of kindness and caring and, well ... things will be better if others do things my way. And so a new belief system evolves, a new (but 'improved') arena of greed.

The mirror's question does seem to have a common denominator ... my beliefs, my principles, my greed, my mistakes and my humanity all are ... mine.

And this, I think, is the point at which anyone might begin a fruitful investigation, an investigation that stands some chance of success when it comes to getting off the belief-greed treadmill. Of course, it can be frightening: The notion of setting aside belief and greed seems to threaten our entire existence. "Wouldn't I just end up as a passive blob?" "I am too convinced by my outraged or exalted goodness to let it all go" "If you're not part of the solution, you're part of the problem" etc.

Yes, we begin with belief and with the greed that attempts to bolster that belief. Yes, we embrace these two old lovers in an attempt to clarify their good results and bad. It is part of our humanity and any answer that lacks humanity would be a ruse.

But perhaps we would be better off to add a little investigation into the mix. Not judgment or criticism -- just reflection and investigation, little and large, of what is ...

Monday, October 26, 2009
unexpected guests
Two young women were waiting outside the house this evening when I returned from picking up some quasi-Mexican food downtown. They were high school students and at least one of them was interested in Buddhism.

I gave them the cook's tour of the zendo, talked a little obvious stuff, gave them my cheat sheet on "Buddhism" and sent the on their way. High school students ... imagine that.

That's twice in two days that young people have showed up unannounced.

Let's see if the French saying got it right: "Jamais deux sans trois" ... never two without three or things come in threes.

Kind of fun. And it also makes me won der if I should take down the web site.

Monday, October 26, 2009
In a time when I gobbled books like potato chips, it never occurred to me to ask what the source of my interest in spiritual life might be. I was content with my own analysis and my own explanations: I was interested and that was that. Since that interest did no overt harm and since the potato chips were tasty, I just kept gobbling.

Looking back now, I can imagine spiritually-inclined acquaintances using words like "karma" or perhaps even "reincarnation" to depict the 'profound' meaning of a spiritual inclination, but I don't know about things like that. Sometimes I think that 'profound' meanings just betoken someone splashing around in the shallows.

But I do wonder now why, in the midst of all that spiritual gobbling of the past, I didn't ask with more investigative vigor, "What, precisely, is this all about?" "What, exactly, do you hope to achieve?" "What do you really, honestly, want?" It's not a criticism. Just a mild curiosity.

And the best answer I can come up with is this: Maybe everyone gobbles their particular brand of potato chips -- from intellectual and emotional explanations to long hours of hard practice -- until they discover that a potato chip diet is not as nutritious as it might be, until they think, perhaps, "maybe I'll try a hot dog." And from that metaphorical hot dog, perhaps an awareness grows that a person is welcome to choose any diet at all ... there's no need to cling to any particular diet. Explanations just aren't that tasty. When you're hungry and when the food presents itself, well ... eat up!

Eat up and say, "thank you very much."
Sunday, October 25, 2009
Zen student needed
A student from a nearby college walked through my front door this morning and asked about Zen practice. What a nice surprise. What a challenge.

Ben was pleasant and attentive. Apparently he is taking a class that makes its students visit in person at Buddhist centers. He had a paper to write and so he asked questions after we had gone through the how-to-sit drill, some sitting and some walking. Was this place Soto or Rinzai by inclination? What about the art work in the zendo? What about the statues (Buddha, Kuan Yin, and Jizo) on the altar?

They were plain, ordinary and completely understandable questions. Good questions to ask. Reasonable questions.

But I suddenly had some small inkling of why Zen centers are set up with students who fill various functions ... a jikijitsu to run things during meditation; a jisha to gently point the way in so many ways ... and all the rest of them. These are the people who can explain things with conviction and clarity. They are the ones who know what needs to be known and have little or no difficulty transmitting it. They are, without criticism, the practicing believers, the very ones to know statues and lineage and art.

But what do I know? Not much. Honestly, not much. I know that people are uncertain, often in very painful ways. I know that even an amoeba will flee the presence of a toxin ... though whether an amoeba feels uncertainty and sorrow I don't know. That flight -- that longing to be free of uncertainty or sorrow -- usually includes a search for a way to be free of suffering. Zen practice is a good vehicle for furthering that search, assuming anyone consents to try it and shows some determination in continuing the effort. I know that the longing to be at home with this life -- to search out some true home that isn't subject to conditions -- is an honest longing, however it is expressed. And that's more or less it.

So when someone says Soto or Rinzai to me, I know what they're talking about more or less, but I'd rather that someone else took up the issue. When someone asks about Jizo or Kuan Yin or Buddha, I wish there were someone more expert to elucidate and make a college paper possible. And when someone considers the calligraphic art on the walls of the zendo, I know there are people who could explain better and more comprehensibly than I.

As a Zen student, I'd make a better plumber. Given half a chance, I will wax lyrical from now until January about my gratitude to the effectiveness of Zen practice, but it's all a little like the teenager who is overwhelmed by love: Over and over again, s/he may say, "I love Sally" or "I love Johnny," but no matter what s/he says, how could any true sense of that love be transmitted? I can understand that a kiss is 'wonderful,' but how does that compare with or transmit the deliciousness of a kiss?

It purely flummoxes me answering questions like Ben's. This is not to say I can't talk the hind leg off a dog in a effort to lend a hand. But ... but ... maybe there are Zen students on Craig's List who are willing to answer with conviction.

It was a refreshing morning. I like being challenged. I hate confusing people. I want to do my best. And over and over again, there is the realization that what I might hope to accomplish can't be done.

If you want to practice Zen, that's something I'd recommend. If you don't, that's something I'd also recommend.

Nifty morning, one that left me grinding my teeth and intoning, "Well, shiiieeeet!"

Sunday, October 25, 2009
I think Roman Catholics and members of Alcoholics Anonymous are onto something: By weaving confession into their instructions, both offer adherents a way to address the loneliness of separation.

It's nice to find a realm in which anyone might, at last, get it all out -- all the lingering, shadowed, locked-away aspects of this life. That's the stuff that weighs heavily even though it weighs nothing at all. That's the stuff that tints and taints and whispers from behind a cupped hand. That's the stuff -- whether inspiring or darkly dismal -- that divides the indivisible.

Any judgment or forgiveness is not so much the point. The point is to make friends with what is confessed.

In high school, I had a friend, Bill, who quit the Catholic church his parents had raised him in. High school is a time of hormones and confusion, so quitting could hardly be called unusual or strange. But when I, as someone who knew little or nothing about formal church affairs, asked Bill if there were anything about the church he missed, he admitted with a touching bravery, "I miss confession."

And I felt sorry for my friend. How wonderful to have a place or time in which everything was out in the open ... or, if not out in the open, at least was offered some venue filled with fresh, clean air. Perhaps the 'forgiveness' of a loving god was part of the allure, but the mere fact that there was a venue in which to let go or barf it all up ... what a relief. What a relief to be empty-handed.

In AA, if I recall, participants admit their transgressions (and delights?) to themselves and to "another." Without such a practice, the old problems of addiction are likely to persist. It's not easy ... not easy at all. Ask any addict ... no matter what the addiction.

OK, so perhaps someone might begin with a loving god and the first, uncertain steps of confession. Bit by bit, the muscles of confession grow stronger. Little by little the fresh, clean air seeps in. It doesn't matter so much if a loving god or a psychologist's couch offers a format of relief. What matters is your own fresh, clean air ... you know ...

The air you couldn't escape in the first place.

Saturday, October 24, 2009
instruction from a master
There was a touching serendipity to it all: There I stood on the peace picket and a young man walked up to me and asked, "Do you know of any zendos around here?" Liam seemed to be about 20 and had recently spent quite a lot of time in Boulder, Colo., participating in one or more sesshins {Zen retreats).

Now he was here, not quite sure of himself, and a little lost, he admitted, without the Buddhist surroundings he had grown used to. He felt unsure in a world that really didn't care whether he were a Buddhist or even that Buddhism existed.

I felt as if I were taking instruction from the master.

How hard it can be, throwing heart and soul into some long-term activity and then finding that the rest of the world is utterly unconcerned. And more, incurious. The feeling that can well up, and Liam expressed very quietly, is one of being an outcast or oddball or weirdo or ... well, whatever the feeling, it includes a sense of being somehow cut off from the mankind to which anyone hopes to belong. How lonely. Perhaps another effort -- a more socially-connected one -- would have been better. This loneliness can leave you weak.

I told Liam about the zendo here and mentioned a couple of other places and tried to encourage him as best I could. Maybe, I suggested, Buddhism is a bit like love ... it's only as good as the ability to give it away completely. I didn't go into 'attachment' or 'virtue' or any of those tricks.

All I could think was that if you keep on sitting, you are bound to get over Zen Buddhism. Not today, perhaps, or even tomorrow. But that's the beauty of Zen practice: You get over it.
Saturday, October 24, 2009
take a hike
The maple next door -- the one that sneezes its autumn leaves onto my driveway -- is now nearly bare. It's a cold, raw day around here and I will probably break down and wear shoes rather than sandals to the peace-picket this morning. I dislike shoes, but after getting a mild case of frostbite from walking barefoot in the snow, I have to take better care.

Last night on TV, there was a fellow who had taken a long hike through Afghanistan. He was being asked about the likely results of an increase in U.S. troops in that country. How pleasant it was to listen to someone who had actually put his feet on the ground in an area of concern -- who had some actual-factual experience to draw on. I don't mind if his conclusions were right or wrong. I just like to listen to someone who has been somewhere and done something in an arena where people may suffer and die...who can work from experience towards philosophy rather than the other way around. The older I get, the more skeptical I become of ringing philosophies and the white wine that can accompany them.

Isn't it true? -- Philosophies and religions evolved from experience. And yet, after that evolution, those philosophies and religions can take on a free-standing importance. Like the smoke arising from a fire, they grow wispier and wispier, less and less founded in experience, as they ascend towards the heavens. Suddenly virtue descends upon the scene. Who then is willing to search out the initial experience, the fire, from which this smoke arose? Over time, there may be so much smoke filling the eyes and mind, that the fire of experience becomes an afterthought. Virtue and wisdom are enough. It's such a pity.

I like guys and gals who take a walk through their Afghanistans.

Friday, October 23, 2009
enough marshmallows
Sometimes I think spiritual interests fit into an ordinary lifestyle in the same way that a campfire fits into a Boy Scout hike: This is a warming place on what may be a cold mountain; a beacon under dark skies; and, of course, a time and place in which to toast social marshmallows. No criticism intended ... I just think this may describe the approach many take.

And then there is the old metaphor of the moth attracted to the flame. The attraction is there, but the closer the moth comes, the more dangerous things become. In order to slake the attraction's thirst, the moth would have to be fried to a crisp. Spoooooky!

Sometimes I find myself wanting to warn those who express an interest in Buddhism: Be careful! It'll slit you open like a mackerel in a fish market! It'll burn your face off!

But then I realize even Buddhism has its warming havens; even Buddhism has enough marshmallows to go around.

Not to worry....

Friday, October 23, 2009
a formatted life
The other day, I sent a how's-it-going email to a fellow in the newspaper office I retired from about six months ago. Barry and I had been colleagues in that office, had occasionally met for coffee, but otherwise had no wider contact.

He wrote back describing the effects of dwindling staff and other belt-tightening measures ... everyone was over-worked and angry. Barry wrote that he disliked thinking about the office since it aroused painful emotions. Nevertheless, he suggested we might get together for coffee or a walk or something.

I skipped over his apparent invitation when I responded because I didn't want to be the cause of unpleasantness in his life: The format of our relationship was the newspaper office, so any conversation we might have would probably be tinged or filled with that format. Barry is a can-do, in-control kind of person. To speak of or enjoy matters outside that control ... well, it struck me unlikely.

That email exchange made me realize with a small, lonely jolt that I am different from the other kids on the playground. Other people seem to connect according to shared interests ... baseball, Buddhism, financial status, clothing, educational background, politics, parental status, a taste for one thing and a distaste for another. It is comforting and social and 100% understandable. I enjoy connections like this as well.

But the fact is that I don't believe such things with as much consoling certainty as others seem to. Sometimes I wish I did. How comforting. I'm serious. But at the same time that I can enjoy one format or another ... still, I'd hate to miss out on a chance to meet a Ku Klux Klan member, to hear about the mating habits of worms (do worms mate?), to marvel at the longing for more conservative world as expressed by a 'liberal' adherent, or to examine the malicious instincts of the saint. It's as if some voice inside said, "Yes, formats are cozy and interesting ... but not cozy enough or interesting enough to be worth shutting out the other delicious possibilities." People just strike me as much more interesting than the interests they are willing to express.

It all reminds me of the old tale of Gautama the Buddha, who, as a prince, once lived behind high walls, surrounded by many delights. The formats of life strike me a bit like that -- finding satisfaction as best we may within the confines we construct. And yet what spells safety and assurance today invariably spells incarceration and penalty tomorrow. And so everyone, in one way or another, like Gautama, leaves the old walls behind ... generally in an effort to build new and improved walls. As the Dalai Lama said, "Everyone wants to be happy," but wall-building and formats strikes me as a dubious tool ... even as I use it.

How many people has anyone met -- people who say, "I feel trapped." The heart longs for freedom and simultaneously longs for security. Every security confines the freedom and every freedom pokes holes in the walls of security. And so there are compromises to be made, compromises that lead back to a sense of being trapped. Every improvement to the walls of security seems to take us further from the desired freedom. Compromise may suck, but there seems to be no other choice.

Well, I seem to have gotten off on a tangent here. Or maybe not. I began by wishing I could believe more assuredly in the formats others seem only to realize that others are in the same boat -- wishing they could believe in the formats others do, straining to erect secure walls, patching those walls, compromising their freedom and fleeing a content and assured footing.

It's not easy, recognizing that freedom and security are not something to attain -- it is just what you already are. Some will take the trouble to recognize this. Some won't.

I wonder what the Ku Klux Klansman might say.

Thursday, October 22, 2009
taste the tea
My teacher, Kyudo Nakagawa Roshi, once told me, "It's like drinking tea. You drink and I drink and then we both know what tea tastes like."

The agile and adroit mind may spring into action on hearing such words -- oh what a lovely metaphor, oh how inviting -- but I think it is just a straightforward statement. Plain. Literal.

However piteous the cries ("tell me how to achieve peace," "tell me what enlightenment is," "tell me how to end this uncertainty and suffering") and no matter how sage and adept the explanations and philosophies may be ... still, what exactly is unclear about a simple statement like, "You drink and I drink and then we both know what tea tastes like?"

People sometimes use tea as a metaphor for an enlightened point of view. It sounds sexy and wise. OK. But the fact remains, doesn't it, that with or without the sex appeal, you simply can't know the taste of tea without tasting it. Literally. Good and bad, better and worse, enlightened and deluded, rich and poor, loving and angry, moral and immoral, whining and arrogant ... if you want to know the taste of tea, you have to taste it.

Is that somehow complicated?

Wednesday, October 21, 2009
I don't like you
I was once talking with a shrink friend of mine, Jack. He was describing a particular man who had visited him for the first time -- testing the waters to see if he and Jack might hit it off on a counseling basis. At the end of the 45-50 minute meeting, the man asked Jack, "So, do you think we should continue to meet?" And Jack replied, "No." And when the man asked him why, Jack replied, "Because I don't like you."

I forget the context in which Jack told me that story, but I remember the shock I felt: How could anyone in a 'helping' profession turn away someone who was seeking help? On the face of it, the incident seemed to illustrate an egotism that ran counter to the implied altruism of the profession. I knew Jack as a kind and concerned person, so his apparent lack of kindness and concern poked a hole in my understanding.

The suffering and sorrow and uncertainty of this life is enough to make anyone seek out some salve, some answer, some relief. And when that picture of relief is personified or made concrete, there is a natural tendency to invest that personification or philosophy with all of the goodness that promises to ease this suffering or sorrow or uncertainty. Imagine being the Dalai Lama, for example. Or a shrink. Or even something called Buddhism. What bright lights in a dark sky.

It is a wonderful and inspiring dream.

But who is it who says that Jesus or some other guru has to be nice in my terms? Who is it who imagines that kindness only resides in a "yes?" Who posits that Buddhism has the answers? Kindness and concern are no lie, but who says so and who is willing to do more than imagine or long for an answer? Whose compassion is anyone seeking when they imagine "compassion" or "love" or "freedom?"

How horrific -- how truly shattering -- it can be to find that our very-god of very-gods has clay feet. What a betrayal. What a curse. And yet, where the warmth of an imagined relief turns to cold steel, where facts intervene ... isn't this really a blessing? The heart is shattered with a new and improved uncertainty and sorrow and yet ... now what? Aren't we forced to stand on the same two feet we were standing on when we trekked far and wide seeking blessed and relieving answers?

I see nothing wrong with the dream, the longing, and the search for relief. Such things are inspiring. But if all they do is to inspire more dreaming, how could there ever be any real relief? Praise is lovely. Criticism is fun. But where facts intervene, as they invariably seem to, well ... now what?

"I don't like you."

"I like you."

What do such things have to do with any honest relief?

Wednesday, October 21, 2009
dancing to the music
If you don't begin things, they cannot end.
If you don't end things, they cannot begin.

The point of mentioning this is not to encourage anyone to grasp or fend off what cannot be grasped or rejected. After all, things begin and things end. No sorrow or joy can revise the issue. No thin-lipped and gloomy determination can change what is true.

But mentioning such things is to suggest:

There's nothing saying you can't enjoy yourself.
Tuesday, October 20, 2009
It's not easy, revising old habits. Sometimes it's a pretty messy business.

A couple of days ago, I got a new auto registration form from the state. Every year, they charge another $70-plus for an updated sticker to put on the license plate I have had for years, "ZENDO." One of my brothers-in-law remarked aptly when I first got it: "Pretty strange: A vanity plate for a Buddhist." But I kept it: Who knows whose curiosity might be aroused? (Zendo: Literally means "the way of Zen." More colloquially, it means the hall or temple in which students engage in formal Zen meditation practice.)

But this year, it's not worth the extra money to me and, besides, the meaning has pretty much waned, so I decided to swap the plates for something else, something cheaper, something less noteworthy.

But old habits die hard.

First of all, I had to remove the old plates. All the screws were rusted to a fare-the-well. I sweated and strained and used WD-40 lubricant and finally got them off. But in so doing, I wrecked the plastic bracket that held the front plate -- a bracket that flushes up against the car and into which the plate is screwed. My hands got dirty; my knuckles got skinned; my muscles were tested. So then I had to go to three or four stores looking for a bracket. No soap. Finally I went to a dealership and paid the requisite $20. Then it was off to the registry, where I got to stand in line and wait ... and wait ... and finally pay $50 for the new plates. All told, it was probably 50 miles of travel, six or seven hours getting the plates off and looking for a replacement bracket and then waiting in line. And in the end, I didn't really save any money.

But now an old habit has been revised and there is something refreshing about it, even if it is the same old car. The new license plate is wonderfully anonymous: 198-HV9.

And, as a bonus, I got to give a ride to a recovering addict who was hitchhiking in my homeward direction ... all in my brand new anonymity.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009
sunset in the East
Maybe one way to express it is this:

The entire difficulty in spiritual endeavor is like a man who stares intently into the East in order to see a sunset.

I once heard that two percent of our lives is touched by 'peak' experiences and that the other 98 percent is filled with nagging or whispered longing to resurrect or actualize such experiences. The trouble with this scenario, of course, is that 98 percent of lives goes begging in pursuit of some imagined perfection ... some heaven, some enlightenment, some peace, some orgasm, some ... some sunset. This is like paying $1,000 for a candy bar.

Wily and facile minds may see the foolishness of such an attitude, but I don't see it that way. It's OK to hope or believe in heaven or enlightenment or freedom or love or some other sunset. Such hopes and beliefs prod us along. They encourage us to act. The only question is, to act for what?

If two percent of our lives are 'peak' and 98 percent are not peak ... still we live our lives 100 percent all the time. How many lives can anyone live? How can it be divided and subdivided? 'Peak' and non-peak are a package deal -- a reality that cannot be escaped. And yet there is a longing to immerse ourselves in some eastern sunset.


Dreams are OK. Hopes are OK. Beliefs are OK. But ... for what? Isn't a 'peak' experience one in which we are whole and vital and unafraid? It's delightful and easy. It is, to speak metaphorically, to die for, and yet the experience itself is clean and clear and easy -- an unspeakable combination of wow and simple.

Yes, we may all agree in our beer-drinking, intellectual or emotional moments, looking East in order to see a sunset is stupid. But "stupid" is precisely the recognition that can offer some peace to the other 98 percent ... the part that has gone begging in pursuit of the dream.

This is where I think the hard part comes ... the willingness to turn around and look West. And this is where Zen students are very fortunate to have a format that will attend to the 98 percent that has gone begging. It's hard work, trying to get up to speed, investigating what may seem stale and sour, trying to settle for the 100 percent that was never missing. Day after day, week after week, year after year ... sit down, erect the spine, shut up, sit still and focus the mind. Dream as we may, make stupid mistakes as we may, still 100 percent is really how we live. What separation is honestly possible?

Heaven? Hell? Enlightenment? Love? Freedom? ... get real! No one can subsist in peace on a purely imaginative diet ... although God knows there are plenty who try.

Stupid, smart, regrets and delights, peaks and troughs ... what do such things have to do with a wonderful sunset?

Monday, October 19, 2009
Zen teachers
Corresponding with a Zen student this morning put me in mind of the Zen teachers I have come into contact with ... the formal Buddhist teachers.

From scoundrels and ego-trippers to dedicated and sharp, what a debt I owe and how grateful I am.

But it reminds me of a time, after a particular sesshin, when I was walking uptown in New York with a woman who had also been to the retreat. All of a sudden, she burst into tears. "What's the matter?" I asked. "I don't know who to thank," she snuffled. "Thank me," I said. "Thank you," she said. "You're welcome," I replied. And the tears stopped.

I too don't know who to thank. But I say thank you to the teachers I have had. Thank you very much. For what? For pointing out that I don't need to be a Buddhist and I don't need to weep. It is a teaching beyond least for me.

Monday, October 19, 2009
a world of belief
In that clear, free-flowing, and vaguely unfocused time between sleep and wakefulness this morning, it crossed my mind to become a Christian. The idea seemed to rest on the social connections. It was as if the mind were offering ideas for companionship in the same way a smorgasbord might offer Swedish meatballs or candied carrots.

Christianity? Nah ... like Islam, too young and not enough laughter.
Hinduism, then? They're old enough to laugh. Nah ... too ornate.
Worm farming? Science was never a strong point for me.
Dirty old man? Too much energy for too thin a result.
Astronaut? Again, too old and too much science.
Cab driver? Been there, done that.
Yo-yo champ?
Ballet dancer?
Business executive?
Tool and die maker?

The wispy, half-awake litany played itself out like a kid's list of Christmas desires ... long, but minus the insistence. The rejections were not criticisms, just observations.

And somewhere in that whispering laundry list, there was some passing understanding that the importance of each activity rested on an old and frayed habit -- the longing to believe in it, to believe in the activity, to believe, in short, in my own importance. Again, this was not a criticism, just an observation. I wanted some company, but I wasn't much interested in the belief or import or meaning.

Just a little company ... maybe with a guy who knew what a carburetor actually does; maybe with a bank robber; maybe with a woman who had been to the Lesser Antilles and loved it; maybe with a parent hemmed in by playgrounds ....

But where is the company that is not shot through with belief and importance? It didn't matter much. My own belief and importance were the only habits I could do much about...or attempt to remember I could do much about ... or believe there was some necessity to do something about.

All of this passed through my mind as smoothly as Vaseline on a thermometer.

And then it was time to get up and take a leak.

Sunday, October 18, 2009
"Chariots of Fire"
On this raw and rainy afternoon, what a pleasure to re-see "Chariots of Fire," the 1981 movie about the 1924 Olympics and the British track team that participated.

Literate, upper-crust-with-chinks, credible, costumed to a fare-thee-well, and with music that can still make me sniffle.

Warming stuff on a cold day.
Sunday, October 18, 2009
mating season
My daughter's boyfriend came to dinner last night. Rich is a large, affable, out-going guy who is studying electrical engineering. It was the first time I had met him and, while I was cooking dinner as the others talked in another room, my daughter cruised into the kitchen and asked directly and expectantly, "So, what do you think?" I gave her a thumbs-up: I would like to support her in her joys.

Like fathers immemorial, I suppose, I felt the vague confusions of assessing in the present what was now in my past -- the wonders and woo-hoo's ... how delicious! And perhaps like other fathers, I wanted to say, but didn't: If you hurt my daughter, I will kill you.

And to my daughter, I wanted to suggest, 1. Is this someone who knows how to ask questions and 2. Is this someone with whom you are willing to be lonely?

But are serious questions answerable in a time of deliciousness and woo-hoo? Or even in times of deep despair? Probably not. It takes a bit of time and patience before anyone is willing to slow down and take a look. And besides that, who knows what questions will excite whose attention?

It was a pleasant evening. Wednesday, October 14, 2009
As it makes sense for ice to melt, so it is somehow sensible to fade out on writing.

Working on another book, I find myself resisting in ways that are more than simply a case of the writer's crankies. I don't mind the work so much, but whatever drive compels or informs that work has ebbed.

And when, yesterday, a small voice said simply, "You don't have to do it, you know," there was a sense of relief tinged with mild sadness: What a long-standing habit, writing. But too much of it is stale and too little of it fresh. People are wise enough in their own lives: They don't need some Greek chorus ... or anyway, my voice as part of that Greek chorus.

With a slight smile, I recognize a little that I have fallen victim to my own observation: "Just because you are indispensable to the universe does not mean the universe needs your help."

Anyway, I think I will gather up the "new book," put it on a disc or something, and forget about it. If I want to write anything, I'll put it somewhere else and not run around pestering people with stale beer.

This morning I saw a bright star in the east, chasing, as it seemed, a crescent moon that rested higher in the black sky. How clear and clean. It is enough: Pure, icy water to swallow in passing. Delicious.
. Tuesday, October 13, 2009
happy birthday
The same daughter whom I played with in the park -- telling her, among the fallen leaves, to be careful of leaf sharks -- just called and told me that her boy friend had taken her to a casino for her birthday. She lost $30. He won $75.

A casino.

Imagine that.

One of these days, perhaps I will catch up with the present.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009
How do you go about it? I just don't know:

How do you suggest to someone whose life and uncertainties cry out for improvement that there is no need for improvement?

Such a suggestion would seem cruel and uncaring and blind.

The only option is to say, "Yes, things need improvement. Here's a suggestion...."

And then hope they'll laugh in your face when the time comes.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009
unsolicited advice
The following came to mind when thinking of a young man (19, I think) who I was told is going through a rough and confusing time:

Stuff I wish someone had crammed down my throat as regards living as an adult:

1. First and foremost, respect yourself. If you can't respect yourself, what makes you think anyone else should?

But how?

2. Add up your income. How much have you got? How much can you reasonably expect to make? What is the total you -- and you alone -- have or can reasonably expect to have?

3. Add up your expenses. Housing, weekly food, utilities, transportation, laundry, clothing. How does this compare with what you have or can reasonably expect to have? If there is excess income, think of the ways you might want to spend or save it. Entertainment costs, books, travel, etc. If there are more expenses than income, think of ways to reduce expenses using only your own income.

4. Learn to cook. This doesn't have to be complicated and it should be healthy. Hamburger is easy. A chicken is easy. Vegetables are easy. Fruit is easy. If you're a food hound, buy a decent all-inclusive cookbook such as "The Joy of Cooking." Second-hand stores will have this book.

5. Clean your living space at least once a week. If you don't know how to operate a laundromat washing machine, find out and make that a part of your cleaning chores. Wash, fold and put away your clothes. Learn to iron your own clothes. Learn simple sewing skills. Again ... if you cannot respect yourself, what makes you think anyone else should?

6. Be on time to work or any work interview you may have. Arrive clean and prepared to do whatever needs to be done. If you need to whine, whine somewhere else. At interviews, dress for the interview, not according to your own gotta-be-me ego. Don't crack jokes: People have various views of humor and may not share yours. Be polite and direct. If you have to lie, keep it simple.

7. If you accept a job or assignment, fulfill your promise to the best of your ability. If you have a suggestion, make it as a suggestion, not as a criticism. You will find that there are plenty of fuck-offs around -- people who talk big and deliver little. The only lesson worth learning from such people is this: Don't you be one of them.

8. If people offer to help you, be grateful. More important, be aware of the debt you owe to them. Never take people for granted ... this is the mark of childishness. All of us accept assistance from time to time, but taking such assistance for granted will lower your respect for yourself ... unless of course, you're aiming to be an asshole.

9. Learn to laugh. Laugh like an adult, not like some know-it-all. Anyone can shoot their mouth off with one kind of dream or another. But it takes an adult to make a dream come true. It takes effort and focus and sweat and ... laughter.

PS. When it comes to such intangibles as love and lust and anger and greed and success and failure and uncertainty and regret, the key is attention. Love is what you give, not what you get. If you find yourself expecting love, that is not love. Enjoy your successes but be generous with them and do not be immodest. Everyone makes mistakes but some people make a habit of wallowing in them rather than learning from them. Don't get caught in this trap. If you are uncertain, then be uncertain ... no need for pretense.

In the same way you clean your living quarters once a week, find some time too to reflect on your own life -- what you have done, what you are doing and what you plan to do. Imagining you are kool or that 'no one will know' is not reflection. Just look things over for five or ten minutes. Reflect on the week gone by: What went right, what went wrong, and what can you learn from it all. Be gentle, but firm: In this way, you will learn to respect yourself.

Monday, October 12, 2009
picking and choosing Monday, October 12, 2009
A young woman called today about the zendo. She had homework to do in a class on Zen.

A class on Zen? What might that consist of, I wondered. Knew, and yet wondered.

I tried to steer her elsewhere by saying the zendo was pretty much for sitting. "Oh," she said, "it's more informal." If anything, I replied, it was too strict. But I don't think she heard me.

Anyway, I tried to help by pointing her here and there.

Homework, after all, is no joke.
Monday, October 12, 2009
every step of the way
I wonder how far these feet have come.

Literally and metaphorically.

How many steps have they taken -- what dances danced, what trees climbed, what skipping skipped, what ticklishness enjoyed, what thorns encountered ... how many steps? A million? Two? However many it has been, these feet have been there, every step of the way.

And whether the steps were many or few, how can we fault them, these good ol' feet? Perfect then, perfect now. Even the missteps were steps and thus, from a feet point of view, not missteps at all.

Maybe we could all learn a lesson from our feet.
Monday, October 12, 2009
the shivering orphan
It's a hard lesson, I guess, but it a lesson worth learning: No one can convince anyone of anything. As the Anglican author Charles Williams observed via one of his fictional characters, "People believe what they want to believe."

These seven words trip off the tongue as easily as a man falls out of bed, but the implications can scare the pants off the pope. The words call into question the warmth and security and love of a million lives. "People believe what they want to believe." Without learning such a lesson, how could anyone expect to warm the shivering orphan of uncertainty that lies in the heart?

Mostly, of course, it is too hard to do, and warm compromises are found -- someone or something to believe in; some agreement in the agreeable throng; some haven in a world that can be so very hard. Jesus, Hitler, Buddha, Obama, mom, dad, a husband or wife ...

The old self-help nostrum comes to mind: "Your life is so hard that it has never been tried before."

But however hard, who will take pity on this shivering orphan?
Sunday, October 11, 2009
Even as this pristine day gained warmth and brightness, the zendo held the cold from the night before and I could see my breath during zazen for the first time this season.

And then, while sitting, I heard my first flight of Canada geese, honking, as they headed for some new home.

Later still, while relaxing on the porch, a raucous blue jay sailed past the house ... another reminder, and yet another first.

Sunday, October 11, 2009
I was flipping through TV channels during the ads on a baseball game and was taunted briefly on a 'religion' channel by a TV priest saying, "That's right. There are no atheists in foxholes."

It made me wonder: Do Catholics have to do penance for saying such things? Don't they do penance for telling lies and if so, don't they get likewise penalized for telling smug half-truths?

I have to admit it really made me cranky as a cat with kittens. I don't like smug. In spiritual life, lies are inevitable, but smug is ... well, it is unkind at best in a business that suggests kindness.

The priest himself seemed to be in his late 40's or early 50's, a nice-enough looking fellow with a beard that was shot with grey. He was wearing the obligatory black with a reversed, white collar. Credible enough as far as looks go, but I wanted to grab him in some magical fury and transport him to a bunker in Afghanistan, to some protected place at which bullets and mortar rounds were being directed: Let him shit in his pants as others have shit in theirs and then mouth his lop-sided nostrums.

I did not wish this fellow harm, but I did wish him honesty. How can an institution like the Catholic church expect to reverse its dwindling numbers if it cannot address the honesties of its flock? Those honesties do not just exist in extreme circumstances like war. They are everywhere and they are compelling. "You asshole!" a part of me screamed, "Don't you get it? People suffer. It's not some blithe, self-serving, philosophical game!"

Yes, I was cranky.

But honesty is sometimes more frightening than bullets, I guess. Still, a bit of penance, a bit of remorse, a small contrition about the smugness wouldn't hurt.

OK ... it's an old saw for me, but it is based on some experience, some investigation and some, I hope, honesty:

"There are no atheists in foxholes." That is correct. When the sorrows of life are present and pressing and exploding all around you, there are no atheists, no people who deny God or wouldn't give anything to be somewhere else. But the corollary aspect, the other shoe, is this: At the moment of extreme danger, there are no atheists and there are no believers either. The moment itself is so plainly compelling that there is no room for belief or disbelief: This ... is ... this.

Only later is there room for reflection and pontification and belief. Belief is what comes after the fact. Belief relies on and lives in the past. In fact, it purely depends on the past. And while there are good reasons to consult the past as an instructor, the plain fact is the people live in the present, the time and place where bullets fly and the kisses are sweet. The past cannot be grasped and yet belief, when unexamined, attempts to grasp it, to formulate it, and to make an unchanging rule book out of it.

How is it possible that such a scenario wouldn't be open to even greater sorrow -- living in the present by ceaselessly depending on the past? When someone you wish to encourage is confused by a life that is caught and sometimes mangled by a present they know to be true, why would you tell them, smugly, to live in a past that no man can grasp or hold or rely on? How would it be possible to enjoy an irrefutable, shit-in-your-pants, kiss-on-your-lips present while dieting like some addict on an ungraspable past?

As I say, there is no escape from lying in spiritual endeavor, from fabricating as a means of encouragement. But to be satisfied and smug about such lies denies the tentative nature of all instruction. It is high foolishness that borders on base cruelty.

And so, for the priest in all of us, I just want to suggest: Yes, Mr. Priest, I will take your tentative advice; I will examine the past; I will correct my mistakes; I will believe for the moment; I will repent of my smugness; but since I cannot live in the past, I will nourish an actualized understanding of this very present....

Is there some reason not to say it aloud? -- Beliefs and lies are tentative matters. That's tentative, not abiding. Useful in their time, but tentative.


No more atheists. No more believers. No more smug nostrums.

Time for breakfast.
Saturday, October 10, 2009
good morning
Around here, from a distance and through the morning mist, a solo rooster is crowing off and on. Last night's rain weighs on the autumn leaves and dislodges them from their seasonal home. Later it's supposed to get sunny, but who knows?

It's refreshing.
Saturday, October 10, 2009
seen and unseen
Christmas Humphreys, a British jurist and Buddhist writer, once observed approximately, "The opposite of 'life' is not 'death.' The opposite of 'death' is 'birth.' The opposite of 'life' is 'form.'"

Calling such things opposites strikes me as a bit odd, but for conversational purposes, I get the drift.

Interesting how anyone's life is made up of the visible and the invisible, the seen and unseen. There's nothing fancy about it. On the one hand, there is traffic in the street, toast on the table, a friend to greet, sunsets and sporting events to see, money to hand to the cashier, and the taste of apple pie. It's all as obvious and etched and limited. On the other hand, there is the unseen -- the love and anger and fear and secrets and bias and belief and judgment ... all the stuff that shapes and assesses the tangible, the concrete and the limited. What is unseen has an unlimited feel to it. Although the unseen has an unlimited feel to it and people can be convinced they know what they're saying when they say, "I love you," still the invisible waxes and wanes.

In one sense, the visible stuff is what makes news. But it is the invisible stuff that makes juicy gossip.

It just occurred to me this morning that although anyone might divvy up the seen and the unseen, the thought and emotion, the limited and unlimited, the life and form, still that same 'anyone' leads only one life, a life devoid of division. How many people are reading these words, for example? Isn't it just one life? And doesn't the stress that arises from divvying things up grow tiresome? Even the divisive "everything is one" is just another example of such stress.

Oh well ... too much talk for too little fruit. Maybe all that anyone might wish for in this life would be to make friends with the visible and the invisible. Just rest easy with a couple of aspects of this wonderful limitless life.

How many people could possibly read these words?
Friday, October 9, 2009
selling out
At about the time I was in third grade, I went to a school that had a single gang. The gang had no opponents and its sole purpose seemed to be a matter of acceptance and prestige. It was not a gun-toting, drug-dealing gang, but you did have to fight someone in order to be accepted. It was not a time when youthful dust-ups were overwhelmed by the marshmallows of 'mediation.'

I was paired off against Gordon, a kid I had beaten in any number of friendly tussles in the past. But on application day, I let Gordon win. I intuited that if he won, I would then be accepted into the gang. Which I was.

But it left a sour taste in my mind's mouth. I felt as if I had sold out my true ability in order to gain acceptance and the question nagged: If I was willing to sell out my true abilities, was this a group I really wanted to belong to? Did I really need the surrounding warmth that much? Was the prize worth the price?

Time passed and I broke away from the gang ... or perhaps just faded away. I didn't fit very well anyhow, but I wouldn't be surprised if the nagging question had something to do with it. Selling out was just too expensive for me.

I suppose there were numbers of times as I grew older when I sold out -- settled for something less than I wanted or was capable of in order to assure some other goal -- but such matters gnaw at a (wo)man, I think.

In later times, of course, it's not called selling out. It's called compromise and compromise is sometimes praised as the adult way to do things. No one gets everything s/he wants, it is explained. It's not a sell-out, it's just life.

And yet....

What dreams or capacities, I wonder, would someone be unwilling to compromise on. Where would they draw the line and simply not budge. On what idea or dream would anyone bet the bank? No more compromises. Thoughts of failure and success are left behind. This time ... just this once ... go the distance. This time, it's the whole enchilada. Friends, enemies and acquaintances can think what they like. Security and trade-off comforts are forgotten. Energies are gathered and applied. Dangers are assessed, but fears are set aside. This time ... just this once ... all the way.

And who knows what will come of it all?

But maybe it's worth it.

PS. I won't say a word about Buddhist practice ... I promise. :)

Do not shy from things
Or hoard.
If all you can manage
is virtue,
What's the use?

You're welcome, Adam.

Friday, October 9, 2009
Today, perhaps because I have a tendency towards more emotion when it's raining or threatening rain, the emptying nest feels more empty than usual.

My daughter is off on a three-day weekend to the southern climes of New Jersey -- visiting the parents of a young man with whom she is thick as thieves.

My older son and my wife are off to New Hampshire to visit a college that has a sports program my son hopes to extract some scholarship money from.

And my younger son is in high school doing, I hope, what needs to be done. I will pick him up later and the two of us will probably pig out for dinner on Fordhook lima beans, which we both like and the rest of the family doesn't.

I don't begrudge my children their travels and adventures. In fact, I am quite pleased with them all.

But that doesn't mean I don't miss them.
Friday, October 9, 2009
live a little, lie a little
One of the things I have always liked about Buddhism -- or life, if you prefer -- is that it makes suggestions and invites you to find out. There are no half-nelson pronouncements (you'll go to hell if you don't)... just suggestions and the implicit invitation: Find out for yourself.

It's a two-edged sword, of course: On the one hand, finding out for yourself is a wonderful relief after being surrounded by some cookie-cutter version of 'the truth.' On the other hand, finding out for yourself means you have to stand on your own two feet and ... actually find out. It takes effort, and who wouldn't rather kick back and be spoon-fed?

One of the ways in which I have learned to forgive myself in writing is this: If it's true, perhaps the reader will find out; if it's more full of shit than a Christmas turkey, perhaps the reader will find out. And either way, it offers a useful example and perhaps an encouragement. True or untrue doesn't matter so much. Finding out for yourself matters.

That's Buddhism, I think.

That's life, I think.

As a writer of words, perhaps my motto should be, "Live a little, lie a little."

I imagine it's much the same for you.

Talk about teamwork!
Friday, October 9, 2009
Out in the driveway, there's an old, free-standing basketball hoop I would like to give away. The backboard and hoop stand at the top of a tall pole that is embedded in a container that you fill with water for stability. The container has wheels on the bottom ... you can move the hoop to wherever anyone might like to play. The kids got some enjoyment out of it in the past, but now its usefulness is gone and I would like to give it away, let someone else have some fun with it. It is taking up space in the driveway that is needed for other things.

I feel somewhat the same about Buddhism...let someone else get some fun out of it.

Basketball is most often played on well-buffed floors. It is played within a sheltered environment. The baskets at either end of the court are fixed. They do not roll here and there. Like a monastery or temple, basketball courts are what you might call monuments -- monuments to the fun they provide in the case of basketball; monuments to greed, anger and ignorance, in the case of Buddhism. Indoors, the intensity of the game and the roar of the crowd can be experienced. It is focused.

But there is nothing saying that the same fun and practice and focus cannot be experienced elsewhere -- in the driveway, perhaps, or wherever you choose to roll the hoop. The delights and disasters can be experienced anywhere. The skills can be honed. There are hook shots and lay-ups, koans and just-sitting ... a hundred skill sets learned and relearned. Experience builds on experience. Profound subtleties become apparent. Even when you miss a shot, still the game is informative and fun.

The basketball hoop in the driveway cost about $160 as I recall. Not a cheap toy, although far from the most expensive. But what do children know of expense? They grow up, as surely they should, and don't look back. Once they played basketball, but now it is time for something else. The toys of then are not the toys of now. The skills that children learned may be applied elsewhere or maybe those skills simply slip off the radar screen of their lives ... still present in some form, yet not necessary in their particulars. The wisdom of basketball may be applied to current activities but ... well, who plays basketball any more? Why keep the hoop in the driveway?

Kids deserve have fun, but they also need to grow up.
Thursday, October 8, 2009
Yesterday, I washed my underwear, T-shirts and knock-around sweat pants. It was a minor pain in the tail, schlepping stuff down to the basement, throwing it in the washing machine, putting it in the drier, extracting and folding, and then returning it all to an appropriate shelf space. But when it was done there was a whispering satisfaction. Somehow things were clean and neat and done.

Today, I went through my personal messages on an Internet bulletin board and deleted them all. They had piled up. One by one, I checked them, deleted them, and by the time I had checked and deleted all 91, there was a whispering satisfaction. Somehow, in a small way, things were neat and clean and done.

Tomorrow, assuming the weather cooperates, I hope to get out and mow the lawn and simultaneously mulch the earliest of the autumn leaves. And when I get done, perhaps there will be a whispering satisfaction: Things are neat and clean and done.

What an odd idea: Done.

Create a mess in order to clean up a mess in order to clean up a mess in order to make a mess in order to clean up a mess in order to clean up a mess. Rally our thoughts in order to come to a conclusion in order to rally our thoughts in order to come to a conclusion in order to rally our thoughts ....

Done and undone -- isn't the principle the same? And if so, what need is there for done and undone? Wouldn't it be easier just to do what was needed and let done and undone fend for themselves?

Thursday, October 8, 2009
right view?
Buddhism has many schools -- many apparent divisions or approaches -- but my understanding is that they all agree on at least two things: The Four Noble Truths and The Eightfold Path.

By way of background, The Four Noble Truths, according to one translation, are these: There is suffering. There is a cause of suffering. There is an end to suffering. There is a way to end suffering. The Eightfold Path (the way to end suffering) consists of: Right view, right intention, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness, and right concentration. The word "right" is sometimes translated as "complete."

I am sure there are others who will have a much better understanding of the Four Noble Truths and The Eightfold Path than I have. The older I get, the less I understand much of anything, let alone the implications and subtleties of these two Buddhist cornerstones. Truth to tell, I hardly ever think of such things and when I do, I tend to grow confused and lazy: I'd rather watch baseball.

But "right view" popped up in my head yesterday after a bit of lyrical musing and I wondered if it were a decent appreciation. I honestly don't know and I certainly wouldn't want anyone imagining my la-la's were the true la-la's on the topic.

Lyrically, in my mind, it went something like this: I was thinking about those who find inspiration and hope and belief in Buddhism. How bright and blessed the possibilities can seem. How far beyond the apparent capacities of the one finding inspiration and hope and belief. Teachers, texts, thoughts ... all of it, to state it briefly, can seem to be 'up' or 'out' there, while I remain 'down' or 'in' here. I would like to be like what inspires me. Such lyricisms can provide some good motivation to practice, but I don't think it constitutes "right view."

And what occurred to me was this: Everyone is practicing. All the time: Everyone is practicing. Literally. Enlightened beings practice their enlightened ways in precisely the same way that those afflicted by greed, anger and ignorance practice greed, anger and ignorance. There is not a hair's worth of difference, except when I wax lyrical. What is useful and pleasing informs and infuses in the same way that what is useless and painful. It's all practice, all the time.

I don't know if that is "right view" or not, but I don't see any other option. Me, you, they, them, enlightened, unenlightened -- all practice, all the time. What other choice is there?

Wednesday, October 7, 2009
It has been eight years today since the United States invaded Afghanistan. Some 239 Americans have been killed ... an embarrassing way to describe any kind of death toll. Death tolls play no favorites. The United States is considering sending more troops to a country that defeated the British and later the Russians.

It has also been 57 years since the bar code was patented. If George Bush were still president, I wouldn't be surprised if each soldier got his very own bar code ... plus an American flag lapel pin, of course. Maybe the Obama administration will announce the idea, since neither Democrats nor Republicans seem capable of reviewing history ... so much easier to do things by the numbers, dontcha know.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009
autumn leaves
In the autumn wind Wednesday, October 7, 2009
living on cotton candy
These days in the U.S., the banks, whose over-optimistic errors are being papered over with money that might belong to my grandchildren, are in a position to be generous with commercial real estate ventures that were equally over-optimistic. The banks are extending the time in which the tycoons must pay back their loans. But at some point, the banks will have to call in those loans and when that happens, yet another massive downturn in the economy can be expected.

This seemed to be the theme of a public television news report last night. The segment focused on New York, but suggested that nationwide there may be as much as a trillion-dollar bubble waiting to pop. Soaring skyscrapers purchased for enormous amounts of money are often only half full of tenants. Selling prices amount to 30 cents on the purchase-dollar.

Meanwhile, the government is scrambling to regain consumer trust. Consumers represent something like 65% of the spending that makes the economic wheels turn. But with unemployment set to go over 10% and more people losing their jobs and homes ... what, precisely, is anyone supposed to trust?

The "toxic loans" once blamed for the domestic housing market downturn have conveniently dropped off the economic radar screen. No one has said those loans have been paid off or even dealt with. They seem to have disappeared into someone's bottom drawer as banks and brokerages rest on a cushion of unregulated taxpayer money. Is this a way to foster trust?

During World War II, propaganda minister Josef Goebbels was able to shape public opinion in much the same way that the latest George Bush shaped recent approaches in the United States: If you tell a lie long enough, eventually people start to believe it. But Goebbels' powers of persuasion eventually crumbled as the facts became clear: Germany was losing the war and the war was a tangible matter, not subject to something as flimsy as belief. As Abraham Lincoln observed, "You can fool all of the people some of the time and some of the people all of the time, but you can't fool all of the people all of the time."

I guess there's not a lot of difference between nations and individuals: We all have our propaganda to feed ourselves and others. But at some point, the facts come calling. How long is anyone willing to live on a diet of cotton candy, whether national or personal? Doesn't there come a time when fixing the root causes becomes the only sensible option? Of course cotton candy is pretty tasty, so it sometimes takes a while for the facts to sink in.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009
monk and layman
It did not occur to me back then, but it occurs to me now:

Laymen can feel a profound respect and even a deep awe for monks. And why not? Monks (and nuns) have traditionally held the banner. To use some old words, "with one robe and one bowl," monks leave behind what laymen are surrounded and confounded by. The simplicity of their possessions symbolizes a wider forsaking of attachments to family and friends and acquisitions and intellect and confusion. Monks seek to actualize what is tentatively called "Dharma" on behalf of all sentient beings. Even when the monk is no better than a dabbler who demands respect at every turn, still the layman can feel awe and longing ... to forsake the world and its wiles, so to speak.

I too have felt such things, but what never occurred to me 'back then' was that in forsaking the world a monk (or nun) would be remiss if s/he did not enter -- enter, and enter with an open heart -- the very world s/he had forsaken. And more than remiss, a fool.

OK, perhaps then we can say that a monk leaves the world in order to enter the world.

But what of the layman? What of the one who is surrounded by the treasures of family and friends and acquisitions and intellect and confusion? What of the one who has committed his or her life to such things and is loath or finds it impossible to "forsake the world?" What of the one whose unspoken vows are every bit as profound as any monk's ... to the treasures and worries of a worldly life -- the very life a monk would be remiss if he did not or could not enter?

Would this dedicated layman be any less remiss or any less a fool than a monk if s/he did not investigate the world of what is tentatively called the "Dharma?"

It is not a question of either-or, of monk or layman. It is not a question of embracing the world or forsaking the world...let's not be idiotic. It is a question of attention and mind.

No one wants to be remiss.

Much less a fool.

Keep the penny bright on both sides.

Better yet, if such things still exist, buy a penny candy.

How delicious!

Tuesday, October 6, 2009
newspaper delivery
A front-page article in the Daily Hampshire Gazette, our local newspaper, announced today that boys and girls will no longer deliver the paper after Oct. 24, 2009.

The impetus for the change, according to the article, is that the state is considering whether independent contractors (the boys and girls in the newspaper's case) should be made into employees. Rather than wait for a decision, the paper took preemptive action in the face of what might be a decision that would imply unacceptable additional costs.

A Maryland company will take over the deliveries formerly made by kids.

A first job. A first taste of a wider responsibility. A first paycheck. Newspaper delivery was a long tradition, one that allowed the newspaper to pick up some cheap labor on the one hand but gave kids a taste of what was to come on the other.

With newspapers all but dead, the change does not seem unusual or out of line. It does make me wonder vaguely to what extent the protections extended to various groups and individuals do little more than to hobble them.

And it does make me a little sad.
Tuesday, October 6, 2009
off the cliff
The 17th century nobleman and writer Francois de la Rochefoucauld once suggested, "The intelligence of the mass is inversely proportionate to its number." In other words, the greater the number of people who get together and agree, the stupider they get.

Intellectually, this bon mot has a kind of satisfying, cynical deliciousness because no one has to look far to see the smug self-forgiveness of group-think. Politics, religion, the community fund drive ... the very human need for togetherness forgives the excesses of that togetherness.

And that togetherness can accomplish wonderful things.

And that togetherness is deeply human.

So deep that calling it into question can feel like a kind of apostasy.

And yet ...

There once was a Zen master (whose name I have naturally forgotten) who said of his Buddhist practice, "In order to do this practice, you must feel shame." Present-day group-think may writhe and form focus groups around a word like "shame," but I think his words are worth considering, whether or not anyone is a group-think Buddhist.

There comes a time for the patient and courageous when nothing will do but to take responsibility for this life. Taking responsibility does not require agreement or disagreement with others. It just requires the willingness to investigate assumptions that in other times have been so easily forgiven in the name of security and warmth. What is the truth of this life when no one else agrees? What is the truth when no one else disagrees? What is the truth when Jesus walks into the desert alone? What is the truth when Gautama leaves his palace behind? What is the truth at 3 a.m. when the bedroom ceiling refuses to give up its answers?

Yes, it takes courage and patience and doubt. When I look at my own small existence, it may seem inconsequential and shot through with remorse. What I have accomplished is too much an accomplishment that relies on the praises of others. Similarly, the blame I can assign is likewise dependent on the appreciation of others. The responsibilities of standing in my own time and place can be daunting. But what other choice is there? Is facile forgiveness or facile witticism or facile Buddhist wisdom really enough?

The warmth and security and humanity are so inviting. It's what 'everyone' does. But does 'everyone' pay the bills or go to the bathroom in the morning? The revolutionary within may answer tartly, "of course not!" But revolution relies on something to revolt against ... which is just another way of elevating the 'everyone' who does not pay the bills or take a leak.

"In order to do this practice, you must feel shame."

Or, as Gautama was said to have said, "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."

It may all be as frightening as stepping off a high cliff, but isn't that what anyone does in any given moment ... step off a high cliff and into the present?

Monday, October 5, 2009
boobs of various kinds
Once upon a time during a sesshin or intensive Zen retreat, I accidentally brushed lightly up against the breast of an attractive woman during kinhin, or walking meditation. That one small touch worked as surely as a shiny spark plug and I returned to the meditation cushion sporting an explosive sex fantasy and a first-class hard-on. Thank goodness for the billowing cloth of meditation robes.

After I sat down on the cushion and the hall returned to a focused silence, I wriggled and writhed in an attempt to serious up and get back to whatever my Zen practice was at the time -- counting breaths, addressing a koan ... I don't recall what it was. I wanted to be a serious Zen student, not lily-livered faker who allowed himself to be led hither and thither by his monkey mind. I did my best, but my best was not good enough. No matter where or how I turned, there it was staring me in the face ... h-o-r-n-y!

So finally, I just gave up, and instead of trying to supplant confusion with clarity, I just went with the confusion. The woman I brushed up against had excited my mild-fantasy attention in the past, but that small touch in those circumstances broke the dam and flood waters consumed me. No pun intended, but ... Jesus Fucking Christ! For the better part of a forty-minute period of zazen, I just did sex ... mind sex, phone sex, Kama Sutra sex, giddy sex, lustful and lusty sex, sneaky sex, honest sex, sex beneath the moon, sex beneath the sun, sex with jiggly implements, loving sex ... sex, sex, sex, sex, sex ... it went on and on and on and on until...

Towards the end of the sitting, I realized I was repeating myself. I just couldn't think of another permutation or speed or satisfaction or delight. I had run out of imaginative gas. I had run out of options. I had run out of what I imagined was endless.

At first, this recognition shocked and dismayed me. Sex, after all, was an emotional, life-force biggie. It was important. It was a gimme of the first magnitude. My dismay made me try even harder to resurrect and reconstitute my fantasy life, but the harder I tried, the more it underscored my inability to come up with fresh fodder.

Not only was I a lousy Zen student unable to still or understand this racing mind, but I was also a flop when it came to employing the monkey mind I claimed to want to still.

I was stymied.

I was stuck.

I was a complete failure.

And as this recognition of complete and limp and limping failure permeated my mental panorama, suddenly there was nothing left to do but ...


It was refreshing.
Monday, October 5, 2009
ego tripping
Critics may delight and believers may be dismayed, but I think Buddhism, or any other spiritual persuasion, boils down to one thing: It's all about me. It's an ego trip from beginning to end, from muzzle to butt plate, from alpha to omega. Every temple and philosophy and prostration and prayer and text and shimmering light and grating despair and dissection of the way things are and aren't ... ALL of it is nothing but an ego trip.

Buddhism, for example, is important because I am important. There is no other importance.

Social convention, whether according to critic or supporter, does not look fondly on ego tripping. The "social" in "social convention" implies that there is a goodness to the group that is undermined by ego tripping. Ego tripping is narrow and dangerous and selfish and ... well, it has a no-no quality.

And it is on this aspect that critics of spiritual endeavor may focus. Atheists, for example, may criticize those who believe in God as ridiculous and unsupported twits since there are no empirical proofs that stand the test of examination. Of course these same critics are often unwilling to look into their own theisms, their own mirrors, their own beliefs, their own ego trips, but that's their problem. Believers, meanwhile, will do everything in their power to give their beliefs a wider and more generous meaning: This isn't ego-tripping, they may argue ... we are looking towards some greater good, a generosity and kindness that is not always apparent in the society that posits a "social convention." It's as if, by spreading the dog shit with jam, it will therefore taste better.

But I would argue it's all ego-tripping and the sooner anyone makes peace with that fact, the sooner there is a chance to achieve a little real peace and a little real happiness.

It is at this point that savvy Zen Buddhists -- the ones I grew up with, so to speak -- will quote the Zen teacher Dogen: "To study Buddhism is to study the self. The study the self is to forget the self. To forget the self is to be enlightened by all beings...." It's a wonderful and true observation, but there is a difference between ingesting and digesting the matter: The hope and belief that invests the beginning stages of any spiritual pursuit have a way of skipping over the first proposition of Dogen's observation and moving on to the second and third. Joy and relief are inviting, whereas the work it takes to actualize joy and relief is, well, work.

Anyway, I like ego-tripping. It's honest and stands some chance of satisfaction, assuming anyone wanted to look at it. Jam-smeared dog shit makes a lousy diet, aside from anything else.

So, OK. There is the "oneness of all things," there is "compassion," there is "emptiness," there is "love," there are invocations of "discipline" and "kindness," there are Tripitakas and Bibles aplenty. And on and on it goes, filling the mind with encouragement and inspiration and intention. The ego implants billboards along the highway that leads away from or through the ego.

Buddhism is luckier than most spiritual suggestions in that Buddhism will not sit still for comforting or acute beliefs. Buddhism encourages action -- in meditation and elsewhere -- and in action, what happens? What actually happens? Well, usually what happens is that there is a train wreck of one sort or another as we run head-on into what we had neglected ... the ego-trip we were on.

Ego-tripping. Sometimes a pure delight. Sometimes an awful horror. Sometimes an intellectual or emotional soaring. Sometimes of no obvious consequence at all. And after enough train wrecks, after eating enough jam-smeared dog shit, after ingesting enough wisdom without really digesting it, we are back to square one. It can feel like a defeat, but I would call it a victory: If you don't start at the beginning, how in heaven's name can you ever expect to get to the end? And don't hand me any of that sophisticated twaddle about "the beginning is the end" or "there is no beginning" or "Buddhism uses the ego to defeat the ego." Get real! Dog shit is dog shit.

Dog shit is dog shit and it's not that bad. Whether looking back with regret or forward with hope ... it's an ego-trip and there is no way out but in. What we long to escape is precisely what we must, without reservation, embrace. Day after day, week after week, year after year. Setting aside wise nostrums about the insubstantial nature of the ego. Embrace and pay attention. Gently, firmly. Without averting the eyes in some facile belief or self-serving criticism ... just embrace what cannot be escaped in any event.

And what happens over time is that the ego trip we have created just becomes ....

What a nifty trip!
Sunday, October 4, 2009
time passes
Today, lighting the candle and incense before zazen, I noticed that the candle was close to finished and that it was difficult to find a spot in which to place the incense ... too many old, left-over bits ... time to clean the incense burner. Time to replace the candle.

Candle after candle, incense stick after incense stick, day after day, week after week, year after year. Each increment is not so much of a much and yet each piles on top of the one that went before until, somehow, it all seems like quite a lot. But quite a lot of what?

Well, I haven't got an answer for that, but I certainly can tell when it's time to replace the candle or time to clean the incense burner.

It's just practice ... whatever the hell that is.
Sunday, October 4, 2009
party time
The wedding was held at the Endicott Estate -- a large, 19th-century yellow building on rolling lawns in Dedham, Mass., and a place redolent with the kind immaculate obscenity that old WASP money can exude. Under beamed ceilings and between bookshelves holding rows of matched volumes, the wedding swirled and advanced ... a wonderful party with the average glitches and tears and laughter. It had been a long time since I had been to a party and it was a lot of fun, though, as in the past, I did talk to people with whom I would have liked to have had a more focused conversation. Parties are not places for focused conversations.

One thing that did cross my mind was how odd an interest in Buddhism can be. People who got wind of my past interests brought up the topic and ... knew a little or a lot and were politely curious. Yet what they said helped me to see that there was something strange about it all ... attractive and perhaps exotic, but not offering the sorts of conversational realms they were used to.

Anyway, the music got too loud after a while (the younger folks were dancing) and I drove home and only got stopped once by a state trooper. When I got home, my older son told me that in my daylong absence, he had hit and killed a possum and my daughter had stopped by with her boyfriend, an event novel to our house and one I was sorry to have missed. A nice guy, was my son's assessment.

Quite a day for an old anchorite.
Saturday, October 3, 2009
wedding day
Today, assuming my body does not betray me, I am off to my niece's wedding near Boston. Katie and Doug are scheduled to tie the knot at 4:30 and afterwards, I am assuming, there will be food and drink and I will be seated at a table with people I have liked in the past -- my sister Revan, my favorite relative; Bea, a cousin I haven't seen in 54 years and yet have enjoyed emailing with; Ellen, the sister of Tony, Katie's father ... I wish Tony could be there too, but he is dead; and some other couples who are Revan's friends.

I am looking forward to sitting with people of my age. I am looking forward to letting the energies of the young be the energies of the young. I am looking forward to basking in my age and experience and the age and experience of others in a similar time warp.

Mostly, I don't know the people who will be there. I like being in places where I don't know people and yet have the opportunity to meet them.

What a treat.

Now, if my body will simply cooperate.... Saturday, October 3, 2009
the "eternal"
What then is the "eternal?"

I think the eternal is something that everyone seeks out is his or her own terms. I mean that literally and not just as some rhetorical straw man that I or anyone else might then overwhelm with a better or more complete or more compelling understanding. Everyone finds the eternal in their own way and in their own time. Any other version of the eternal would fall short.

Assuming anyone took an interest in the 'eternal,' maybe we could say as a generalization that the eternal is something utterly simple and yet completely convincing ... but that's just me.

What occurred to me was this:

The eternal is that time or place or circumstance in which you enter -- without reservation, for once -- the present. It is the same present you never left, but this time there are no reservations. No reservations and thus no limitations or uncertainties, a place where praise and blame find no footing...the present.

A sunset, a symphony, a smile, a flower, a puff of cool wind, a ski jump, a silly dog chasing its tail, an insane bit of cruelty, a yawn, the silence of the woods, the softness of the ocean, an ant intent on some breakfast toast ... I'd name everything if I could, but I can't.

Everyone finds the eternal in their own way and in their own time.

And it's not as if such moments are unknown or elevated. Life has a way of taking people beyond the boundaries they set for themselves. Like it or not, those boundaries are, in a moment, gone... or maybe not 'gone' exactly, but no longer relevant.

And when such moments come, no one in their right mind extols something called "the eternal."

The present is just the present.

On the one hand, a delight and a relief.
Friday, October 2, 2009
without the handholds
Just because anyone is uneducated doesn't mean they are dumb any more than just because anyone is educated means they are smart.

I thought of this the other day when listening to a radio interview in which a breathy and somewhat inarticulate young woman was talking about being a poster child for a disability she suffered from -- I forget which one. And at one point, she said that the disabled have at least one advantage over those who do not suffer in that particular way: The disabled already know what the 'abled' will have to learn in the future ... that this body will fall into one kind of disarray and infirmity or another.

I'm not much of a fan of threatening people with bad news -- reflect on a rotting corpse; visit a graveyard and get gloomy; time flies -- make the most of it, etc. -- but I do think that it's good to investigate the facts, whether gloomy or delightful.

At pushing-70, I suppose that's easier for me to say. But is it inevitable that old age and its attendant angels should come as a surprise, a sometimes off-pissing surprise? Or perhaps the surprise is just one of the angels -- pointing out with a firm hand that what can be remembered in a nanosecond (the coping and control and energy to exercise those characteristics) is gone and what is now is inescapable...a lesson anyone, old or young, might benefit from.

No one knows how to be old, but when old age comes calling, it has a way of making clear that no one knows how to be young either. The handholds of the past may have been convincing once, but now ... well, life doesn't have handholds, however hard anyone might hold on to them. So ... how do you live life without handholds?

And one of the answers that seems to arise from the uncertainty that such a question can arouse is this: Everyone (no joke) is perfectly equipped to find peace in this lifetime. Every experience of the past convenes with perfect accuracy towards assuring and informing that peace. The doll you had, the tears you wept, the jobs you worked at, the cars you drove, the dirty jokes you learned, the religion you espoused or fled, the sights you saw, the food you ate, the nightmares you suffered, the gurus and philosophies you adored, the conversations that lasted far into the night, the love you felt, the breath you took, the toothpaste you chose, the fear that held you close, every screwed-up bad habit ... there is no corner of the past that is not integral to your perfect peace. This is not some self-help bookshelf bullshit. It all works in your favor. All of it.

The handholds are gone, but that doesn't mean your life isn't, wasn't or will not be perfectly apt.

Now let me get back to whining about old age. :)
Thursday, October 1, 2009
As I have been wary of ornate erudition when it comes to serious matters, so I have been wary of adjectives. The facts as expressed by nouns and verbs always seemed more important to me than the icing anyone might add ... icing that might draw attention away from the cake and place the focus on the one concocting that icing.

But lately it seems less worrisome. Nouns and verbs are not much better than adjectives. People will be as serious about serious matters as they choose and both icing and cake can be pretty tasty, pretty inviting, pretty convincing.

So, OK, the sky is a wondrous blue and the setting sun sets the heart afire with ineffable joy.

Noun, verb, adjective and adverb ... when it comes to serious matters, just don't stop.

On the other hand -- well, d'oh!

But mostly ... just ahhhhh!

What a boob.

The leaves rain down
Like fire from the sky.
Soon enough
I will be forced
To rake up my wonders.

Talk about compassion!

Wednesday, September 30, 2009
a nice tale
Received in email:

Being a veterinarian, I had been called to examine a ten-year-old Irish Wolfhound named Belker. The dog's owners, Ron, his wife Lisa, and their little boy Shane, were all very attached to Belker, and they were hoping for a miracle.

I examined Belker and found he was dying of cancer. I told the family we couldn't do anything for Belker, and offered to perform the euthanasia procedure for the old dog in their home.

As we made arrangements, Ron and Lisa told me they thought it would be good for six-year-old Shane to observe the procedure. They felt as though Shane might learn something from the experience.

The next day, I felt the familiar catch in my throat as Belker 's family surrounded him. Shane seemed so calm, petting the old dog for the last time, that I wondered if he understood what was going on. Within a few minutes, Belker slipped peacefully away.

The little boy seemed to accept Belker's transition without any difficulty or confusion. We sat together for a while after Belker's Death, wondering aloud about the sad fact that animal lives are shorter than human lives. Shane, who had been listening quietly, piped up, ''I know why.''

Startled, we all turned to him. What came out of his mouth next stunned me. I'd never heard a more comforting explanation. It has changed the way I try and live.

He said,''People are born so that they can learn how to live a good life -- like loving everybody all the time and being nice, right?''
The Six-year-old continued,''Well, dogs already know how to do that, so they don't have to stay as long.''

Live simply. Love generously.

Care deeply.

Speak kindly.

Wednesday, September 30, 2009
ultimate truth
Why is it than anyone might seek out the "ultimate truth?" Or the "relative truth," either, for that matter?

It seems to me that if such things were achievable, the best that could come of it would be an enhancement of the achiever's standing and thus a prolonging of suffering.

Wednesday, September 30, 2009

The graveyard acronym for "rest in peace" has a soothing lilt as regards the dead -- wishing them well in some small way and, in that wish, somehow easing the sorrows and fears of those who are left to read them.

Gautama was quoted as saying, "All fear dying. All fear death." So perhaps this chiseled R.I.P. acts as a talisman, a way to cross our fingers and hope that we too should find some ease in an incalculable and uneasy future.

It's one thing to invoke a "rest in peace" when standing in the graveyard. But how are things when, after paying whatever respects or offering whatever interest we may, there is a time to leave those stones behind, to get the shopping done, to drive the kids to soccer, to chop firewood or meet a friend for lunch?

It just struck me as peculiar this morning that every thought, word and deed that any individual might exercise is geared -- often ineffectually -- towards resting in peace, towards some smooth and abiding satisfaction. And yet when confronted with a scene in which things are, in fact, at peace, we shudder and cringe.

Perhaps it is like Martin Luther King's approximate observation that "it's not what's wrong with the world that scares people. It's the fact that things are all right that scares the pants off them." It is not necessary (though it is obviously possible) to create some god to explain the all-rightness of life, the rest-in-peace-ness of life, but it probably takes some effort to be at ease and stop cringing at the facts. Explanations, after all, never explained much or brought anyone the rest-in-peace-ness that is their birthright. But effort produces experience and it is the experience of resting at peace than people want and work so hard in a million ways to achieve.

Ironic, human, touching -- to long desperately for something that we're scared to death of once it is offered. It is always offered and to actualize that offering is why we make the effort rather than simple-mindedly contemplating suicide.

Remember the wry old lines --

You'll get pie
In the sky
When you die:
It's a lie.

These are good words.

Especially considering the pie that is already staring you in the face.

Pie, anyone?
Tuesday, September 29, 2009
leery of lyricism
Watching film-maker Ken Burns' television tale of America's national parks last night, I realized how leery I am of what might be called the 'lyrical' approach to things. Not that what is eulogized is untrue, but rather that the willingness to be ensorcelled by such eulogies can veil forever the experience which is eulogized.

Who has not been rocked in its arms -- that cleansing, easing, at-last envelopment that seems to arise from some Grand Canyon or walk through a silent wood or flower on a rocky cliff or bit of poetry or prose or symphony or love that sends this being to a place ... a place ... a place that knows no name and yet is home? Everyone has been there and longs to go again, to dwell again, to be rocked in these arms again. To be sane in ways that are clearly sane.

It's enough to convince people that they can speak without embarrassment of a soul or peace or even God. And it is enough to make others listen to talk about a 'soul' or 'peace' or 'enlightenment' or 'heaven.' Who has not felt the blessing? Who does not long to be at home in a place that is recognized as from afar in the eulogies of self or others?

Lyrically raised up ... an experience as common as salt and yet so far from this madding crowd of daily living.

But I have been leery.

Who can know love in the lyricism of "love?" Who can be enlightened in "enlightenment?" What lyric can create peace by use of the word "peace?" What towering cathedral can guarantee the blessing that is known and natural and yet seems elusive as a gopher?

And so what I have feared is not so much the abuses -- of which there are enough examples -- that lyricism can inspire, but rather the compromises that individuals might make with themselves: If I cannot experience that easy joy, those tears of delight, that silence that is clearly alive, then ... well, then I will praise it as a poet might or a religion might or some enchanting speaker might. It is a bit like a man who sits in his house praising the wonders of the wind on his face and yet fails to open the front door and step outside.

The lapping gentleness of lyricism is so enticing in a harsh and hardened world. I heard there was once a Zen teacher who put teddy bears on all the cushions in the meditation hall and you can imagine the intent and yet wonder at the effect. From my point of view, it was a lyrical kindness that was too open to inviting others not so much to see clearly, but rather to be swept up in that lyrical kindness: A kindness that amounted to an unintended cruelty.

It is not that lyricism is somehow bad and should be disdained. It's not as if the heart's yearnings need to be shoved into a well-locked cellar closet. What, after all, does the patient and courageous investigative spirit seek if not to feel the wind on its face once more? But ...

I guess everyone seeks out their lyrical or investigative format. Their encouragements. Their lies. Their inspirations. Their hopeful paths to the places where easy blessings dwell.

My leeriness is probably too much.

The trick to the whole thing, whether lyrical and loving or investigative and unflinching, is ...

Just don't stop.

Monday, September 28, 2009
"Pop," my older son said yesterday, "you got a call reminding you of the doctor's appointment you have. The woman said there was a $50 fee if you missed the appointment without calling to cancel."

I can see why a doctor might issue such a threat. Missed appointments means a reduction in income and a waste of his or her skills. The fact that doctors overbook available time slots, thus making patients wait longer, appears not to be a factor when issuing such $50 warnings.

Banks do the same thing -- charging customers for bounced checks and other infractions that go against their rules.

And when someone states the rules, then it is easier to see the terrain.

But when I do keep that doctor's appointment, I plan to ask if, were the doctor in some way unable to keep the appointment, he or she would call me or pay a similar fine. Is the responsibility I am encouraged to exercise reciprocated? And when the banks make a mistake, would they like a list of the fees I charge?

My 21-year-old daughter snorted in derision when I said I would ask the doctor. "Ain't gonna happen," was her assured pronouncement. But she missed the point. I don't expect anything to happen. I just think it is good to think about the 'responsibilities' imposed on others and consider what our own responsibilities are.

Monday, September 28, 2009
Dokusan or sanzen is a private meeting between Zen teacher and Zen student. Mostly, in my experience, it is formal in the sense that the meeting relates directly to the student's practice and any difficulties or understandings s/he may have. Those who live within a Buddhist framework that includes dokusan may call it special or integral to practice.

And it sure enough can bring with it a sense of heightened awareness and attention. Looking ahead to a dokusan meeting may be terrifying or delightful. Here is a situation that threatens to make me a hell of a lot naked-er than if I took my clothes off. This may be exactly what I claim to be seeking, but the actual-factual prospect of actualizing my own "true nature" ... well, I can certainly throw up a lot of subtle and gross barriers.

Dokusan is a cut-the-crap time, but it wouldn't exist if there were not some acknowledgment that cutting the crap is both the greatest goal and the greatest fear.

Others probably have had a different experience. I'm just taking a wild swing from where I sit ... a broad brush description.

Dokusan is a special time attended by special expectations and thoughts and an intensified attention, a kind of paradoxical eek-yum time...longing for something that scares you to death.

But what occurred to me yesterday when gently chewing the dokusan bubble gum was this: There is a time before dokusan and a time after dokusan. Each is invested with perspectives that allow us to say "before" and "after." But what is the difference between before and after? In plain English, what's the difference? And what happens in between? Is dokusan something else?

When, exactly, is your life or mine not a time of dokusan? Is such a thing really possible?

I'm asking seriously ... not trying to assume some high-seat posture.

When is it not dokusan?
When is it dokusan?

Every moment, life parades itself before us like some buff guy in a Speedo or a trim gal in the latest Victoria's Secret.

Don't blame me if you're distracted by "dokusan."

Sunday, September 27, 2009
learning to walk
I don't know how it is for others, but when it comes to spiritual endeavor, I am less inclined to mess around with someone who has chosen a path and is earnest in the pursuit. But I am more interested in and willing to support those who are circling the fire hydrant, looking for a place to pee.

At first, some wee Calvinist voice within suggested, I thought perhaps this was laziness or lack of effort on my part. But now I can sort of understand (or do I mean excuse) the approach. When a toddler is taking those first few steps, you lend a hand. But once s/he more or less has the gist, well, stand aside: The business of walking is not a two-man job, whatever the wails and wonders.

I too am learning to walk.
Sunday, September 27, 2009
British TV
Last night, I got hooked watching some British crime drama on TV. The plot was a bit too intricate for my inattentive mind, but there were a number of things I found satisfying about the show.

1. There were no ads.
2. None of the actors was exceptionally good looking.
3. In keeping with British (and Japanese) culture, the things left unsaid were as potent as those that were.
4. The men were shaved and their hair was combed. The women did not sport a lot of cleavage as a means of diverting attention from some sexless plot.
5. Each actor had one or more credible human characteristic.
6. And best of all, the cops, although they did solve the case, were bested by the power-broker/politician criminals, none of whom could be brought to justice for several murders.

I felt as if I had been offered a meal instead of a bag of popcorn.

Sunday, September 27, 2009
sorrow and enjoyment

The sole source of uncertainty and sorrow is praying for things as they might be.

And perhaps ...

The purpose of practice is to enjoy things as they truly are.

Saturday, September 26, 2009
annoying teachers
As a child, how annoying parents and other adults could be with their nostrums and directions: Tuck in your shirt, wash your hands and face, brush your teeth, do your homework, don't chew with your mouth full....

As an adult, I thought while standing on the peace picket line this morning listening to a fellow who told me he was an atheist, told me he couldn't be a Buddhist because that fellow with the fat belly showed no self-control, and told me that Stalin may have massacred people but only the naughty ones ... how every bit as outrageously annoying are the words from Gautama:

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.

What a gob-stopping, anti-social pain in the ass!

And all the more so because, goddammit, he was right.

Saturday, September 26, 2009
The probably-badly-remembered tale of Gotami returns.

Once there was a woman named Gotami whose baby died. She carried the small corpse to Gautama and begged him to revive her child. He tried to explain that he could not do such a thing, but at every explanation, she just begged some more. She was wracked with grief.

Finally, Gautama told Gotami to bring him some mustard seeds from the first house she found in which no one had died. Then he would help her. Gotami set off and begged for mustard seed from house after house. The people were more than willing to give her mustard seeds, but when she asked if anyone had died in their houses, they replied that of course someone had died there. On an on Gotami went. More and more she begged.

Until finally she was spent.

Only then did she return to Gautama.

"Enough with the mustard seeds!" she said. "Just give me the teachings."
Saturday, September 26, 2009
it's to lie for
The man who shared the waiting area at the tire store with me yesterday wasn't wearing socks. Instead, his tanned ankles reached into a pair of boating shoes and I thought briefly he might be some well-heeled, Long Island or Hollywood airhead or someone trying to mimic that narrow and uncaring mold. But I was wrong.

"I didn't have time to finish the laundry," he explained when I said casually that the weather was a little cold for either of us (I was wearing sandals) to go without socks.

Both of us were waiting to have our tires changed and, since the magazine rack was filled with auto magazines I didn't want to read and since the TV was set to Fox news, I was grateful to have an alternative way to pass time.

I never did get the guy's name. He was neatly dressed with a carefully-kept white beard and had a generous, straightforward and gentle smile. He seemed to be in his late 50's or early 60's. He was retired. His wife still worked. And a little at a time, he gave me one version of his adventures in life.

He had been forced to quit school in the 11th grade in order to become the "breadwinner of the family." He did not say what tragedy had made that necessary. Starting out in oil-resistant boots and an apron, he had worked his way up in the injection-mold business until, at last, he too was wearing a shirt and tie. "I saw a guy walking by dressed in a suit and tie and that's what I wanted to do," he said as he remembered his boots-and-apron days.

In his line of work -- and he had worked at a lot of different mold-making plants -- the object was to create molds that would allow other companies to manufacture plastic items that they would then sell -- anything from cups to patio chairs to car parts. He became, before he retired, what he called "an engineer." I didn't really understand it all, but I knew he was pleased at the success he had achieved and I was pleased with him.

When he started out, other companies would call up asking for parts and he would run out to the stock room to see if the part were available. Then the computer arrived and he could accomplish the same task on a video screen. And when the part was not in stock, he would tell the customer, "I'd love to sell you the part, but we don't have it in stock at the moment." After three or four such incidents like this, the boss called him in and told him not to tell customers the part was not in stock. Although the customer might really need the part in order to pursue his business, still this man with the generous smile should not tell the truth. He should double-talk his way around things even though the plain fact was that the part was not in stock. He should screw the customer and keep him hanging on the off chance that the part might become available at some point and the company for which this sockless man worked might somehow make more money.

It was too much.

"I quit," the man said with a look on his face and a tone in his voice that said all of his hard work over the years had been betrayed. He wasn't complaining or whining. He didn't tell me what was right and what was wrong. He just told me what he did.

Another man chewed up by a business world that relies too much on self-serving excuses.

I liked this guy and felt honored to meet what I thought of as an honorable man. Not virtuous. Just honorable.

Who doesn't lie? People lie for themselves and lie for money and lie for family and lie for ... well, whatever reasons and with whatever subtlety. They lie for good reasons and bad. They lie despite the fact that moms around the world and churches up the chute say "don't lie." The question isn't so much whether anyone lies, but to what degree they can acknowledge and investigate and take responsibility for those lies. That and ... what will the DO about it.

Anyway, the man with the generous smile and I were talking so much that the guy behind the counter in the tire store refrained from interrupting us to tell me that my car was ready ... four, spiffy new tires. A thoughtful salesman.

And a nice way to spend 40 minutes in a tire store.
Friday, September 25, 2009
throw it all away
"The key to Zen is that no matter how important something is, it must be thrown away." - Sekkei Harada Roshi

I read this line on a Buddhist bulletin board today and it just plain made me feel at home. Acute ... a dead-center bull's-eye.

And yet, as I reflect on mistakes I have made, it strikes me as a line open to mistakes.

Mistake 1: Throwing something away requires that you have something in the first place.
Mistake 2: Renunciation is a terribly attractive notion when anyone is first attracted to spiritual efforts: All you have to do is renounce one thing or another and, voila!, enlightenment or peace of mind or God or whatever the brass ring may be. And so, as an excited beginner, there may be some effort to give up greed or give up anger or give up ignorance or give up ... whatever is imagined to be a no-no in the mind. Give up meat, eat vegetables, lead a simpler life, move to the Himalayas, enter a monastery, never cuss, forsake shopping, burn your bra ... a panorama of virtue fills the mind.

But in Zen, throwing something away isn't like this. Nothing is ever lost in Zen, much less cast off. "Throwing away" means seeing into the nature of whatever difficulty or delight is at hand. Just seeing. No need to do anything about it: If you see into the nature of things, what happens? Don't those things walk away all by themselves? I think they do.

So revving up the mind and muscles in an effort to throw something away -- getting gooder than good and staying that way -- is pretty much wasted energy, energy I have too much experience with wasting.

If all of this is as I have described it, then the nature of serious things should be taken seriously ... they are worth looking into, they have not yet been looked at closely enough. The object of the recognition is not to hope that somehow we might all become mindless zombies, caring about nothing, serene but lifeless. It is just to know that attention is required. If Buddhism, for example, is serious, then the seriousness of Buddhism has not yet been addressed ... and for that, we may say thank you to our seriousness.

May we all bring our best energies to bear and throw it all away ... and relax a little. Carrying that knapsack full of rocks wasn't much fun anyway, right?

Friday, September 25, 2009
"Apocalypse Now"
Yesterday, the DVD arrived. I haven't seen "Apocalypse Now" in a long time, but when my older son grumbled that he was reading "Heart of Darkness" by Joseph Conrad, I thought it might be fun to see the movie that was said to have been based (thematically) on the 1902 novella.

As I recall it, even I grumbled when reading the book, which is written in a murky and obscure style ... symbolic dontcha know. True, it was written before television and the Internet and their often-juiceless (but brief) superficialities, but the excuses for writing in a style that reminds me of wading through taffy lose their forcefulness the older I get. The mysteries of the simplest thing strike me as enough: Is it necessary or simply inept when things are subjected to murk and import and meaning?

Basically, as the title implies, "Heart of Darkness" is a tale of the evil in anyone's heart. And "Apocalypse Now" is, as I remember it, much the same. But what I liked most about the movie was that it was as close as anything I can remember to an actual-factual nightmare. There is the insanity and painfulness woven seamlessly with straight-up humor and beauty. Like a nightmare or any other dream, there are no separations between one thing and the next -- no paragraphs or mental gyrations that differentiate one topic from another. It is just one flow ... just like anyone's actual life.

The movie tells the tale of a CIA operative who is ordered to assassinate a rogue army officer during the Vietnam War. The movie follows his adventures as he moves further and further up-river and into, so to speak, the heart of darkness, the target, the source of horror ... an utterly plain place and person surrounded by the views of others in an insane setting ... which is also utterly plain.

Who knows if I will see the movie with the same eyes when I watch it in the next couple of days. Who knows if my son will sit still for it or find it interesting?
I guess I'll find out.

Isn't it funny how when something is painful, we are all eyes and ears and attentively hot tears and yet when something is going smoothly or well, we can assume it is somehow our due and pay little or no attention ... we're just too busy enjoying it? And yet it's the same dream, isn't it? Seamless and without partitions or paragraphs? Sometimes a nightmare. Sometimes a wet dream. Sometimes we can fly. Sometimes we are buried alive.

Thursday, September 24, 2009
good lesson
One of the difficulties of the Internet is that it stands between those who might like to communicate. Today, for example, I decided not to take part any longer at a Theravada Buddhist bulletin board. Not because I disapprove, but because my views may upset those devoted to that perfectly good path. I had thought that an agreement on "there is suffering" would suffice. It doesn't. Best to admire the roses as they bloom.

A good lesson for me, gratefully received.

Thursday, September 24, 2009
the Triple Gem
Let me see if I've got this straight:

Buddhas are awakened beings whose function is to encourage other Buddhas to become Buddhas.

In this way, they help to 'spread the Dharma' (which is unknowable) to Buddhas who already know nothing about the Dharma.

These newly-informed Buddhas then come from far and wide to form a mutual-support group although they were never apart from that group in the first place.

I don't mind if any of this sounds a bit wacky. Lots of wacky things in this life can prove pretty useful. But I am vaguely interested in getting things straight.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009
acceptable and unacceptable
Did you ever notice in your Zen practice -- or your life, if you prefer -- that what was once embraced as "acceptable" eventually forces us to clarify and embrace what is "unacceptable?"

The alternative creates uncertainty and sadness, the very enemies that led us to seek out and adhere to an "acceptable" format in the first place. We enter our particular 'goodness' in response to our 'evil' and return (is there another choice?) to our 'evil' with a new perspective.

I-gotta-be-me accedes to I-gotta-be-you and I-gotta-be-you accedes to I-gotta-be ... who was that again?

Just thinking how incredibly fortunate Buddhists are to exercise within a 'goodness' format that points this out.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009
totally useless information
Who invented sound? Tuesday, September 22, 2009
no way around it
Is there anything better than when thought, word and deed are in accord, when body, mind and mouth are one, when the disparities of the past simply seem to disappear and, somehow, without saying so, this ... is ... it?

Sneeze, laugh, orgasm, hit the baseball, write what wants to be written ... the list is endless. Nothing special and yet, by contrast, called special.

Based on that deep ease -- that no-way-around-it ease -- you can sort of see why people made up religion.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009
belief again
Belief is OK.
Really. It's OK.
Everyone does it in one way or another, so it's OK.
For starters.

But somehow and in some way, it is important to address the doubt that belief implies. The importance lies in the fact that belief is based in the past. What we believe is based in past experience. And it is OK ... encouraging and inspiring perhaps. I believe the Democrats or I believe the Republicans or I believe Buddhism or I believe chocolate is a sure track to bliss. But where do those beliefs go when we round a corner and someone pops up and says BOO!

But can we agree -- the past cannot be grasped?

We believe in the past but we live in the present. No one can believe in the present. They can live it, so to speak, but they cannot believe it: By the time anyone believed in the present, it would have become past and thus ungraspable.

We believe in the past but we live in the present. This disparity creates uncertainty. And this uncertainty is worth investigating.

But I trust you won't believe me. :)
Tuesday, September 22, 2009
making things right
Three elderly people sat nearby in the unemployment office yesterday, two men and a woman. One man wore a VFW cap and the woman had on running shoes that seemed to offer more comfort than exercise. Nearby, but not part of their group, was a younger man who glanced over the racks of reading material without removing anything for closer inspection.

The old woman, who struck me as being a drinker, complained periodically that she was getting hungry. One of the old men said it was "just not right" that several Catholic churches in this area had been merged or closed. "They could've just cut one of the services," he said with a low-keyed, righteous grief. And again he said it: "It's just not right."

The young man tried to join the conversation the old man had started: "It's all a matter of finances, isn't it?" But the old people ignored him, though he repeated his view several times -- not enough money.

My mind idly joined the conversation as well: "Finances, yes. And fewer people signing up to be priests."

Fewer people signing up to be priests, fewer parishioners, reduced income -- why should that be? The answer that crossed my mind was, "Too much church and not enough God, maybe?"

Isn't it the same for anything? -- too much church and not enough God? Castles of belief and hope emphasize and commemorate the soarings of the heart and yet inevitably castles cannot contain what soars. Castles in the mind, castles on the ground. Pick a topic, any topic ... isn't it so? -- what was safe and surrounded and reliable wears away and what cannot be controlled simply cannot be controlled.

"It's just not right," the grieving heart observes. It's not right to take away what I love and find reliable. It's not right that people should ache. It's not right that I should grieve. Look ... all we have to do is cut one service and the burning loss I feel will be eased. Just cut one service, put a patch on things, prop them up, find a fix, revive my joy ... over and over and over again.

Too much church and not enough God. The smug and unfeeling and caring may find solace in it. Another castle ... "not enough God." Death, disease, drugs, divorce -- it's just not right, but "God" (or love or freedom or some other answer) will remortar and solve what "is not right." Relief and peace are in sight. It is so utterly, utterly human.

And yet sad too. Not "sad" in the sense of bad. Just sad in the sense that it does not work. Imagining and patching and reinforcing what threatens to crumble ... and feeling aggrieved and despairing when reinforcements don't seem to hold up ... and railing about nihilism or some other gloomy castle ....

It may not be easy, getting pushing into a corner and being forced to investigate what is simply true. It is warming to try to control what cannot be controlled. It is socially acceptable and yet what is socially acceptable and utterly human does not provide peace. Sometimes I think speaking and writing are nothing more than the vain hope that somehow -- please God, somehow! -- I can make things "right."

But how can you make something "right" that already is right?

Monday, September 21, 2009
Why is it that when life is showering down its blessings, I can never find the umbrella?

Monday, September 21, 2009
money and Dharma
A woman who came to sit in the backyard zendo here once chastised me for not having a donation box: How was she supposed to make a donation otherwise? And I thought she was right, so I built one and hung it up. No sign. Just a box.

And the incident forced me to think about money and donations and Zen practice and how they might fit together in the backyard.

Eventually, I made up a rule: You can make a donation, but only after you have come three times to practice.

Since almost no one comes to the zendo anyway, the point is more or less moot. But I was reading about money and Buddhism elsewhere, so I thought of it today.

Naturally, my backyard rule might not be appropriate for larger institutions. I'm not even sure it is appropriate here, but it's a rule I made up. And for those who have come in the past, I did encourage them to make donations when they went to other Buddhist centers ... always give something, even if it is only a little. If you pay to go to Disneyland, you can pay to go to the zendo. At the most superficial level, donations assert the equality of giver and receiver. No one going to a zendo should feel indebted no matter how much anyone might assert or actually feel a deep gratitude.

I once heard that Yasutani Roshi said of Zen centers, "Charge a lot. That way they will think the Dharma is worth something." Yes, Zen practice is not above trickery and students will sometimes be more serious when they think the Dharma is worth something. It's a fine bit of sleight of hand. Yasutani was smarter and kinder than I'll ever be.

A good line from a nifty novel, "The Chinese Bandit," went something like this: "Whores do well for money what others do poorly for free."

Money and Dharma ... interesting stuff.

Sunday, September 20, 2009
the hunger
Having decided to place a bet on spiritual endeavor, there can be a consuming hunger to know, to understand, to receive and digest teachings that will nourish that endeavor. Books and teachers and temples and traveling to lands where that endeavor was more clearly accepted and fed ... there is a sort of scrambling within, like a dog chasing a tennis ball along a linoleum floor ... full of energy and yet slipping and sliding in its exuberance...longing to capture the heart's desire in one, decisive and fulfilling maneuver.

But with practice and patience, I think there is growing sense that we are a bit like Alzheimer's patients who beg to be fed ... five minutes after a perfectly good meal. The experiences and skills of this precise lifetime are exactly the meatloaf and mashed potatoes that will nourish us and ease the hunger we may feel with a pulsing insistence.

The mind washes up a hundred ways in which I haven't yet eaten:

I could have had roast beef.
I should travel to India or Rome or Mecca.
I need to buy this book.
My regrets overwhelm me.
I want to be good.
I am not worthy.
My doubts are too many and my certainties too few.
My life doesn't measure up.
There is a blessing beyond this small, inept existence.
Pass the gravy.
Get me outta here!

And where the exuberance of the skittering, slip-sliding canine claims the day, there is a power that will not be denied. The dog wants the bouncing ball. This is where I have placed my bet and I would like to come up a winner.

The good thing about a foolish exuberance is that it can lead to a sensible conclusion. What a lot of wonderful energy. What a good and dedicated heart. And where we may smirk as we might smirk at the poor dog that tries so hard, still we honor the effort and in that honor ... we practice.

Think a minute: If your life -- the exact life you have led up until this moment -- did not contain all of the teachings and all of the understandings necessary to a complete spiritual endeavor, what the hell good would such a spiritual endeavor be? Wouldn't it just turn into another religion, another flavorless cookie cutter, another cause for regret?

Just because the Alzheimer's patient forgets s/he has eaten doesn't mean s/he has not eaten. This life -- sure it's lumpy, sure it's sublime, sure it's boring, sure it's a mess, sure it's a delight -- is p-r-e-c-i-s-e-l-y the teaching. No ifs, ands or buts. No exceptions. You already ate ... you just forgot to notice.

Tennis anyone?
Sunday, September 20, 2009
but what about me?

If someone wraps up the spiritual-endeavor situation directly, the student whines piteously, "But what about me!?"

And if, on the other hand, someone goes to great lengths explaining and inspiring and berating and cuddling and nudging and pointing, the student may be relieved for a while but invariably ends up asking, "But that about me?!"

And it's a good question, not something to be ashamed of or run around criticizing as too un-lofty, too attached, too distant from some imagined and inspiring certainty: "What about me?" Honesty is important in spiritual endeavor and what could be more (apparently) honest?

There is only one answer to the questions and quandaries and longings and uncertainties that nag like a Jewish mom. And the sooner anyone gets it straight, the easier things are.

That answer, for my money, is this:

It's not something else.

Of course, you may have a different answer. :) Saturday, September 19, 2009
follow the leader
What is leadership? The most convincing description I ever heard was, approximately, "The best teacher comes from behind." But that doesn't mean I know what leadership really means.

For some, there is great gratification at being in front of the pack, exuding confidence and direction. For others, there is a smug superiority ... everyone else are cattle and sheep, incapable of directing their own lives. For still others, things just seem to turn out that way.

One of the curious things about accomplishment that may segue into leadership is that the one who is accomplished has no particular need to dwell on his or her accomplishment. S/he did it, after all and that's that. Others, in the meantime, marvel.

You can see this in action when people like politicians start bandying about the idea that one person or another is a hero. Or when a combat soldier receives a decoration for courageous service. No soldier worth his salt ever laid much stock in the medals on his breast and no one who is called a hero ever sees things as others do.

I heard the pilot who crash-landed a passenger jet in the Hudson River and saved over 150 lives saying several times, "We just did what we were trained to do." He was a taciturn professional and at first seemed unable to absorb the fuss. Later, in a longer interview, he admitted that he had decided to speak out not so much because he felt like a hero but because he realized people needed heroes. He said this quietly -- as an observation -- and with something that seemed like regret that he should be the focal point of an acknowledged need.

The Dalai Lama has said on more than one occasion, "I am a simple monk." Those following his way may swoon at his apparent humility, but I wonder if their adoring faces don't reflect more on their need for something beyond a simple monk. How could he be a simple monk when he has written so many books and traveled so extensively and met with countless attentive throngs? It doesn't compute. I won't let it compute. If it computed that he was a "simple monk," what would happen to my aspirations and perceptions. If he were a simple monk, the elevated height to which I lift him would come tumbling down ... leaving me with ... a less elevated existence, perhaps.

What would we do without heroes, without leaders? I'm not so interested in the "question authority" bumper sticker crowd. What interests me is the human need to pin medals on this perception or that. It's human and not to be scoffed at. If my perception is heroic or has a medal, and if I have thrown in my lot with that perception, then, by extension, I too may be somehow -- if only from afar -- heroic or bemedaled. And, if push comes to shove, the fact may be that a medal in what seems like an otherwise unremarkable life is really quite appealing.

Who leads? Who follows? It's something to think about, I think. How can we be inspired if we are not already the inspiration? Are we really doing anything more than following our own shadows? And if that's the sum and substance of it, who casts this shadow?

Just noodling.

Saturday, September 19, 2009
-- I haven't got the quote exactly right but someone once observed that ethics is what people do in the marketplace and morals is what they exercise when no one is looking. I haven't studied enough to know if this is true, but it feels about right.

-- Is it one of the natural functions of age that the partitions that separate things in the mind tend to dissolve or erode so that everything kind of runs together ... ice skating and politics and profound faith and beer drinking and writing and ... well, all of it, so that the distinctions that used to move things along no longer find as assured a footing. It's a little spooky at first, given the amount of effort that went into the partitions, but what other choice is there? I don't know.

-- My daughter, who is studying business in college, said the other night with the assurance that 21-year-old's and other fanatics can bring to their assessments, "everyone gets screwed" in a business world. Business, she implied, is "caveat emptor" and "dog eat dog" and "fuck them before they fuck you" proposition. Based on a lot of American businesses, perhaps she is right, and yet, without getting trapped by a socialist idealism that has a poor track record, her words reminded me of the fact that Toyota is one of the best-selling, if not The Best Selling, cars in America and has been for some time. How could this be so if Toyota weren't selling something that customers valued? And on what model does Toyota do its business?

In Japan, where Toyota has its home, W. Edward Deming is considered something of a god. It was Deming, among others, who, after World War II left Japan in an economic shambles, came in and posited his 14 points of how to do business. Long-term, management responsibility, correcting flaws, teamwork, not assessing success according to income ... these were tenets that actually worked and, even setting aside government subsidies, helped to put Toyota on top of the heap. It also worked for Ford, when Deming was called in to lend a hand. If you sell something to someone that A. they want and B. serves well the function it promised ... then, it seems to me, the self-centered superficialities of simple greed are eased and some actual social benefit can be claimed. But such an effort is not for the faint of heart or for those who can do no better than protect their turf and polish their cuff links.... Anyway, I thought to suggest this to my daughter.

-- I do miss adult conversation.

-- I have been procrastinating about writing something that I think will take some energy. I would like to do it, but the task seems daunting. Better get off my ass before I run out of energy.

Friday, September 18, 2009
cranky cuss
Once upon a time -- it must have been the late 1950's or early 1960's -- my mother decided she would no longer write non-fiction for magazines. She had written and had published a couple of novels and a lot of short stories and had addressed issues of concern in various non-fiction pieces.

Earlier in her career, it had been acceptable to write a well-argued essay and assume that the reader was capable of making up his or her own mind. But slowly, the ground rules changed and it became necessary to back up every assertion with a footnote or a reference to someone's else's research and conclusions. In order to assert that something was true, you had to make sure someone else -- someone with stature -- said it was true.

On the one hand, it was understandable. On the other, it was a wussy beyond belief. In either case, my mother opted out.

Sometimes I wish I knew more Buddhist stuff -- history and stories and sutras and 'authentic' material. It might be a help. People like that stuff and are sometimes encouraged by it. I know I have been encouraged and inspired in this way.

But I am sometimes wary to a fault. I don't care so much what anyone else said. I care what you say. Isn't that the point? If someone else gets a splinter under a fingernail, I may be sympathetic. But when the splinter is under mine ... well, sympathetic murmurings lose their flavor.

I suppose I might find a better balance, be a little less wary of the 'authenticities' that others point to ... and just enjoy the suggestions. But the reliance on someone or something else strikes me as counterproductive. Not bad or naughty ... it just doesn't work very well. When has 'philosophy' or 'religion' ever removed an offending splinter?

Old and fat and lazy ... that's me. But I am sometimes sorry to be such a suspicious and sometimes cranky cuss.

Thursday, September 17, 2009
After getting up at around 4:30, writing until 8:30, eating, cleaning up, and going to the supermarket, I headed out for the mall today after getting directions from my daughter, a mall aficionado.

The object of the trip was to buy a suit or something suitably dressy for my niece's wedding. I haven't been in a suit in years, so the trip was something of an adventure. But I had forgotten how much I hate malls.

Not that I am immune to or even fear their blandishments. Malls just don't interest me. As an exercise in paying attention, they strike me as ... what? ... stupid, perhaps. If you need a pair of slacks and have the money for a pair of slacks, then go buy some slacks. Nuff said. Save your 'mall experience' or 'mall ambiance' for someone else.

And so, when I got to the mall and was forced to sift through the suit offerings, I was almost immediately overcome with the fatigue the day had already thrown up. I found a nice sports coat ... which turned out to be too small. I found an OK suit, but didn't trust the lighting in the store to tell me its true colors. The prices seemed to be all right, but ... well, I ran out of steam. My mind just refused to eat any more of this pablum. I simply did not want to think in this way. If I had to use energy, I'd prefer to use it in some way I thought was productive ... like shoveling pig shit.

So I headed out of the store, but passed a coat rack with leather jackets. I have been wanting a leather jacket for several years and when I pulled one off the rack and when it fit and when the material felt fine and when the zipper was metal and the cut was plain enough for me and when the ticket price assured me that the same coat sold for $400 elsewhere (seemed like hyperbole to me, but how could someone who hates to shop know?) and was marked at something less than a quarter of that price ... I bought it. It was as if to say, "There! I bought something. Now get off my back! Can I go home now?"

And I went home.

It really is a nice jacket, but I still have to go back for a goddamned suit. Maybe I'll get my daughter to take me. She believes in churches like that. Maybe her chirpy acquisitiveness will buck me up. Where is the suit fairy when you need her?

Thursday, September 17, 2009
stoic precisions
Can the stoic precisions of this life really do the trick -- really assure a bit of peace?

I doubt it.

Thursday, September 17, 2009
it's over
Is anything ever "over," ever "finished?"

Of course not.

But that doesn't mean it's not over.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009
serious spiritual endeavor
As far as I can figure out, the only reason spiritual endeavor has any serious import is that I take myself seriously. Everything else is eyewash and icing.

On the face of it, this is odd because much of what passes for spiritual endeavor is laden with inspirations that point to something greater, wider, and more profound than my own concerns or perceptions. Coming through the door, the hopes and beliefs anyone might espouse point away from the current, limited state of affairs. Enlightenment, God, emptiness, Tao, heaven, etc. all suggest (at least for starters) that ... well, there is indeed a better mouse trap, something that will alleviate and soothe and bring peace. And whatever it is, it is bigger, more powerful, and more far-reaching than I could possibly hope to be. It whispers, perhaps, "Get over yourself!" or "Be a kindly altruist!" or some such. And those whispers can mesmerize adherents ... sometimes for a whole lifetime. There are institutions that make a living and more from such whispers.

All of this strikes me as OK and par for the course. Hope and belief point. But for those inclined to more serious pursuits, there is a need to acknowledge (not judge or criticize or analyze ... just acknowledge) the fact that any seriousness in spiritual endeavor boils down to the recognition that I take myself seriously. Failure to acknowledge this fact means that I will be forever enmeshed in the reliability of belief. Beliefs are founded on and imply by their nature ... uncertainty. And who ever got involved in spiritual endeavor in order to be MORE uncertain?

Yes, we may all go kicking and screaming, but there comes a time to acknowledge that the seriousness of spiritual endeavor boils down to me, to where I honestly am, to how I honestly feel, to what I really do do. Gimpy, limpy, uncertain and hopeful me.

It may be a bit of a downer (spiritual life is so swathed in wondrous lights), but for those who are serious, there is no escape: Spiritual life is important because I am important. Dontcha just hate that? The implications are depressing: I am responsible. Every prayer, every song, every bit of wisdom, every ounce of ignorance, every heaven, every hell, every breakthrough, every barrier, every guru, every shoelace, every tear, every smile, every political outrage, every flat tire, every ... every everything. There is no something 'else' -- it is all my seriousness about me.

Acknowledgment doesn't happen overnight. That's what practice is about -- coming to terms with what cannot be escaped. However much we may balk or praise wisdom or wriggle on some 'spiritual' hook ... this is serious because I take myself seriously. The rest of it is icing on the cake.

Oh well. I guess we can find our good news message in the Zen teacher Dogen who once observed, "To study Buddhism (or any other spiritual framework, I would argue) is to study the self. To study the self is to forget the self. To forget the self is to be enlightened by all beings. ..."

When all there is is self ... how could anyone forget the self? No belief and no spiritual endeavor could ever answer that question.

But you could.
Tuesday, September 15, 2009
Gawd! Is there anything worse than seeing yourself as others see you, even when they are being nice about it?

Yesterday, I got a two-DVD set from the South Korean Buddhist Television Network. The title is "American Buddhism" and it was a richly-produced, somewhat stately eyeful. Occasionally, it got historically confused (as when mixing the Beatniks with feminism), but overall it was quite nice. There were names aplenty. The one who came across best, I thought, was John Tarrant, a west coast Zen teacher.

But it sailed along nicely. There was psychology, feminism, activism, meditation and a host of other American issues ... all touched, all touching the Buddhist fabric. The people who talked were articulate and careful and mostly worth listening to until the second disc and ...

There I was, looking like some aging, wet weasel, talking in ways that seemed hardly to be worth the recording. Idiotic! Gawd! And identifying me as a monk! Talk about embarrassing. And then sitting at the computer screen ... which is true, but still ... Remind me not to do that again! Fifteen minutes of fame (actually more like two)? Ick, ick, ick!

Tuesday, September 15, 2009
after my upbringing
An Internet dictionary defines "upbringing" this way:

noun: properties acquired during a person's formative years
noun: raising someone to be an accepted member of the community

And the same source defines "after" this way:

adverb: behind or in the rear ("And Jill came tumbling after")
adverb: happening at a time subsequent to a reference time ("It didn't happen until afterward")

Neither of these words carries much intellectual or emotional baggage. It's not as if you said "love" or "God" or "freedom" or even, assuming you were a Buddhist, "enlightenment." "Upbringing" and "after" are kind of every-day clothes, not the sort anyone would save up like a Sunday-go-to-meetin' outfit. Impressive or special, they ain't. Anyone might say "upbringing" or "after" without a backwards glance. Usage would carry with it a kind of easy assurance and certainty. These are words to use between bites of chicken cacciatore or a Big Mac.

But if "upbringing" is what is formative ... well, when the lights are low and times are quiet, wouldn't this be a time to consider with the gentle firmness of a mother: What is it, exactly, that is formed? Intellectually and emotionally, there may be some pretty slick answers -- knowledgeable, caring, piercing answers. But beyond that ... what is it that is formed? This is not a question anyone else can answer and being right is not the point ... but it may be worth answering it for yourself.

And the same might be true for the word "after." It's such an old friend, such an easy friend ... and yet: Is there really -- honest-injun really, not page-364 really -- an "after" to things? "After the darkness came the light," "After I was in love, I learned my lesson," "After the joy, I was sad," "After I worked there, I worked here," "After I sneezed, I blew my nose," "After enlightenment, samsara changed completely." At what point does "after" arrive and when it does arrive, is it really "after?"

There is no moral imperative to such questions. There won't be a quiz and no one will hit you on the nose with a rolled-up newspaper if you never consider them at all. Everyone finds his or her own way to shape the questions worth answering in this life.

It's just that -- after my upbringing -- it is one way I ask my questions.

Monday, September 14, 2009
I had hoped to get some rewriting done today, but first there was a 'procedure' at the hospital, an exploratory adventure that required an anesthetic. Except for the somewhat inept insertion of an IV tube, things went quickly and efficiently. One minute I was talking with the doctor about the parameters of his efforts and the next I was waking up in some bland, perfected cubicle.

But the anesthetic lingers, soft as a baby's belly, insisting on its powers to slow me down and set aside whatever plans I might have had. In this small adventure, I can see why anyone might become a drug addict: All the ego chitchat simply cannot compete and there is an enforced surrender: The reasons and reasonings of another time simply deflate -- softly, softly -- into THIS situation.

And as if to prove their gentle, pervading powers, I imagine the drugs were snickering softly when I realized I had burned the hard-boiled eggs.

Monday, September 14, 2009
tender and tenacious
In college, a friend of mine once summed up his disdain for a poem by Percy Bysshe Shelley with the words: "'I fall upon the thorns of life. I bleed!' ... ohhh shit!" Whatever sympathy and understanding and agreement Shelley may have wished from his readers, my friend Tom was not about to extend it.

And if you say the line out loud -- "I fall upon the thorns of life. I bleed!" -- you can sort of see what Tom meant. Nobody likes a whiner. But in order to disdain Shelley's somewhat whiny observation, it is first necessary to acknowledge its aptness. People do, in fact, fall upon the thorns of life and do in fact bleed in a variety of ways.

So on the one hand, everyone suffers and on the other, being forced to ingest odes and accolades to that suffering has an insufferable quality. "Suck it up!" and "Put a sock in it!" come to mind together with Tom's exasperated "ohhh shit!" If everybody suffers ... well, reading poetry or other artful descriptions of it is like going to depressing movies when there's probably enough depressing stuff on the street already. Tell me something I don't know!

The balance between a tenderness that anyone might seek and the tenacity required to address the thorns at hand ... well, it takes patience and courage and doubt, I think. Too much tenderness and there's the exasperated, ohhh-shit brick wall to hit. Too much control-freak tenacity and the lively and loving tenderness goes begging. Whether addressing the thorns of others or the thorns within ... it's the same thing I think: Courage and patience and doubt.

Just noodling.
Sunday, September 13, 2009
from beyond the grave
What sort of teaching would it be if, after your teacher's passing, the most you could manage was praise for that teacher or teaching? Seriously, think about it. Buddha, Jesus, Mohammed, or perhaps someone closer in time and place ... think about it: If the best you could manage was praise, how would your teachers, assuming they were any good, feel?

I see them rising from the earth in a blazing fury of shame and disgust. Shame that all their efforts had produced nothing better than some mewling dimwit. Disgust ... well, just disgust that the teachings might be perverted by perverts. Those with praise on their lips and uncertainty in their hearts might moan convincingly, "Oh, my teacher was nice. My teacher and teachings are holy. They would never beat me black and blue. They were kind, serene, clear-eyed and I can find a hundred teachings to prove it."

But from the grave, the tears and wrath are piteous. Please do not praise what you cannot actualize and do not understand. Don't be any more of an asshole than necessary! Take pity on the dead.

If all you can do is praise what is praiseworthy, how useful could it possibly be?

Sunday, September 13, 2009
On his blog, James Ford posted an intro to Zen Buddhism by a fellow in Canada, a fellow whose name I could not winkle out. There he sat in front of the Youtube camera -- carefully dressed in robe and rakusu, head shaved, meditation cushions in the room neat and clean, altar decked with pretty flowers. And for some reason, I watched it. It did have the virtue of being short.

And a small part of me was jealous: Wish I could do that; wish I could believe that; wish I could hold out a studied and sincere hand. The clip wasn't bad ... but I knew in my heart of hearts I couldn't even do 'not bad.' Or perhaps 'couldn't' was the wrong word. Maybe 'wouldn't' would be closer to the truth.

I cannot possibly express my affection for Zen Buddhism as a format for common sense. To me, it has made and continues to make sense. But maybe it's time to let the fellows with sincere convictions and occasional experience carry the ball ... stop involving myself like some nattering child in conversations I cannot improve. I am thinking of Internet Buddhist bulletin boards where, after all, people who are interested in "Buddhism" congregate. There are a lot of people who know a lot of things and everyone deserves space in which to learn, to convince themselves and, occasionally, to act. The rainbow is in good working order ... I think it's time to enjoy it.

Yes, I was jealous of the fellow with the shaved head and measured words. Greed, anger and ignorance are not some beard-stroking bullshit. True nature or Buddha Nature is not just some corporate talking point. Realization is not just some beautifully-wrapped Christmas present waiting under an imagined tree. But there comes a time -- a time after the seriousness has ebbed -- to get serious.

Me, I'll wrap this up, go do a little zazen and then get to my son's baseball game. No one with a lick of sense worries about Buddhism at a baseball game...or a Zen center either.

Saturday, September 12, 2009
a suggestion
No matter who the gods or mentors, no matter what the inspirations and hopes, and no matter what the time or place, let us all remember the suggestion made in an earlier time:

Do no do as the master did. Know what the master knew.

Certainly we all begin with beliefs and imitations. We are the children of our gods and hopes, and children learn by rote. Thought, word and deed -- by rote. But there is a time when children must grow up if they are not to become retarded.

Do not do as the master did. Know what the master knew.

Saturday, September 12, 2009
If anyone wanted to overcome the separations that life seems to dish up -- the uncertainties that nag and are nourished by distances and distinctions -- I imagine the first thing they would have to do is to get past the notion that things were somehow connected.
Saturday, September 12, 2009
out of the past
Perhaps it is simply the longing to be among those with 'shared' experience and outlook, but it certainly is true for me as age advances -- a kind of lazy arrogance that digs its heels in and hates the patience required for repetition of what 'I' know and therefore assume others will know as well. How much easier, how much fresher and how much more delightful to move in concert with others from what is known into some uncharted waters ... and not keep chewing the same old gum.

Repetition, repetition, repetition. Boooorrrrring!

And yet what you know or what I know, while old, is something that someone else may find new and fresh and delightful and full of flavor, a real and informative surprise.

For example: The Buddhist observation that greed, anger and ignorance form a triumvirate of infectious diseases. Is there some way in which anyone could miss the effects of such a time-worn observation? What ... are you blind and deaf?! And the answer comes back in a hundred ways, "Yes, I am blind and deaf." Me too. Over and over and over again ... chewing the same old gum.

What made me think of this was my own resistance to dwelling on stories from the past -- things that have happened that I found compelling and enjoy retelling. Reminiscing around some companionable stove when the past is never perfectly remembered or retold. It is old gum for sure, and worse, imaginary: Who can honestly grasp the past?

And yet too, there arises a notion that loosening the reins wouldn't hurt me any. Is there something saying that reminiscence of things long gone is any less compelling or true than trying to shape and control the activities of what are called present ... but which become past as soon as you open your mouth or engage in some thought process? If the past, present and future are all equally built on flimsy foundations -- on lies, if you like -- then flimsy reminiscence is what we've got. Not good, not bad, just flimsy.

I hate telling lies ... and here I sit, telling lies. Maybe it's better to make friends with the enemy than to be ensorcelled by enmity.

Yes, I will try to reminisce with less embarrassment and less imagining that I might tell the truth.

So here is a story I have told before and will tell again because I love it and because it bears repetition:

Even in life, Soen Nakagawa Roshi was a heavy-hitter among Zen Buddhist teachers. Tales of his quirky and wonderful behavior filled the minds and mouths of his adherents and would-be adherents. He was the real goods, not just some Zen Buddhist shill. Now that he is dead, of course, his reputation has taken on a star-studded and immaculate quality. The dead are often given a pass because, in part, they can't talk back.

But I prefer to remember Soen as a man.

On the day I choose to remember, however, I too was filled with star-studded awe. I had not met Soen before, but I knew his reputation and here I was, sitting in line, waiting to go to dokusan (a private interview to discuss the student's appreciations) with him. You bet I was nervous.

But, on that particular day, I was also pissed. Rip-roaring angry for reasons I couldn't explain then and can't remember now. I was at a sesshin, or Zen Buddhist retreat, and visiting the teacher during the long hours of silent meditation was part of the schedule. So there I was in line, waiting my turn. And pissed.

I entered the dokusan room, did the required bows and, after seating myself perhaps three feet in front of this nut-brown man, I stated my Zen practice. It was just part of the forumla. He just looked at me after I had finished.

"How are you?" he asked mildly.

"Shitty," I replied.

"Every day is a good day," he said, using words once uttered by Ummon, a great Zen teacher of the past.

That did it! I was pissed and not in the mood for any profound and wise Zen bullshit. I didn't care if the wisdom came from God almighty! Fuck that! And so I snapped,

"Every day is a good day and some days are shitty days!"

And Soen began to laugh. I mean really laugh. Laugh as I might have laughed at a really, really good dirty joke. I don't remember if there were tears running down his cheeks, but that was the level of his laughter. Hilarious! I thought he might never stop.

When he finally did stop, he looked me right in the eye and said, "You're absolutely right. Every day is a good day, some days are shitty days, AND every day is a good day."

And something in what he said popped my bubble. Without any reflection or thought at all, I was completely and delightfully stymied and stilled. There was nothing I could do but ...

Friday, September 11, 2009
gods with names
If all our gods had names, how could we possibly know them?

Friday, September 11, 2009
listen to Henry
A short story that has been amorphously begging to be noticed in my mind is inhabited by an aging woman whose husband died a while back; a middle-aged man, Priscilla, who is saving for a sex-change operation; and a large pig with a single strand of long hair waving from its right ear. The woman's somewhat too-upright mind and demeanor had always been gentled down by her husband, Henry's, wry smile when he was alive ... that, and his habit of saying casually, "things have a mind of their own." From broken shoe laces to howling gales ... a gently wry smile and "things have a mind of their own."

Young people -- the ones who will live forever and are dying to be in control of their destiny -- will reject it out of hand: Things don't have a mind of their own -- I have a mind of my own. And the intellectually-acute will likewise balk: Anything that even hints at determinism or fatalism is an anathema they will resist tooth and nail as too facile, too irresponsible, too lazy, too downright dangerous.

Nothing wrong with a little resistance ... that's what makes things grow. As Kyudo Roshi said to me once, "without ego, nothing gets done."

But also it is interesting: Things really do have a mind of their own. My expectations and beliefs and judgments may be what they are, but still, things never turn out precisely as advertised. And where the common-sensical or panicked resistance can be set aside for a moment, it's really quite nice that things have a mind of their own. A rock is not really a "rock" -- that would be ridiculous and limited. A rock has a mind of its own ... the fact that it does have a mind of its own relieves me of the burden of expecting some other outcome. Here it is, rock-ness; here it is, Adam-ness; here, whatever it is, is whatever it is.

Maybe it's an experiment worth trying, that's all I'm saying -- allowing things to have a mind of their own. The object is not to become some idjit fundamentalist cocooning himself in a safe-haven theology or morality, but just to look around and see if things aren't easier when we 'allow' them to change and dance to whatever music they hear. No need to hear their music or dance to it either. It is enough to hear our own music. After all, it's the same band playing, isn't it?

This morning, I read the word "enlightenment" on some Buddhist bulletin board. And I could feel some no-no-no rising up, as if someone had fed me an anchovy. "Don't say that," a small voice said. "Listen to Henry."

Things have a mind of their own.

Thursday, September 10, 2009
Saint Mary's spires
St. Mary's Roman Catholic Church is the biggest church in town. From a distance, its two spires help to paint the skyline here. Closer up, across well-tended lawns, it is big and brick and architecturally uninspired in my eye -- as stolid and reassuring as a pot roast.

I am no Roman Catholic and have no way of knowing what inspirations and hypocrisies fill St. Mary's pulpit or pews. But I am touched by the implications of this structure whose certainties and rhythms and bricks hold out a hand. Who but the uncertain would build such a place and who but the uncertain would inhabit it? And it is that uncertainty -- that very human uncertainty -- that towers in my mind above St. Mary's spires.

Like all the tall places in this mind, St. Mary's strikes me as a structure that is corner-stoned on whispers. What about birth and what about death and what about gain and loss and joy and sorrow? Aren't these the whispers of the mind, the foundation of our well-mortared havens? Such uncertainties come before the first brick was laid, before I built my hopes and beliefs, before the books were written and reverence was offered to those who extol one thing or inveigh against another.

It is touching and it is enough that it is touching. The uncertainties and doubts that build the spires in this heart ... who could create anything so inviting and firm? No matter the words or vestments -- that's just icing on the cake. No matter the liturgy -- that's just a pot roast in the mind.

What whisper is this?

It's touching:

Who dares to live where certainty and uncertainty are laid to rest?

Wednesday, September 9, 2009
back on track
In the past two days, two people have written and casually mentioned that they hoped to get their Buddhist practice "back on track." Neither is young. One I know pretty well, the other only slightly through email.

"Back on track." Without criticism and without tongue in spiritually-uppity cheek, I honestly wonder where that might be. If you got back on track, would that mean you were on track and would be satisfied? If you got back on track, would that mean that your off-trackness could somehow be missing or erased or anyway eased?

Sure, I can hear and even expel the windy talking about "attachments" and "ignorance" and whatever all else, but let's get serious. OK, so you screwed the pooch again and feel uncomfortable about it. In what way is that off-track? Who says so? And is the one who says so off-track? How many tracks are there in this life?

If screwing the pooch loses its allure ... well, stop screwing the pooch.

Makes sense to me.
Wednesday, September 9, 2009
Of all the miraculous abilities and strange wonders sometimes found in Buddhist endeavors, mind-reading has got to be a biggie.

A friend called the other day to say she was leaving a Zen center after a stay that included three sesshins or retreats. When I asked how she had found it all (an impossible, yet social question), she devolved, like anyone else, into a fragmented description -- one whose fragmentation probably rested on the fact that no matter how much anyone might say about such experiences, still, they can never be captured or conveniently nailed down. No matter what you say, the experience beats the socks off the description.

In the midst of our conversation, she mentioned that "roshi (literally, old teacher) always knew exactly where I was at. He could read my mind." She said this with the sort of edgy awe I associate with what happens to my gut when the magician saws the lady in two: It may be an illusion, but it sure as hell looks real to me and my cringing eek is certainly real enough.

I guess there is a kind of two-edged reaction to the notion that anyone might read our minds: On the one hand, we long for someone to know us as we truly are and on the other there is a fear that if someone can see through us, how well can we actually be keeping the secrets we camouflage with such well-woven care?

Mind-reading ... oooooeeeeeeooooo!

For those in awe, I guess there is a presumption that someone capable of mind-reading might actually want to read our minds, that they would be as fascinated and compelled by our secrets as we ourselves are. But who in their right mind would want to add my scenarios and secrets and chitchat to their own? Wouldn't that be like wishing for a stubbed toe or a case of chicken pox?

But this does not mean that what is hidden is not grist for the mill, worthy of being considered and investigated. And this does not mean that the foundations of what shapes "me" aren't pretty obvious. You know my secrets because you know your own secrets; you can read my mind because it is just your mind. It's nothing spectacular or mystical. In Buddhism, they speak of greed, anger and ignorance as overarching underpinnings of this life. How secret could that possibly be? How unusual? How out of the ordinary? Greed, anger and ignorance are in your face 24/7 ... as empirical as a stubbed toe. Making a big deal out of it is not the point: The point is, what does anyone plan to do with the obvious?

Sure, we're all mind-readers. Everyone knows about greed, anger and ignorance. The only unfortunate part is when we neglect to read our own.

Don't get me wrong -- I'm as wowed by magical-mystery-tour stuff as the next person. I still cringe when the magician saws the lady in half. And wouldn't it be kool to walk on water or fly? But what is the invitation that is extended by being wowed, by paying acute attention, by prostrating ourselves at the feet of a mind-reader? Isn't it just an inspiration to look into things a little more closely? If something actually could be kept secret or could be camouflaged, then it would be secret and we would have no way of knowing it.

So ... you read my mind and I read yours.

Now what?
Tuesday, September 8, 2009
intensity in practice
Any generalization about an intense effort is likely to fall short, I imagine, and yet the vague outlines can be informative.

Once upon a time, in college, the school shut down for a day as academia fell prey to a whopping Maine snowstorm. And on that day, a friend of mine and I played billiards. We both loved the game and a snow day seemed to be a good time to exercise that love. So we did ... from eight o'clock in the morning until midnight.

We played through the early delights.
We played through the lagging spirits.
We played through the preening.
We played through the frustration and fuck-it.
We played through the anger.
We played through the despair.
We played through the insane giggles.
We played through the aches in our legs.
We played through good shots.
We played through bad shots.
We played through our opinions.
We played through our excitements.
We played through our love.
We played through our competitive ambition.
We played through our epiphanies.
We played to the ends of the universe ... and then we played some more.

I don't remember if either of us "won."

Anyone who observed us and sensed our uni-directional intensity might have thought we had lost our marbles, that we were nuts, that there was more to life than that, that a more balanced and middle-way approach would be sensible, that such exclusivity simply did not line up with the wonderful variety and possibility of the world, that we were just ... out of our fucking minds.

And in one sense, such an observer might have been right.

And yet ....

Somewhere or other in Zen Buddhist literature, a student asked his teacher, "what is the middle way?" And the teacher replied, "it means the extremes."

Setting aside all Buddhist smarm for a moment, isn't it really so for everyone -- to choose one thing, whatever the heart most longs for, and then, win, lose or draw, to go the distance; just this one time -- no holding back, no turning back, no furtive glances over the shoulder ... despite all astute observations, despite the raging tears ... just this once, go the distance; go to the place outside the limits; find out for sure ... just this once.

And what is the payoff, the prize, the gold star for such an extremity? In words we might say (though perhaps we should not), we do such things in order to discover that there is no distance to go, that where we are and where we want to be are no different, that the heart's desire is precisely here where no intensity is required, that things have no edges. Of course any air-head philosopher can say such a thing and make it sound good, but air-head philosophers don't sweat, air-head philosophers don't rip their hearts out by the roots, air-head philosophers are, as any of us might be, not yet at home.

When he was little, my younger son Ives wrote a poem about the big trees he imagined in our backyard, trees he visited so they wouldn't get lonely. The poem said he would use his skills and energy to climb those trees and retrieve the fruit, which he described in a line that lingers in my mind as

"The most delicious fruit."


Monday, September 7, 2009
thought, word and deed
In my over-active imagination, I can see some speaker standing at the podium in front of an attentive audience and saying:

"We are all defined by our thoughts, words and deeds."

The speaker would then go on to dissect this premise, describing the ways in which thoughts, words and deeds really don't fill the bill, don't really define who or what we are in any completed way. The underlying message would be that there is a dissatisfaction with thoughts, words and deeds as a yardstick for who we are -- that there is some 'other' way, a more sensible way, a more peaceful way, a more complete way ... hell, maybe even a more 'holy' way to see things.

A new and improved definition and way of seeing: If you have a Ph.D. or wear a saffron robe, you get to say stuff like that to audiences. And since audiences everywhere may have run into the difficulties that arise from using yardsticks in their lives, perhaps a little encouragement, a little inspiration, is OK.

"We are all defined by out thoughts, words and deeds."

The problem, of course, is not so much the thoughts, words and deeds. The problem is the search for or reliance on definitions, meanings and the like. Hold a rock in your hand and you can define it until the cows come home and still the rock remains implacable, factual, unconvinced, undefined, and unmoved. Hearing this, the definition-and-meaning-filled mind runs to the other extreme ... let's eradicate all definitions and meanings; let's make no-meaning the new meaning. But this is like the atheist who must first posit God in order to proclaim the absence of God: Same problem, different approach.

All of this sounds a bit airy-fairy until you consider the uncertainties in the human heart and the longing to be at peace with whatever life is being led. If definitions don't work and meanings don't work and no-definitions don't work and no-meanings don't work ... well, what does work: What does settle the stinging dust storm that thoughts, words and deeds can kick up?

Call life "meaningful" and a "blessing," and life is bound to kick you in the pants. Call life "meaningless" and a "curse," and life is bound to kick you in the pants. Call life a relativist mix of meaningful and meaningless, and life is bound to kick you in the pants.

It's painful and tiresome, getting kicked in the pants. And to the extent that painful and tiresome quality asserts itself, well, maybe it's time to rethink things, as a disgruntled band leader might say, "from the top" or "from the beginning."

Patience. Courage. Doubt.

Christ, what a pain in the ass!

But it's better than getting kicked in the pants, I imagine.

Sunday, September 6, 2009
chastity belts
Of course I live in the United States, a notably prurient country, but sometimes it surprises me that people with perfectly-functioning penises and vaginas should become upset or outraged or embarrassed about perfectly-functioning penises and vaginas.

If anyone felt determined to insist on chastity belts (whether moral or physical), it seems to me the more appropriate appendages to target might be the hands ... although I cannot claim a ranging expertise when it comes to elbows and ear lobes.

Someone, I am afraid, is likely to take all this quite seriously.

Beware the next religious uprising!

Sunday, September 6, 2009
missing in action
As a personal matter, I wonder if the institutions and philosophies and love affairs and heroin hits and material acquisitions and emotional sandstorms and whatever all else crosses our various paths don't come cloaked in a sense that something is missing.

I need a car or a job or a relationship or a religious epiphany or a time and place that, while currently missing, would make things somehow better, more complete, more at ease. It may be missing at the moment, but I can bust my tail trying to make it not-missing.

It's not enough to hear pundits proclaim, "nothing is missing." That and a couple of bucks will get you a bus ride. The sense of incompleteness does not surrender to slick nostrums ... even if they're true.

What interests me here is not criticism or social commentary from a cocooned vantage point. What interests me is that the sense that something is missing might be true. And if it is true, what are its advantages and disadvantages?

On the upside, the sense that something is missing inspires effort and action. From the least to the most elevated pursuit, still we are inspired to action ... even if that action is just daydreaming.

On the downside, given a little investigation, there is also the recognition that attaining what was previously missing engages the sense that something else is missing -- some new goodness or car or relationship or whatever. It seems like an endless loop tape. Things are missing and no matter how hard we try or attain or acquire, still, something is still missing: If I get the car I was previously missing, it is no longer missing. But ... I really wanted an orange one. Or, the peace I envisioned and strove for has arrived. But ... it seems incapable of addressing a sprained ankle. Or ... OK, you're enlightened: Now what?

When I think of all the energy I have used up on one missing thing or another, I do wonder what would happen if, instead of striving for what was missing, I spent that same energy on wondering why and how I thought it was missing in the first place. What makes me think that peace of mind is somehow missing while in the midst of the emotional sandstorm?

Missing or not-missing ... how does that work?

Sunday, September 6, 2009
good job!
The toddler was on the cusp of things -- walking with that kind of stiff-yet-teetering gait that betokens a beginner; knowing that a response was called for when spoken to and yet unable to shape his own responses exactly. Suddenly, his legs betrayed him and he took a header onto some nearby grass. There was no wailing, but an adult who had seen it happen said to the toddler's mom, "He blocked his fall with his arms" and then, addressing the child, added, "good job, Ferdinand!" The mom, by this time on the move towards the child, chimed in with "good jooooob" in that kind of baby-talk lilt that adults can use when wishing to make the child feel loved and supported.

Good jooooob!

I'm inclined to praise and support people's efforts, but I do wonder sometimes: If everything is a good job, how is anyone supposed to know what a good job is? Is it a "good job" when gravity takes its toll and you fall on your ass? Is it worth a gold star if you took the exam but got all of the answers wrong?

One of the up-sides of the current economic downturn is that there will be less room for the unexamined, self-esteem kowtowing that took flight in the 1960's. Sure, "you're perfect just the way you are," but if all you know is how to wallow in that imagined perfection ... well, the world has some hard lessons for you...

Lessons that stand a chance of helping anyone to do, at last, a good job.

Saturday, September 5, 2009
eddy and swirl
Like the eddies and swirls of some gentle, in-coming tide, the voices along the peace-picket line could be heard. There was a triple bypass, the use of the blood-thinner Coumadin, the difficulty in finding a kitchen sink appropriate to a newly-renovated household, and the advisories of a mother who had an anti-war sign around her neck but had let her toddler loose along the sidewalk. A white-haired woman passed out fliers to passersby who would take them.

Eddy and swirl, eddy and swirl.

My next-door neighbors, Mike and Doreen, stopped to say hello on their way to the farmer's market. They are people I really like and it was nice to chat about this and that -- their son's search for a car, his possibilities for a new job, what they planned to get at the farmer's market ... eddy and swirl.

But other than Mike and Doreen, I was content to be lapped by the social connections that had little or nothing to do with the various wars or other social injustices that people had gathered to draw attention to. There were some aggrieved voices analyzing the indignities that the government had ladled out, but of course those voices were content to place the blame ... elsewhere. Eddy and swirl ....

I had little or nothing to add, so I didn't add it and enjoyed the rocking sensation that the small talk produced. Dead bodies, dead children, sick people unattended or poorly attended, money spent in ways that seem insane ... the pickets let their signs do the talking while they talked among themselves. It's a wonderful education for me. How can anyone out-talk the facts?

I stood in my robes until it was time to go home at which point some fellow hollered at me, "Brother!" and when I turned, he asked what order I belonged to. I told him that I was just an old Zen Buddhist. "Oh," he said as he introduced himself. He seemed somehow embarrassed to have thought I might be a Christian. "Bless you for coming!" he said. "Bless you too," I said as I eddied and swirled my way back to the car ... where a meter maid was looking the vehicle over suspiciously. We had a pleasant chat. She hadn't quite realized that my meter had run out and she might have given me a ticket. I begged appropriately, we both smiled and I went home.

Eddy and swirl. Eddy and swirl.

Saturday, September 5, 2009
Writing, as the old sports writer Red Smith once observed, "is easy: You just sit down at the typewriter and open a vein."

Among the interpretations that might be put on this witty observation is the notion that writing requires honesty. Good writing is, by its nature, honest. It must be honest.

And yet, at the same time that honesty is compulsory, the medium in which the writer works is by its nature dishonest. Words describe in an attempt to tell the honest truth. And yet the truth cannot be told in words. If you don't believe me, try it out. Take the word "love" or "freedom" or even "rock." You can write yourself blue in the face, open every vein in your body ... and still, if the truth be told, has the truth been told?

Honesty is required in a medium that is dishonest. Sorta like life.

Don't talk to me about "koans."

Time to get honest and stop slitting your wrists, I imagine.

Saturday, September 5, 2009
wisdom and ignorance
Wisdom, whether large or small, hidden or obvious, is simply an acknowledgment of the ignorance on which it rests. And likewise ignorance, whether large or small, subtle or gross, is simply an acknowledgment of the wisdom on which it relies.

If this is so, and I think it is, then perhaps the business of the Buddhas is nothing other than the setting aside of anything that might be called wisdom or ignorance. Imagining there could be the one without the other is like believing in Santa Claus. No one in need of nourishment would plant weeds in his garden.

And who are the Buddhas, the awake ones, the honestly wise ones?

Well, if you can't look in the mirror, don't blame me.

Friday, September 4, 2009
Mahakasyapa's smile
In Zen Buddhism there is said to have been a time when Shakyamuni Buddha stood before an assembly and admired a flower he held in his hand. His follower, Mahakasyapa, smiled faintly and Gautama chose him as a worthy successor, saying, "I possess the true Dharma eye, the marvelous mind of Nirvana, the true form of the formless, the subtle Dharma gate that does not rest on words or letters but is a special transmission outside of the scriptures. This I entrust to Mahakasyapa."

Yes, it was another time.

Yes, the names may taste strange in later ears.

Yes, the talk may sound elevated and enticing ... above and beyond some current time or place or state of mind.

And yet isn't it true? -- Anyone can smile. And I defy the wisest among the wise to find a hair's worth of difference between this smile and that, between Mahakasyapa's smile and your own.

Try it. You'll see what I mean.

Smile just one smile.

Friday, September 4, 2009
responsibility and happiness
Tonight I caught a short PBS interview with Matthew B. Crawford, author of "Shop Class as Soulcraft: An Inquiry Into the Value of Work." His somewhat skittish diffidence could not mask the apparent thoughtfulness of his arguments. As a man with a Ph.D. in philosophy who runs a motorcycle repair shop in Virginia, he seemed well equipped to make his arguments.

In essence -- and I am probably oversimplifying -- Crawford said that taking responsibility for one's life and work is a waning ability. And further, if I got it right, it is precisely that responsibility that makes people happy. This struck me as true: What else is the cubicle-bound office worker complaining about when s/he feels ground down than the loss of control and responsibility for the work s/he does?

And the other interesting notion Crawford put forward -- one I am assuming he researched -- is that shop classes in schools were largely done away with in the 1990's in order to make room for computer studies.

Computers. How wonderfully inventive on the one hand. And, on the other, how vacuous and devoid of concrete, hands-on accomplishment. I wonder how many people there are who can star on the Internet and yet haven't got a clue about how to change a light bulb or a flat tire.

Not that Crawford argued we should all go out and become plumbers. He just argued, as I heard it, that without taking responsibility for what we do, we are diminished and saddened.

An interesting little TV segment, though I did wish Crawford would have reined in his diffidence a bit: Since there is no philosophy in the world that can convince anyone that responsibility promotes happiness, you might as well say it flat out and let the chips fall where they may. No need to get the semicolons in the right places.

Friday, September 4, 2009
how the hell does that happen?
In college, I had to take biology. I was never any good with science and racked up an impressive portfolio of C's and D's to prove it. But in those days, there were requirements that brooked no discussion: It didn't matter if your self-esteem rested on pottery or basket-weaving or movie-making, still an educated person would take a certain spectrum of courses. Tough titty!

The biology course -- which I hated more roundly than I hated having to wade through the Victorian viscosities of Thomas Carlyle -- included lab sessions at which we would do things like dissect frogs or fetal pigs or look at one thing or another through a microscope. But sometimes there would be a film of some sort. When there were films, you could sort of relax in the darkness and not pay a whole lot of attention.

And one day their was a film that showed plant cells reproducing. The film was grainy and imperfect. Since there was little or no depth of field, the cells would float in and out of focus as they were pictured through some microscope lens. But you could see these blobs with their requisite nuclei and other bits and pieces. There they were, Jell-O-like and wobbly and then slowly a single blob would become pinched at its middle, as if some invisible lasso had captured it and was tightening its grip. After a while, the lasso would have its way and, instead of one cell, there would be two. Over and over again.

And from my slumped and inattentive place in the lab room, suddenly I was galvanized with a question ... filled up and gripped and at a loss for words: How the hell did that happen? Seriously ... how the hell did that happen? I really, really wanted to know. Not 'know' as some biology teacher or text might explain it. Not 'know' as some Bible-thumping zealot might explain it. I mean I really, really wanted to know. How the hell did that happen?

Instinctively, I knew that no explanation would ever suffice, which is one reason I never asked the biology teacher or a philosopher or a theologian. Any explanation would simply compound the question. I really, really wanted to know -- know in a way that exceeded all doubt, all hope, all discussion. I was consumed and left without hand-holds: How the hell did that happen?

What a wonderful thing to stumble across such a question -- something so compelling, so insistent, so edgeless, so bottomless. Maybe it's a rock on the beach or the shape of a mountain or an eyelash on a friend's cheek or a small phrase or ... who knows what it is, but whatever it is, it grabs you by the throat ... this is no fucking joke; this is potentially fatal; this is ... serious.

How wonderful. Wonderful because it calls. Wonderful because you are capable of it. Wonderful because all the blandishments of the past and future can find no footing. All the love poems and analyses and understandings are simply wiped clean and ... somehow it's important to acknowledge and make friends with this one, pristine and compelling strangle hold.

How the hell does that happen?

Thursday, September 3, 2009
Vyacheslav Molotov Toffee
I once tried to feed an onion to a cat. The cat's name was Toffee, or, more precisely, Vyacheslav Molotov Toffee, a name that may have represented my mother's short-lived affiliation with the communist party or perhaps the fact that Russia, and thus its foreign minister, had become an ally of the United States after Germany broke its peace pact with the country of 13 time zones and tried to do what Napoleon could not -- conquer a behemoth. Or perhaps the cat's name was chosen simply for its delicious lilt: Vyacheslav Molotov Toffee.

I didn't know the reasons for the name and was too young to ask. Toffee was a part of my world and I loved him, but my world was the world of a child, important in its understandings but with understandings that didn't understand much.

There were the would-be sailors who marched in the street outside the apartment where we lived in New York. They were crisp and blue and their precisions impressed me. There was an organ-grinder who appeared in the street now and then with a monkey in tow. He would crank his instrument and the monkey, dressed like a some small bellhop, would bounce around on its hind legs, and people would throw pennies from their windows. There was one truck that came by and sold blocks of ice to those who still had literal ice boxes and another that offered to sharpen knives and yet another to send coal down chutes and into awaiting basements. There was a fellow who pushed a cart and called out for people's old rags. Trolleys cost a nickel.

All this, together with my blue, metal tricycle -- a tricycle I understood I was lucky to have during a metal-starved war -- was part of my world. It was a wonderful tricycle, taking me up and down the tricycle-loving sidewalks -- sometimes speeding, sometimes turning, sometime parking, sometimes adventuring, sometimes just out for a leisurely drive from here to there. Forty or more years later, I would learn that my brother-in-law Tony, now dead, had lived right around the corner. Perhaps we had seen each other or even tricycled together, although neither of us could ever remember such a thing.

This was my world when I sat down on the kitchen floor one day to feed Toffee an onion. My logic was impeccable: Cats needed to eat; adults were the ones responsible for feeding them; I wanted to do something grown-up and loving and feed the cat; an onion was food ... therefore, I would feed the cat an onion.

The disaster was as impeccable as my logic. Within moments, my eyes were burning with tears. The onion had a logic that surpassed my own. Worse, the cat refused my offerings. I called and called him and he would approach to within a certain distance ... to be stroked, perhaps, and purr in return. But as soon as he got the drift of the situation -- the acidic, stinging, tear-stained truth -- she refused to love and trust me any more. It was a double blow, somehow ... tears streaming down my face as the onion worked its magic and a friend who refused to be my friend any longer. Onion tears were joined by tears of sorrow ... what a mess I had made of things!

"Live and learn" is easy to say, but the particulars of the education have a way of exciting tears.

How assured my world seemed when I sat down to feed Vyacheslav Molotov Toffee. What did I know of communists or Nazis or Russians? What did I know of the strong young men whose precise steps might lead them to a wavy grave? What did I know of the miners whose life-threatening efforts provided the coal that shushed down metal chutes into Manhattan basements? What did I know of the pennies tossed from windows to a man who might live and perhaps feed a family with those pennies? What did I know?

But I knew what I knew and what I knew was assured and complete and safe. It was the universe and I was, like any adult before or after, determined in some visceral way, to believe or know that it was -- and therefore I was -- true. I may smirk when I recall the narrowness of my understanding when trying to feed Toffee and onion, but it does make me wonder at how significantly different later understandings, later bits of impeccable logic, later assurances of safety and completeness and truth, might actually be.

Without wishing to threaten or upend anyone's apple cart, it leads me to the conclusion that whatever is known, whatever is relied upon in subtle or gross ways, is a very good indicator of what is not known and that a failure to make peace with both the known and the unknown is a very edgy and often tear-stained business.

I once asked the prolific science and science fiction writer Isaac Asimov what he thought the greatest scientific unknown might be. In what seemed less than a nanosecond he snapped out his response: "The mind." And I thought it was a very good answer.

So maybe, before any of us uses our impeccable logic to shape and know the world we inhabit, before we lay out a confirming and consoling smorgasbord of beliefs and philosophies and wisdoms and well-waxed cars, it might be worth the price of admission to examine and investigate this mind.

No one wants to spend a lifetime feeding onions to the cat.

Wednesday, September 2, 2009
blooming daisies
I was talking with my older son about college possibilities yesterday, suggesting that, since going to college would mean assuming debt (we're not as rich as some folks), and since he probably wasn't exactly sure what he wanted to do in life, that going to a community college for a couple of years might be a good idea ... live at home and attend a nearby college and get his feet under him a little ... at a more affordable price and less future debt.

He listened politely and then said quietly but firmly, "No, Pop. I want to get out of here."

And my heart sang and sank simultaneously. I was pleased as punch and yet somehow defeated. Yes, yes, yes ... fly! ... get out of here and spread your wings and be your own man and ... I was proud as punch. But, but, but ... how I will miss you! It will be worse than losing a leg! A bit of my soul gone out the door ... precisely as it should.

I suppose there is nothing new and novel in any of this. What parent hasn't felt the same? But since it is new and novel to me, it is new and novel, fresh as a daisy no matter how many daisies have bloomed and will bloom elsewhere.

Wednesday, September 2, 2009
building the mountain
As epiphanies go, I don't suppose it was much of an epiphany, but then epiphanies are the kind of thing that bring with them the limping bottom line, "You had to be there."

It was not a complex matter: Someone posted on an Internet Buddhist bulletin board a playful question that anyone might ask just for the fun of it: If you could meet anyone you wanted, past or present, who would it be?

I read the question and skimmed the answers -- Buddha, Jesus, Einstein, Freud, Gandhi, etc. There were few politicians and no athletic personalities, but this was a Buddhist venue, so maybe that was to be expected.

I like playful games as well as the next person. From Beer Pong to philosophy, fun is fun. But what stopped me in my tracks, however much I might like fun, was the fact that I honestly couldn't come up with someone -- some hero or heroine -- I wanted to meet.

There was nothing contrived about the reaction -- no high-ground wisdom ("if you meet the Buddha on the road, kill him!"), or ueber-adult "I'm beyond that." It was just a bolt of lightning ... I honestly couldn't think of anyone. Somehow I felt as if someone had pulled one of my teeth and I had missed the operation, though my tongue could attest to the loss. It was as if, while I wasn't looking, I had somehow left home.

My mind skittered around checking the nooks and crannies -- remembering the 'towering figures' of my past: Yes, Gautama; yes Huang Po and Rinzai; yes Ramakrishna and Vivekananda ... yes, I had a laundry list. But the only lingering longing that mildly interested me was a desire to ask the Dalai Lama, "What name do you prefer to be called by?"

Like anyone else, I have loved my heroes and heroines, mentors and guides. I have wanted to be like them and taken solace from their pointers. I have been grateful to tears, but now ....

Maybe it's just a matter of age and some doc will prescribe yet another pill that will get me back on track. I'm not for or against meeting high-profile luminaries. It might be fun and informative, but it's also fun and informative to talk with the guy at the dump -- the guy who was raised in Oklahoma, moved east at the behest of Uncle Sam, went out on a blind date, and now has been here for 60 years.

Oh well, this is all too self-referential to be very interesting or useful. You had to be there. Maybe I'll run into someone -- some hero or heroine, some learned soul, somebody who has been on a blind date -- who will stand on top of the mountain for me.

All I have to do is build the mountain.

Tuesday, September 1, 2009
If anyone could get the suffering straightened out, wouldn't this be a double blessing?

On the one hand, the grief and uncertainty might be resolved.

And, as a bonus, all the wisdom and wise men might -- at last! -- be silenced.

Between the two, I'm not sure which would be a greater cause for celebration.


Tuesday, September 1, 2009
Today I went over to the senior center to be vetted. First I had to fill out a form so that some police agency could find out if I had done anything naughty. Then I talked with a pleasant young woman about a class I had suggested I might teach. It seemed that the suggestion might bear fruit in a month or two. Writing your memoir.

When I worked at the newspaper, I often thought that applicants who wanted to be reporters should be spared all the paper work that personnel (more recently referred to as "human resources" ... ick) departments can create. Instead of paperwork, the applicant would be given two or three hours to walk down Main Street and come back with a story -- any story. If they could do that, there was hope for them. Otherwise, there might be some gentle suggestion that there were openings available elsewhere for plumbers or pimps.

It is easier to write about someone or something else than it is to write about yourself, but the plain fact of the matter is that all writing is writing about yourself.

Still, when the focus is on what almost anyone might consider their most precious commodity, themselves, there is a tendency to stray off topic, to say too much or too little, to insist that something is interesting when in fact it's boring ... or vice versa.

It's a good exercise for anyone interested in writing. Try to tell your own story, set it aside for a week and then reread it. Like as not, the yes-but's will be clamoring in the mind like a herd of bees. Or, write your own obituary.

My wanting to teach such a class is based on my assumption that everyone has a story to tell. I mean that seriously -- I'm not just talking fortune-cookie pablum. But how will anyone tell it and whom will they tell? Will they focus on the crazy uncle who has been locked in the attic for years because the tale has a kind of curiosity-arousing quotient? Or will they tell the tale of discovering the ways in which sprinkles enhanced the delight in an ice cream cone? Will they tell the secrets they have kept or will they keep things -- and thus themselves -- safe? Will they be daunted by the fact that no matter how much they tell, still they cannot tell the whole story? Will they keep things kosher or bring home the bacon? What boundaries will they set and what walls break down?

And together with this poking about, like some boar snuffling for truffles, there is my thought that those who inhabit a senior center are lonely and no longer have friends with whom to share their stories. It is important to feel at home when you are at home and one of the ways to do that is to review the terrain and be at peace with it. And when you write something down, something about yourself, a strange thing happens: On the one hand, the very fact that it is on the page seems to give it force and on the other hand it helps you to know that no one can write the truth about themselves ... or anyone else. And if this is the case, you may take yourself seriously ... but not that seriously.

Anyway ... I have a couple of ideas for how to teach the class, how to keep it conveniently structured and not too daunting or amorphous. But really, I haven't got a clue about what to do. It's fun, not having a clue.

Tuesday, September 1, 2009
living in the Twilight Zone
The local cable TV company, in its infinite goodness, recently revised (and of course 'improved') the channels we receive under our payment plan. Among the additions is a faith channel, which, since I live in the United States, seems to be largely filled with discussions about Christianity.

I have passed by this channel a couple of times on the way to more enticing fare but the other night I paused to see what the discussion might involve. There was a priest -- or anyway someone in a backwards collar -- explaining why and how it was that God could allow evil in the world. What could be more evil, he asked, than the crucifixion of the son of God? And he went on from there.

The whole discussion left me gasping for air. I felt as if I were in the third grade and had been dropped into a post-graduate course in some topic I didn't know anything about. It had a dreamlike quality -- one of those bad dreams in which you are walking down the school hallway and suddenly realize you have a history exam that you forgot to study for... a kind of eeek, floundering feeling.

What flummoxed me and made me feel totally unprepared to receive this priest's point of view was that the assumptions he made, the axioms on which he based his approach, were simply not part of my lexicon. I felt as if I had missed the earlier classes that would have made his assumptions clear and rational ... or at least understandable.

"Wait a minute," I wanted to say without rancor, "why is it again that I should believe in God? I apologize ... I forgot." Or, "by what yardstick am I to gauge and agree with the evil in this world and why -- sorry, I forget -- is that yardstick credible?" Or, "On what basis do you assume I might agree with you? I just want to understand."

The priest was so assured in his delivery that I imagined I was just not able to keep up, that there was some flaw in my understanding and education. Really, I wasn't trying to criticize ... I simply didn't know on what basis I was supposed to credit his assurance. I felt as if I were in some Twilight Zone that everyone else might understand and feel comfortable in ... but I didn't understand well at all.

I felt totally weirded out. I didn't want to challenge whatever assumptions he was making. But I did want to understand what they were and why they might be compelling. But the fact was that I simply didn't understand and after a while I changed channels to a rerun of "NCIS" ... settled down to something whose assumptions I could grasp.

Often, when someone mentions 'assumptions,' it is with an eye to undermining or revising the arguments that rest on them. But I'm not sure that is the best approach, except, perhaps, if you assume that intellectual dissection will solve something.

Better, I imagine, is to sniff and prod and find out the particulars. Investigate without the overlay of my own assumptions or hopes or beliefs. Just walk through the subject matter and see the sights. Today, for example, I read a line suggesting that the Zen teacher, Shunryu Suzuki Roshi, was "obviously enlightened."

Ummmmmm ... how would anyone know that? Without criticism, maybe it's true, maybe it's not, but how would anyone know that? Certainly anyone might think that or say that or believe that or find a book that had a laundry list of indicators for "enlightenment," but in order to know for sure ... well, isn't investigation -- as best possible without prejudice -- the surest means for getting to what's-up-with-that?

I don't know about you, but I hate not knowing what I claim to know. I hate it when I catch myself weaving some wondrous Twilight Zone based on, when push comes to shove, unexamined and unrealized assumptions. Assumptions are not bad or naughty or somehow inferior. They do moved things along, encourage action that may turn out to be beneficial indeed. But as a full-time diet ...?

I'd rather watch "NCIS."

Tuesday, September 1, 2009
anything you want
Once upon a time, a long time ago, my Zen teacher's teacher, Soen Nakagawa Roshi, said at a sesshin or Zen Buddhist retreat I was attending:

I will give you anything you want.

If someone had shot me with a Taser, I could not have been more stunned. Literally, stunned. Either this guy was full of more arrogant shit than a Christmas turkey or ....

It was the 'or' part that stuck with me.

Imagine that!

So go ahead and ask. Ask for anything at all.

I will give it to you.

Monday, August 31, 2009
new voices
The other day, a couple moved in to the house next door. Eric is a carpenter and his wife, whose name I have forgotten, used to teach emotionally difficult children in school. They have two little girls, 6 and 3, and a dog, Scout.

Nice people, it seemed to me in brief conversation.

And now the street is filled with high, young voices delighting in the excitement of riding bikes in virgin territory. It's like a symphonic tableau into which some bright new instruments (piccolos, perhaps)have been introduced.

How nice.

Monday, August 31, 2009
no more koans
From a history point of view, if I've got it right, there are 1,700 formal koans in Zen Buddhism. Somebody or other burned the rest of them.

A koan or public case is an intellectually-insoluble riddle or assertion that a Zen student consents to make his/her own -- a focal point that can inspire actualization of the student's true nature or Buddha nature. Intellectually, a koan is confounding or confusing. Intimately, a koan can rip your heart out and mop the floor with you.

Many people may have heard of "what is the sound of one hand clapping" or "what did I look like before my parents were born," but there are lots of other koans as well. Perhaps koans could be described as looking elsewhere for what is here. They are kind and skillful offerings to those whose lives are uncertain and painful.

I was never any good at formal koans. I didn't trust them enough or perhaps I trusted them too much. Whatever the case, I just wasn't any good at them and as a result, I probably lagged behind others who passed or penetrated their gimlet depths. I did know enough about formal koans to be flabbergasted that anyone would write and someone else would publish a book that I once saw on a bookstore shelf: "1,700 Koans and Their Answers." The arrogance and idiocy were breathtaking. Oh well, there is nothing so good that someone can't fuck it up.

Me, I lagged and lingered in the special education class ... among the slow learners and the spitball-shooters, the mouth-offs and the ones who would never get to the metaphorical Ivy League schools. I might show up for class (do zazen or seated meditation with some constancy), but when it came to the course work that history had laid down ... well, I was constantly wondering when the lunch bell would ring.

I was stuck with my own, limping farm, and what occurred to me over time was this: Without criticism of any other approach, aren't the koans of anyone's actual-factual life enough? True, those koans are sometimes so intimate and daunting that a little diversion -- a little seeing by looking elsewhere -- might be an excellent tool, but still, how useful is adding peanut butter and jelly to a peanut butter and jelly sandwich? Aren't the gob-stopping recognitions of death or disease or drugs or divorce (to wax alliterative) enough grist for anyone's mill? Aren't the facts that leave opinions and beliefs in the dust enough? Isn't it enough to hold a rock in the palm of your hand and say the word "rock" and still have no clue as to what a rock might be? Isn't it enough to sneeze or laugh or kiss and find the universe erased and yet ... and yet ... recognize that there is 'something' about which there is a perfect certainty and ease? Aren't such things enough of a focal point and exercise and effort. Does anyone need to wonder if a dog has Buddha Nature or not? Maybe so: Some will say I am comparing apples with apples, that everyone is in the same special education classroom, but I think you get my drift.

Oh well ... the impetus for all this writing occurred to me this morning with the phrase "no more koans." I think everyone has to prepare themselves for the time and place when koans find no footing, when a koan is like being hungry and grabbing the keys to the car, when questions and answers are OK, but not really relevant.

Be prepared: There are no questions, but you knew that, right? ... you who can sneeze and laugh and kiss, you who can breathe, you who can be born and die, you who can eat a perfectly good peanut butter and jelly sandwich, you who can weep or wax wise ...

You knew that, right? No point in flogging a dead horse. Can a sneeze or kiss or laugh be somehow improved? Is it possible to study and strain and get somehow closer to here?

No more koans.
Sunday, August 30, 2009
big mouth
The following was ascribed on an internet bulletin board to someone called I-tuan whom I can't seem to look up. No matter who said or wrote the words, they certainly made me smile this morning:

Talking is blasphemy,
Silence is delusion.
Beyond talking and silence
there's a way upwards -
but my mouth isn't big enough
to point it out.

Me and my big mouth! :)

Sunday, August 30, 2009
what have you got...?
One of the functions of aging, I sometimes think, is to pose with ever greater insistence a question that has always accompanied anyone's life -- a question that might sound like this:

Are the hard-won or artfully-confected wisdoms you have gathered enough to convince you and bring you peace? Often, in the past, such wisdoms have been employed in order to convince or encourage or deny or embrace or forge bonds with others. But with aging, the question arises, what value do such wisdoms have when there are no 'others?'

It's not, as I say, a new question. It just has a revitalized insistence as time passes and, besides the deaths of old friends and enemies, there is an understanding that no one wants to listen to some old fart reminiscing about his trip to Shangri-La: People have their own travels to attend to and reminiscences, while mildly useful, are not something to rely on or waste a lot of time listening to.

And so, for example, no woman can tell another about childbirth. No soldier can tell a civilian about war. And there is always a polite silence when Jews recall the Holocaust with the impassioned intoning of "Never again!" And even when the topic is less momentous -- a trip to California or Tasmania, perhaps -- still ... the transmission of experience is impossible and the importance of that experience, once found useful as a support or reassurance, tends to dwindle.

Is your experience good enough for you? Is your wisdom sufficient to the peace and contentment anyone might seek? Are the needs you hear whispering outside some doorway in your mind or heart being met and assuaged? No one wants to get stuck listening to old farts as a means of enriching and sustaining their lives. Everyone is thrown back on their own devices, their own wisdoms, their own inescapable lives.

What have you got when all you've got is yourself?

Sometimes I think this question is the only question anyone might attempt to answer in spiritual endeavor. There is nothing contrived or wise about it and all the holiness in the world can stick it where the sun don't shine when this question is asked. This is intimate. This is true. This is no-bones-about-it. If you cannot make peace with such a question, how can you expect to be anything other than some old fart in a rocker, playing some Shangri-La game, trying to trick yourself where trickery stands no chance? Isn't it true? -- there either is peace or there is no peace and there isn't a Shangri-La in the world that can change that fact.

So ...

What have you got when all you've got is yourself?

And the a answer, like it or not, is ...


Saturday, August 29, 2009
all around me is beauty
The American Hopis -- or is it the Navajos -- have a saying:

"All around me is beauty."

Isn't that enough -- a teaching that reaches from muzzle to butt plate?

Isn't that truly enough?

All around me is beauty.

Saturday, August 29, 2009
the news
Watching the BBC news last night, I realized again how little I find a compelling interest in the news since leaving newspaper work two months ago. If it's a well-wrought story, I'm interested. If it's quirky and human, I'm interested. But the glowing solemnity of 'being up on the news' just doesn't bang my chimes much. In one sense, I'm getting as lazy and superficial as the Twitter and Facebook crowd.

Surely there is no virtue in not knowing what is happening in the world around you. But also the question arises, when you do know, what precisely do you know?

I'm not trying to create a critique or make a suggestion. Just noticing a waning taste -- sort of like running out of interest in Cocoa Puffs.

Saturday, August 29, 2009
Did you ever spread whipped cream on a cake and get mesmerized by the swirls and peaks and valleys it was possible to create? There is something delightful and entrancing and magnetic in it, making and remaking, shaping and reshaping a beautiful terrain.

Beautiful, beautiful-er ...


Maybe hopes and beliefs and dreams are a bit like that swirly whipped cream. We shape and reshape them, make and remake them ... and it is sweet and enticing and creative and satisfying. We make them beautiful-er and beautiful-er -- always beautiful-er in the barely-stated hope that they will become, somehow, beautiful-est...the last word in beauty and perfection; the period on some sentence; the apex and omega of beauty and certainty.

Lovers, political systems, jobs, exalted states of mind, gods and goddesses ... shape and reshape, make and remake, beautiful and beautiful-er... endlessly.

Oh well, I don't really want to get off on some extended metaphorical toot here. What interests me is pretty cliche: There is the statement of the dream -- "enlightenment" or "compassion" or "emptiness" or "peace" or "relief" or "god" or "heaven" or even just a new "Ferrari" -- and then, depending on the force of that hope or dream or belief, there is the format chosen to achieve it. Without such a format, the dream may be sweet, but it just isn't very nourishing.

One of the things I always liked about zazen, the seated silent meditation format of Zen Buddhism, was that although it was a format, still, when doing it, there was no need to reshape the whipped cream ... no virtue or beauty or right or wrong or doing it the way the pope said. Of course, I was always capable of virtue and beauty and right and wrong and doing what the pope said, but that was my problem. How much whipped cream is there when sitting on your ass? Maybe quite a lot, but whipped cream ain't cake.

Dreams. God, how beautiful they can be!

Formats. God, what an education they can be!

The tragedies of life can be truly soul-searing. Greed, anger and ignorance -- to speak in Buddhist-format/Buddhist dream terms -- are up-close-and-personal. Simultaneously, the hopes and beliefs and dreams can be truly inspired and truly inspiring. But without a format, without a way to do something about it all ... well, it's just whipped cream.

I am too old to care much what format anyone might choose to employ. But I am not too old to hope that whatever format anyone might choose would be something they exercised with patience and courage ... exercised right through to the end. You want to play Buddhist, play Buddhist. You want to play Christian, play Christian. You want to sell ice to Eskimos, sell ice to Eskimos. Give it your all. Give it your heart. Give it your life. Of course you'll make an ass of yourself. Just be a perfect ass.

Dream? OK. But realize the dream.

Make things beautiful-est.

Have some cake.

Friday, August 28, 2009
where is my song?
A newspaper headline this morning says that some 20 Roman Catholic churches in two counties here will learn over the upcoming weekend that they are scheduled to close. Such closings are not new here in the United States: A dwindling parishioner base combined with a dwindling pool of priests has contributed to a dwindling flow of income.

That's probably a vast oversimplification, but this uninformed mind works with the lack of information it has. And, based on an even greater lack of information and understanding, the mind skips here and there, making up assessments that would probably fall flat on their faces if confronted with more carefully-gathered facts.

For example:

-- Buddhism, this uninformed mind thinks without a hell of a lot of supporting evidence, gained a foothold in India at least partly because of a top-heavy, ornate and ritualistic Hinduism that often left its adherents gasping for clean air ... the air that would touch their hearts, their confusions, their longings. The institutions that promised relief to honest needs got too busy believing their own publicity.

-- Christianity gained a foothold with its message of love (more rightly, "caritas") in the face of Judaism's adherence to "the law." Whose broken heart was ever healed in a courtroom?

-- The once-monolithic spreader-of-the-faith, the Roman Catholic church, saw its ascendancy whittled away by hard-charging Baptists and store-front gatherings filled with song. It was as if people said, "let me speak to God, please," and the church responded, "You can't do that without our phone company." Phone companies don't sing, but people do.

It was never a wholesale rout, one approach eradicating another, but more like a new blossom on an old tree. The blooming took place among aging flowers and nothing was ever entirely lost: New and old danced with each other, relied on each other, and sometimes tussled with each other. ("Tussled" may be too much of an understatement: Most "tussles" do not result in slit throats.)

Whatever the thinness of the sound-bite thinking above, it does make me think that individuals -- those who wish to 'speak to God' or those who wish to fill their hearts with song -- go through similar experiences of wax and wane. The institutions of the mind may be built with extravagant and heart-felt care, but invariably their foundations begin to sag as once-burnished walls lose their lustre in the face of life's actual-factual flow. Things grow stale and brittle and invite some more-carefully revised battlement. Where is my song -- the one so soft and intimate, the one immune to bickering and dress-up and demise?

Of course it may be easier to drink beer and stroke beards and dissect the reasons why 20 Roman Catholic churches might close their doors. No doubt analysis is a way of correcting past mistakes, of promising to do better in the future, of sharpening the approach, of pointing up the bricks on "the holy mother church." But doesn't experience show that what waxed in the past only serves to wane in the present? To ask this question is not to invite anyone into some gloom-riddled funk, some why-bother philosophy: That would be just another burnished wall, another place in which to protect and uphold and assert and confine.

Wax and wane, wax and wane, wax and wane ... where is my song? Where is my heart's desire? Without addressing the issue as it stands -- wax and wane, wax and wane -- aren't we all left voiceless behind burnished walls, the very walls that shape the 20 Roman Catholic churches that will close, the very walls we have constructed and repaired with such care in our own lives and minds?

Listen to the music ... wax and wane, wax and wane, wax and wane. How can you help but hear it when there is no escaping it? Wax and wane, wax and wane ....

Listen to the music and ...


Thursday, August 27, 2009
passing things along
In an effort to make sure I had the date right, I looked up my teacher, Kyudo Nakagawa Roshi, on Wikipedia today. I wanted to know the precise date of his death.

Somehow I was startled when the article came up accompanied by a picture I had taken. No one had asked to use it -- not that I mind that they did -- but it surprised me to be included on such a much-used resource. Not a very good photo, I wish it were better, but ....

I guess, in some small way, I'm famous. :)

Thursday, August 27, 2009
the one that counts
There is no inherent goodness in spiritual life.

I guess I think it's important to keep this in mind because of the enormous array of institutions and texts and salesmen in one guise or another. Their encouragements and observations may be very apt indeed and those inclined towards spiritual endeavor may look to them repeatedly for support and inspiration.

But to deduce or infer from that support and inspiration that spiritual life has some free-standing and inherent value is too much. Worse, such an inference can lead to blood-letting and intolerance of the worst sort. It is a profound error ... probably one that everyone has to make... and yet has no excuse not to correct.

Easy to say, perhaps, but not so easy to do: The only goodness and clarity in spiritual life is the goodness and clarity that its adherents -- individually and on their own two feet -- bring to it. Everything else is secondary. It is like a zero that means absolutely nothing until it has a one placed in front of it.

That one is just you.

Thursday, August 27, 2009
Today, out of nowhere, which is to say the Internet, there was a note from someone I don't know. Or, if I do know him or her, I don't know it. The note asked politely when my next book would be coming out. It was flattering to think anyone might ask the question and forced me to do what I am reluctant to do ... think about myself -- my energies, my intentions, my bank account, my reasons, my life, my hopes, my ... my, my, my.

The reluctance is what interests me. If someone else expressed a similar concern, I would probably offer all sorts of support. But when it comes to 'me' and my concerns ... somehow my heels dig in and there is little real acknowledgment: How is steering clear of what might be called ego any different from embracing and exalting it? I dislike blowhards, but how are humble-pie blowhards any different? Same shit, different day.

Kyudo once said to me, "without ego, nothing gets done." But what is it I might wish to do with a book? What thread or topic might it have? What usefulness? To whom would I address it? Why bother? And finally, would it be any fun?

The topic that interests me these days is the point at which anyone might leave the spiritual endeavor in which they might have invested so much ... behind. It's a delicate and somewhat wispy topic and yet one I think of as being important. Vital, in fact. And yet an open invitation to the spiritual-life mavens to find another reason to encourage people to remain stuck in the ever-so-sweet, ever-so-compelling, ever-so-important nonsense.

Other teachers have referred to the topic better than I ever could. Rinzai, for example, once told his monks more or less, "Your whole problem is that you do not trust yourselves enough." He wasn't whistling Dixie.

A book:

-- I suppose there is enough material to collate out of the blog and elsewhere, but since my writing is getting sloppy, I would have to reread and reshape and respell it all ... adding and subtracting and ... what the hell, it's all old news.

-- The other book was self-published, meaning I paid for it. I'm not sure these days that spending money on such an adventure is the smartest thing to do financially. If I could come up with something that had steamy sex scenes on every other page, if I could throw myself into some ersatz 'contemporary,' hot-button issue, if more than three people would underline and dog-ear the pages ... well, maybe I could make the money back. Shopping for a publisher in an era when fewer people read and fewer still read books about obscure topics ... that would be more energy than I'd be willing to expend. I'd rather scrounge up the $2,500 or whatever it is and just pay for it.

-- On the up side is the fact that I get pleasure from giving what I can. I'm not sure why this is a pleasure, but it is a pleasure. Maybe it's just wallowing in some warming feedback, but somehow that doesn't seem to cover the matter. Some people seemed to get some honest pleasure out of the other book, so ....

-- I do have the time to do the work, but somehow having the time is as much a weight as it might be a lubricant. When I had less time -- when I had an eight-hour-a-day job, the importance of the book was more light-hearted ... serious, perhaps, but not that serious. Given more room to focus, there is something gummy about it all.

-- On the humorous side, I do have a notion for the cover of the book. I like color and design and I can fairly see it in my mind. It's just the shit that goes between the covers that has me flummoxed and ego-tripping. I'm like a kid who dreams of being a professional ball player -- can damn near taste it -- and yet spends little or no time on the field. What an idjit.

Oh well ... that's probably enough ego-tripping for one morning. With luck, no one else will be so silly.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009
the smart money
When everyone lives and talks and thinks according to sound bites, will our lives be any less confounding than if we ingested tomes, spoke in polysyllables and knew where all the semi-colons went?

Mesdames et messieurs, faites vos jeux!

Place your bets, ladies and gentlemen!

Wednesday, August 26, 2009
Wonder Bread diet
Yesterday, I went to a Korean restaurant in a nearby town. I had been wanting to go for years and somehow never managed to get there. There hadn't been time in the past; no one else in the family cared much for dietary experiments; and whatever time I had had been consumed with other things. There were 'reasons' why I hadn't gone, but yesterday I went there for lunch with a Columbia University prof who is renting the house next door for the summer.

The place itself was unexceptional, set back from a parking lot along an arterial road between the college community I live in and another, larger college community west of here. Inside, without paying a lot of attention, I had a sense of neatness and wood -- booths and an area set aside for those who wished to sit at a low table or two.

My companion and I sat in a booth and when the waitress came, he ordered something that would suit his vegetarian tastes. I didn't look at the menu, but asked the woman if, were the restaurant in Seoul, the establishment could cook food that would please the local residents. She said she thought so. And at that point I asked her to bring me something -- anything -- that I might eat in South Korea. Something 'real' and not just something that might please an American palate and provide income to a restaurant dependent on Americans... no fish and no kim chi, please, but otherwise, anything would do. Our neck of the woods is filled with restaurants that people like to praise, but when I once asked a Chinese woman who ran a restaurant with her husband if she could afford to serve real Chinese dishes, she said no, that would put them out of business. They served white-bread Chinese food. I would rather detest something honest than make believe with Wonder Bread.

Anyway, the waitress went away and came back shortly with a pot of veggies for my friend and five small, concave dishes on each of which was a small bit of this and that ... three chunks of potato; some pickled cucumber; some sprouts; something I think was julienned turnip; and something white and crunchy, radish maybe. Each had its own sauce. Then came the main plate -- broccoli, cabbage and bits of chicken in a nice sauce. There was also a small bowl of rice. I ate it all ....

And only later did it occur to me how much like going to a Zen center for the first time it all was. There had been the longing to go; the reasons for not going; the opportunity to go; the conditions I imagined I could impose on going; and finally the actual experience of being there and eating.

I asked the waitress to bring me something 'real' in much the same way I suppose I must have asked inside myself that the Zen center 'tell me the truth' or something similar. But ask as I might and trust as I might, how could I ever know that the food I ate yesterday was food anyone in Seoul might actually eat? How could I know that what the Zen center provided was not just more Wonder Bread, more philosophical pablum, more eyewash?

However much importance I put on my trust and my wish and my life, there was just no way in hell to know that I was being served the truth. Oh yes, I could praise the food as I praised the Zen center, but that praise had more to do with my own needs and less to do with the truth. I wanted to be in control and the plain fact was that being in control was impossible. Whether someone told me the truth or a lie ... I was in no position to know that. Trust or distrust -- what the hell did that have to do with experience?

But the food was good -- nourishing and savory no matter what a Seoul businessman or a 100-year Buddhist might say. So if Wonder Bread was what I received -- at the restaurant or the Zen center -- I believe I'll stick with a Wonder Bread diet.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009
story tellers
I wonder if it's true:

Story tellers are thieves and whores by nature.

Except when they are thieves and whores.

Whether true or not, it has the virtue of being a short story.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009
ah, sweet mystery of life :)
Barney wrote to say that his daughter, Anke, had had a baby girl ... in London, I believe. Barney, an army friend of many years ago, is now an "opa," as the subject line of his email indicated. The baby had the good fortune to be born without a name, a saner way of life that is unlikely to last. She remained unnamed at the time of Barney's note.

Birth, joy, relief, fatigue, reconfigured circumstances, and everyone gets a new name. Barney becomes an "opa" or grandfather, Anke becomes a "mother," her husband becomes a "father," the little girl becomes a "daughter" and the religio-philosophical industry finds one more reason to expound on the name, "mystery" or "blessing" or something similar.

An Internet dictionary partially defines a mystery as

▸ noun: something that baffles understanding and cannot be explained

And yet here she is, a brand new baby girl. A fact. Is there some inherent need to make a mystery out of facts? Are the facts too daunting or too boring ... so we need a TV mini-series or a profound philosophy to ice the cake? What, exactly, is wrong with the facts?

The beard-stroking, name-gathering crowd will intone that "I" or "me" is the problem. And it's OK as far as it goes, but facts don't accede to philosophical or religious mysteries. The little girl wails in her crib ... it seems unlikely that philosophy or religion, joy or sorrow, past or future will ever have anything very useful to say about that.

It's a mystery that brings to my impolite mind the old insult, "he's so dumb, he'd fuck up a wet dream."

The baby is hungry. The baby needs to be changed. Anke needs to sleep or weep. The dad needs to be ecstatic or confused. Barney needs to wonder at his new "opa" status. The wise (wo)man needs a mystery.

What's wrong with the facts, for heaven's sake? In what way are they incomplete ... or even complete for that matter?

One of my favorite poems appeared in the military paper Stars and Stripes back when Barney and I were in the army together. It was authored by "anonymous" and it always seemed to me to state and solve the mystery nicely ... if there ever had been one:

The baby is
As soft and sweet
As if she were Monday, August 24, 2009
like it or lump it
My daughter, 23, younger son, 15, and I just came home from seeing "Inglourious Basterds," a movie that came out Friday and is a fantasy tale, on the surface, about an assassination attempt on Adolf Hitler and his inner circle.

It was, well, unusual ... which is a wonderful, wonderful relief after the white bread movies in which, except for the specific dialogue, you can pretty much tell the tale after the first five minutes. Quirky, threatening, smooth, evil ... with only one face I recognized as a movie persona ... Brad Pitt, whose role was part of the tapestry rather than being front and center and glistening. The actors who played Goering, Goebbels, Borman, Churchill ... all were refreshingly not plaster-mold look-alikes ... and thus, for some reason, were all the more credible. And the other parts, however small, were each more credible than average.

Quentin Tarantino, the director, was the same fellow who made "Pulp Fiction" and both "Kill Bill" movies, two other quirky tales.

In the car coming home, my daughter said she wouldn't sit down to see it again, but agreed it was unusual. My son, too, was ambivalent. As, I guess, was I. But I certainly do like things that are themselves whether I like it or not rather than being something that panders to what it may imagine I want. Pimping, visionless story-tellers don't appeal to me much.

Monday, August 24, 2009
thinking about everything
Last night, as I was brushing my teeth before bed, my younger son came into the bathroom and asked if I had anything that would help him sleep. "I just have a hard time falling to sleep. I keep thinking about things," he said. And when I asked him what he was thinking about, he replied with a kind of wonder and despair, "I dunno. Just thinking about everything."

The naked vulnerability, so carefully walled up in later years, was touching. Who hasn't been a teenager consumed by the confusions about where to go, what to do, how to be? And who hasn't, at whatever age, lain in bed thinking without any satisfactory defense about "everything?"

I gave my son a little cough syrup because cough syrup seems to be a largely psychological sleep aide for him. Not something to do every night, but when the occasion calls out, well, maybe it's OK once or twice. He believes it. He sleeps.

But today I did what I never imagined myself doing. I called him over to the computer and showed him the first of the Ten Oxherding Pictures with translations/interpretations rendered by Trungpa Rinpoche. The pictures are 800-plus-year-old woodblocks depicting a Zen Buddhist path to enlightenment. I didn't get into any of that with my son. All I wanted him to know was that people had been wrestling with "everything" forever, that he was not alone and that the breathing exercises I had suggested he try were a part of getting a good night's sleep.

I read him Trungpa's take on the first picture. Who knows how useful it was? My son listened with that papa's-talking-just-be-patient-and-he-will-finish-shortly look. Who knows? Anyway, here's Trungpa's take, which I thought was more accessible than some:

The inspiration for this first step, which is searching for the bull, is feeling that things are not wholesome, something is lacking. That feeling of loss produces pain. You are looking for whatever it is that will make the situation right. You discover that ego's attempt to create an ideal environment is unsatisfactory.

Somehow I was surprised that I might ever lay such stuff off on one of my children. Somehow it was OK for me -- I'm a big enough fool to need it -- but laying it off on others...?

Strange how the teachings we admire reassert themselves in revised and newly-lighted ways. Sauce for the goose is sure enough sauce for the gander.

Monday, August 24, 2009
the wonder of it all
There was a time early on in my spiritual adventure, when I purely marveled.

A weirdly-dressed fellow in Ecuador and a pink rascal like George Fox and a serene anchorite in ancient Nepal and a woman snowbound in those high mountains and a shaman in some dense jungle ... all of them enunciating directions and suggestions and understandings that linked up in my limited reading or hearing experience. Saying the same stuff ... imagine that! As the connections asserted themselves for me, I was warmed and relieved. For all the religious persuasions and rituals in the world, still these men and women spoke the same language.

As these links forged themselves in my mind, I jumped on the bandwagon enunciated in the Vedas as "Truth is one. Wise men call it by many names." Ecumenism made sense. How could anyone be so blind (as blind as I myself had been in the past) to the deep connections, the profound oneness? The wounds of disparity appeared to be on the mend.

Of course it didn't work. I was just bleeding in a new and improved way.

Nowadays I forgive the easy, intellectual marvels of 'connection' but wonder that I should ever have been so delighted and relieved. I guess it was an intellectual stepping stone, maybe even necessary as an inspiration to act.

So I acted ... and found, of course, that anyone running around asserting 'oneness' and 'connection' and 'ecumenism' (assuming they're determined and honest) will invariably face the difficulties of diversity and separation and eyewash. The intellect just doesn't reach the places anyone might honestly long to go.

But the intellect can inspire action, so perhaps the collected wisdoms and delights of the past have their uses. Fiddle-faddle may be a pretty good inspiration ... something that will lead to some no-more-bullshit experience.

Cuddling and kissy-face really are nice, but they are better reserved for your house cat than for a serious and laughing spiritual life.

Monday, August 24, 2009
the servant's lot
Nestled today among the spam offerings for hot stocks, bigger peckers and an enormous windfall from Nigeria was a subject line that read, "It's easy to find a maid." And in today's disintegrating economic climate, I imagine it is.

Some social observer once said that the most profound change in the 20th century was simply "the loss of servants." And if you insist on picking a "the most," I guess that's as good as any. Its ramifications billow outwards like the ripples that follow when a rock is dropped into smooth water.

Funny how no one wants to be a servant and yet everyone indentures themselves to one thing or another. A servant is someone who surrenders control, who sacrifices something in order to gain something else. And in that surrender and sacrifice, dreams and beliefs are reshaped, remolded, and reconsidered. It can be pretty painful or it can be well-camouflaged enough so that the sense of being a servant is hidden or gussied up to look fine.

One day, in the chummy bank where I do business, I found myself facing a new teller, a woman in her 40's, I'd guess. When I said by way of conversation that she was new, she said she was -- that she had worked in a brokerage house previously, but that she had been laid off and that finding similar employment was all but impossible. So now she was a teller. Her well-cut, quiet clothes and careful coiffure all bespoke another time and place. But she too had to eat and pay bills and support the choices she had made. So....

Maybe, in good times or bad, everyone works pretty hard not to become a servant, not to relinquish control, not to slip down the rungs of some important ladder. Superficial commentaries may suggest that this is all "keeping up with the Jonses" -- the car, the house, the bank account, the 'friends,' the education, the dog, the kids, the beliefs, the color coordinations ... -- but social commentary has a way of indenturing people to yet another bit of control: If you can explain it, then you're in the catbird seat. But if that's true, how come the catbird seat always seems to have an artfully-placed thumbtack on it; how come what anyone might seek in their efforts to avoid becoming a servant is always ... somehow ... not quite perfect? How come it -- whatever 'it' is -- seems to be just out of reach?

Better than explanations and elevations is just plain old investigation, I think. It doesn't matter if someone makes a foolish mistake and indentures him- or herself to things that really don't work very well. Hell, everyone goofs. But it is the course set when correcting those goofs that makes a difference. Imelda Marcos, the one-time strong-lady of the Philippines, was said to have had something like 3,000 pairs of shoes (or was it 6,000? I don't recall). I wonder if, on bad days, she went out and consoled herself by buying another pair of shoes. 3,000 pairs of shoes may seem like an insane way to live, but I think it only seems insane to those unwilling to look in their own closets. How many of us replenish or augment our long-standing collections when the road gets bumpy? And how well does that work?

And the really irritating thing about trying to revise or escape a 'servant' status is that we must indenture ourselves yet again -- find a course that suggests some surcease or mastery and then try it on for size. Strangely, there is no way out but in. There is no way but the servant's way, no way to get smart without being a fool.

Another pair of shoes ... well, shiiiiit!

But this time, perhaps we can examine with more care, more attention, more willingness, more courage, more patience, more doubt, more forgiveness. Do 'servants' work? Do 'masters' work? Whose ladder is this and what height does it scale? It's all a new kind of work, a new kind of servitude, but ... what's the alternative? Another pair of shoes? Another hairdo? Another get-together with gourmet finger food? Another one-night stand? Another holy text? Another beating at the hands of some 'servant' or 'master?' Another round of good works?

Some servitudes work better than others. Some masteries hold water. And which ones are they?

If I had to guess, I think I'd say that attention and responsibility offer the best chance of success.

Not that success has much to do with anything. :)

Sunday, August 23, 2009
did I make this up?
In the wispiest recesses of my memory, a place where the names and words are so thin that I'm not sure they aren't just a figment of my imagination....

Several heavy-hitter Hindus (Vedanta, I imagine, since I was interested in that) once got together to discuss the various ways that might lead to understanding. And they agreed on three fruitful approaches, perhaps relating to the various yogas. But then, because they were not mere philosophers, they agreed as well that there was a fourth way ... the way of pure evil.

Yes, they agreed.

And they all agreed as well ... not one of them was willing to try it.

Bless their hearts for thinking things through. And bless their hearts as well for shouldering such a burden.

Sunday, August 23, 2009
an unexamined life
The Athenian philosopher Socrates was quoted as saying, "An unexamined life is not worth living."

I wonder if this observation is true or if it is just the arrogant perspective of someone who has not sufficiently examined his own life.

Saturday, August 22, 2009
the silence of the clouds
Aren't we fortunate that clouds don't make any noise -- don't giggle or whisper or laugh or complain or chatter endlessly about some inane or profound topic? If they did make noise, perhaps our lives would be even more like sitcoms than they already are?

Maybe their teaching is just too noisy as it is?

Saturday, August 22, 2009
ohne mich
Went to the hospital today to visit Donna, a neighbor who lives with her partner Kathy and their daughter Eliza a couple of houses down from here. Bar none, they are some of the nicest people I know.

Before I went to the hospital, I asked if anyone wanted to come along. Everyone seemed to be busy, but my younger son, a 15-year-old with a kind heart, said it straight out: "I don't like hospitals much." His heart was willing to do something kind, but ... ohne mich, as they say in German: "count me out" or, more literally, "without me."

I took flowers and walked through what seemed like miles of deserted halls (the hospital went on a building spree and cut a lot of staff to help pay for it) before coming to Donna's hermetically sealed lair ... a place popping with people and good cheer. Donna was healthy enough to get up and give me a hug and Kathy joined in, so I felt as if I were the one getting the goodies.

But I could sympathize with my son. Hospitals are places of frailty and mortality and recuperation and the need for help. What teenager -- hell, what adult -- wants to be reminded of chinks in the much-constructed armor of competence and control and can-do and I'm-all-right-Jack? Duck and cover!

Ohne mich ... impossible stuff. But that doesn't mean we can't try pretty hard, even when the topic is not so threatening.

Saturday, August 22, 2009
I was reading a Theravadin Buddhist bulletin board just now and noticed, not for the first time, the use of the word "venerable" to describe monks (and nuns I hope) who have dedicated themselves to what Buddhists sometimes call the Dharma.

What interests me about the word is the human willingness/need to see, extol, or even criticize a targeted set of actions or persuasions. Doesn't everyone do this at one time or another? Isn't it purely human and comprehensible and somehow quite touching? I think it is. From skinhead racism to the serenity of a saffron robe to the wealth on Wall Street, something or someone is up ahead or shining on the mountaintop.

Critics may open fire with 'mindless-credulity' barrages, but how does this differ from the mindless credulity they target? Another veneration, another elevation, another inspiration.

Hope and belief ... I guess that's where things begin in the world of what is venerable. Sometimes I feel sorry for the monks and nuns who may be the object of veneration ... what a burden, not least because they may come to believe that they are somehow deserving of it. (Cops, priests, shrinks have similar difficulties). But which of us has not made a bed we are then constrained to sleep in?

I guess the best anyone might do when it comes to veneration is to learn to forgive it ... not accede to it, necessarily, but forgive it. Love is such a compelling force. Belief is such a compelling force. Hope is such a compelling force. And each has the capacity to rouse up some pretty good intention and action. Surely veneration is not something to look down on or try to escape.

But to accede and cling without investigation would be to contradict and eviscerate the very goal that veneration seeks. Veneration has an object and objects are separate from subjects. And what subjects long for is an erasing of separation from the venerated object.

Keep an eye on it ... that's all I can think.

Friday, August 21, 2009
doesn't ANYTHING last?!
Last night, my older son headed out the door to hang out with some friends. The two of us did the small salutations and farewells that attend on such and exit and the front door closed behind him. About 20 seconds later, the door reopened and he returned to report that the porch-door handle had broken off in his hand. He held up the evidence to prove it, a three-inch brass or brass-like piece of mildly-ornate metal that once had served as a lever.

Busted. Needs to be fixed. My mind segued into the "how to fix or affix a door handle" file box. It was not a big deal, but I get sick of fixing things, whether literal or mental. That crankiness expresses itself in part with old hip pocket aphorisms that are pretty much true: "Do it right the first time" or "measure twice, cut once," or even the old irritation, "if you want something done right, do it yourself."

Intellectually, the old Buddhist observation is easy to agree with: What has composite parts is bound to come apart. Whether it's door handles, maple trees, love affairs or grand philosophies, isn't it just true? Things come apart. But 'intellectually' doesn't really cut it when it comes to the honest irritation or hopefulness anyone might feel: Doesn't ANYTHING last, for Christ's sake?!

Upstairs in the medicine chest, there is a pair of finger/toe-nail clippers. When I was a teenager, my girlfriend's father gave them to me as a quasi-joke one Christmas. The message was clear: Stop chewing your fingernails. And now, almost 50 years later, when I have stopped chewing my fingernails, those clippers still work fine. They may be doomed to fall apart sometime, but in the meantime, well ... not bad; pretty good: They promised and delivered. Not many things in life like that.

And for my purposes, Buddhism is about like those clippers ... sure, they'll go poof, but in the meantime, well, not bad; pretty good. Others may do celebratory dances and offer up profound sacrifices to Buddhism's wisdom and depths, but I'm too old for that shit. As with the clippers, I'm just happy something should deliver, more or less, on its promises. I'm content with the door-handle file box marked "Buddhism." When things need fixing, it's pretty handy. It even has the capacity to fix my crankiness when things need fixing, when the foot-stamping child explodes, "Can't anyone do anything right?!" or "Doesn't ANYTHING last, for Christ's sake?!"

Doesn't anything last?

Well, for starters, nothing lasts.

And if nothing lasts -- honestly and not just intellectually -- well ....

Crankiness is not all that bad, is it?

Friday, August 21, 2009
interesting teaching
Did you ever notice when you were in bed, headed towards sleep, that the mind seems to enter an easy-going realm where you weren't exactly thinking, but thoughts sort of unfolded all by themselves and you were more or less along for the ride?

And sometimes, within this not-really-awake-and-yet-not-really-asleep arena, there is some very pleasant scenario that starts to play out. There is nothing contrived or holy or esoteric or greedy about it ... it's just very pleasant and you are happy to be there, whatever the topic.

And then suddenly you have to cough.

And you do cough.

And the story line and the pleasure it brought are interrupted. And then after the cough, no matter how hard you try, you simply cannot recapture the story line and, more important, the pleasure? It's as if someone had grabbed the remote and switched channels right in the middle of a TV show you were enjoying.

Interesting teaching.

Thursday, August 20, 2009
a fine, grey dust
Yesterday, I was listening to a reporter talk on the car radio. His tones and words were measured and thoughtful as he described, among other things, being present at the unearthing a mass grave in Iraq. It was hot and he was slathered in suntan lotion. As the digging progressed, a small wind came up and suddenly he realized he was being covered in a fine, grey dust kicked up by that small wind that wandered around the excavation. The dust clung to his sweaty, lotioned body. And the dust, he suddenly realized, was composed of what was left of the dead. He was "twelve hours away" from any shower and there was no escaping it -- being covered by the dead, facing the dead, being the dead.

And although I didn't hear him get into it at any length, it was apparent from his words that he was struck by how ineffectual his linguistic profession was at transmitting to others the horror and horribleness of what he had experienced. It was overwhelming and obscene. He was a good reporter who had won kudos for previous efforts and yet he was forced to admit the limits -- the somehow uncaring limits -- of his craft. Words simply didn't work when measured against the experience of a fine, grey dust. The reporter took a small, oratorical side road and talked a little about the word "evil," but how could even "evil" compass or transmit the fine, grey dust of the dead?

If anyone says the word "dead," others are likely to perk up and listen, shudder and emote. Awful, awful-er, awful-est ... and yet....

Doesn't the same thing happen when a friend or acquaintance or even we ourselves speak of the experience of love or the beauty of a sunset or the deliciousness of a good meal or some burst of joy? These may be large and small 'peak' experiences, and yet the experience cannot be transmitted. I might desperately want you to know what I am talking about and to know it as I have known it, but the facts -- the somehow uncaring facts -- make it impossible despite all our verbal hugs and kisses. We compromise with the words and may pretend to be satisfied, but the compromise whispers from some strangely shadowed place. The loneliness of experience may be more than we can stand ... and so we compromise, despite the fine grey dust of experience.

On paper or on the Internet, it may be easy to write about such things, but in day-to-day doings, there can be a ferocious resistance. Beliefs spring up and are 'shared.' No, no, no ... this is no compromise: This is the truth! It can all be fierce and bloody, wily and subtle. But somehow, for the fortunate ones, there is some attempt to get things straight, to cast light upon the shadowed corner and look. The encompassing grey dust of experience insists, and no verbal shower can wash it away. Credulousness, however refined, however loving, however virtuous, however convinced, is not enough.

With precise but gentle words, my Zen teacher, Kyudo Nakagawa Roshi, once addressed this issue as the two of us sat across the kitchen table. We were drinking tea at the time and his example was so homely, so soft, and so 'obvious' that it would have been easy to pass it by, easy to express some verbal 'understanding' and get on with more 'important' things. It was such a small suggestion ... so distant from the 'peak' experience of a mass grave and a fine, grey dust; so dismissable when compared to love or joy or bliss or even a sunset ... it left to the listener the decision as to whether to take its implications seriously. It was caring without being tricked into something called 'sharing.'

Kyudo said: "Look. If you ask me what tea tastes like, I cannot tell you. But if you drink tea and I drink tea, then we both know what tea tastes like."

Sipping the fine, grey dust of this moment.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009
creepy old man
Today, in another Internet venue, I received a note that told me to fuck off; told me I was a creepy old man; accused me of gathering sycophantic Zen groupies; and accosted me for expounding a reductionist approach to Buddhism.

As with all heart-felt and honest suggestions, I found myself listening.

The "fuck off" part struck me as sensible.

As to creepy, I don't seem to frighten animals and small children, so I guess I'm not doing a very good job at that. The 'old' part I have to accede to.

As to gathering groupies ... well, deference is not one of my favorite fact, it is one of my least favorite things. On the other hand, I see no reason not to state my views.

And as to a reductionist approach, this seemed to have been occasioned by the question and observation:

Perhaps the question is this: Without relying on the words or works of others, what is this "enlightenment" you refer to?

You're right ... it is entirely conceivable that I -- like you -- am doing no more than playing with words.

But that still leaves the question unanswered, right?

And perhaps the question is too pointed or I am too lazy, but it seems to me that anyone who is serious about their spiritual endeavor invariably boils things down, after all the non-reductionist discussion, to a single, searing question. Not my question, perhaps, but their question -- the question that demands in very practical terms to be answered. If you can talk about "enlightenment," for example, doesn't that make you wonder what it actually means, what experience it is based on? If you can use the word "Buddha," doesn't that make you wonder what it might actually mean ... not by words and descriptions, but by experience? Is it reductionist to ask such questions? Maybe so. But it just strikes this creepy old man as common-sensical and a good enough reason to tell anyone to "fuck off."

It was all nice and bright and made me think.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009
chocolate for breakfast
Once, when encouraging a correspondent, the Zen teacher Ta Hui wrote in part, "stop praying for relief."

At another time, the Vedanta Hindu, Sri Ramakrishna, was quoted as saying, "If you take one step towards God, God takes 100 steps towards you."

And, in a twist on Mohandas Gandhi's words, the latter-day bumper sticker occasionally suggests, "Be the blessing you seek."

I guess these bits and pieces floated into my mind in part because I was thinking about what a faker I have been in Zen Buddhism ... trotting along for 35-plus years, making the moves, mouthing the words, learning the stuff, and yet never really giving 100 percent ... or, as the sports wizards sometimes say, "110 percent."

The efforts might have seemed OK from someone else's point of view, but for me, something was held back and one way to express that reluctance is to look into some small, shadowed corner and recognize that I had been "praying for relief." Whispering urgently in a place kept locked away like some crazy aunt in the attic. That single dust mote of not-quite ... well, where there is one worm in the apple barrel, the rest of the apples need to take warning.

Faking it ... holding back while asserting, implicitly and explicitly, that these efforts were un-fake or somehow true. How much different was I from some mega-mouth in a mega-church, spouting the 'good' word while raking in the dough? Subtle and gross ... faking it.

As children, maybe everyone galumphed around the house in their parents' shoes, pretending to be grown-ups. And then they grew up and the shoes fit -- they were indeed grown-ups. The coziness of this metaphor is seldom examined beyond the obvious. Beyond the obvious satisfaction of being called a "grown-up," there is a fact that any grown-up with two brain cells to rub together knows: There is no such thing as a grown-up, no such thing as the perfectly competent and contented and powerful human being.

From a kid's point of view, being a grown-up would be kool: Things would be much better and you could eat chocolate for breakfast if you wanted. But eating chocolate for breakfast -- or owning a zippy car or a well-heeled lifestyle or even following a 'spiritual' path -- does not really fulfill the dreams a child might dream. Grown-ups, the grown-ups know, is a myth. There is no period, no fershur period, to put on the sentence. And maybe this recognition is part of what inspires a seeking mind and heart -- a mind and heart that may try on the galumphy shoes of spiritual endeavor.

This endeavor, this donning of galumphy shoes, may be attended by a past littered with regret. Sometimes specific. Sometimes subtle. Either way, something is somehow missing or awry and the search begins for some god (some heart's desire, some peace, some way that will not lead to further regret, some relief). The unfulfilling ability to be a mega-mouth in a mega-church is well documented ... there has to be a better mouse trap, a kinder, gentler, clearer and most of all less-phony way. If books are not enough and institutional invitations are not enough and even I am not enough ... what then is enough?

Looking for god in my galumphy spiritual shoes. Try, try, try. Sweat. Fall into a swivet. Swoon with bliss. Find openings that close as soon as they open. Galumph, galumph, galumph. It's all very important because, let's face it, I am important. But no matter what the alloyed efforts may be ... still, I am galumphing along, learning a little, unlearning a little, delighting a little, regretting a little ... taking a faltering step or two towards god, towards my heart's desire, towards being a grown-up, towards relief, towards ... well, whatever it is, we can still eat chocolate for breakfast once we get there.

Sometimes I think people forgive themselves far too easily.

Sometimes I think people do not forgive themselves easily enough.

But whichever the case, the forgiveness of people is not the same as the forgiveness of god -- the forgiveness of this heart's desire, the forgiveness of what is. Extol or excoriate ... there is no forgiveness, and that, enfin, is a relief.

"If you take one step towards God, God takes a hundred steps towards you." Perhaps. But I have a hunch that if you never took a single step -- not one single galumph -- then God would get lonely and take 100 steps towards you anyway. Nothing is required. No one seeks relief. It is just the way of the world, I suspect. Fake it, don't fake it -- what's the difference? Despite any and all efforts, god will come for you ... your heart's deepest longing and understanding will come for you. S/he just wants a little company, a small outlet of expression. And there you are, waiting with open, if uncertain, arms ... the very relief you imagined you sought...and yet the need for relief is no longer relevant.

"Be the blessing you seek." The bumper sticker suggests there was some choice in the matter, some goal to attain, some other dimension to enter some ... some woo-hoo chocolate for breakfast. But I always like the line, "Be careful what you pray for, not because you may get it but because you will."

Yes, it is good to work up a good skill set, learn the habits that improve the galumphing stride. No point in falling down if you don't have to. But let's not get confused. It will come for you even as you come for it. No choice. No relief. No blessing. No curse. No faking, no lack of faking. No big deal.

The sun comes up in the morning and, after taking a leak, it may be time for breakfast.

Chocolate anyone?

Tuesday, August 18, 2009
No one likes to be scared. It's too ... what? ... scary, I guess.

But isn't it true that in order to be scared, you would have to be afraid of losing something, something you would rather not lose?

No one likes to be scared and sometimes they will go to great lengths to avoid it, as if being scared were somehow not courageous enough or good enough or strong enough. But I don't think there is anything wrong with being scared. In fact, I think it is pretty useful.

If you get scared and worry about losing one thing or another, isn't that a pretty good time to wonder what it is you are scared of losing and, further, whether you actually owned or could hold onto it in the first place?

Just noodling.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009
stop being a pest
Somewhere or other (my memory really sucks), the Zen teacher Ikkyu teed off on (approximately), "all these Buddhas running around pestering people." The implication of the half-remembered/badly-remembered line was that bothering people was not a useful or particularly honorable pastime.

Stop being a pest.

On the other hand, what other function do Buddhas have if not to be a noodge and a pest ... the Jewish moms of the Buddhist world?

Selling ice to Eskimos ... what a bunch of nitwits.




Tuesday, August 18, 2009
living in the present ... lol
As an English professor at Smith College, my father once told me that he had gotten permission to teach a class in 'The Bible as Literature.' His father had been a Presbyterian minister who encouraged/forced my father to memorize great hunks of the Bible and, although my father came to abominate religion, still he had the education under his belt. There are a lot of good stories in the Bible -- stories in which to find meaning, stories with impact, stories to dissect in the same way anyone might dissect and find meaning in Shakespeare, which is what my father generally taught.

But the class never got off the ground. As a teenager, I wasn't savvy enough to ask the reasons that it failed. Was it that religion as a whole was not a compelling topic? That seems unlikely since there was a whole college department devoted to religion in one way or another. Or was it that those interested in the Bible could not abide the idea of treating something they loved without including the warming beliefs or disbeliefs they had in it ... addressing what inspired so much reaction as if it were open to a cool, explanatory analysis?

On a guess, I'd like to think the latter explanation was closer to being true, although I have no way of knowing. No one in the throes of love with Sally or Peter wants to listen to some rational discourse on relationships. Such a discourse might be true, but for anyone in the throes of love, it simply doesn't cover the topic. More, it feels like a nitwit approach.

If you want someone -- yourself, for example -- to learn something, then there is an imperative to begin at the beginning ... this beginning, not some other beginning. True, learning implies there is something unknown, something to strive for, but without acknowledging and investigating what honestly is, how could anyone hope to learn anything?

For example: In spiritual endeavor, there is sometimes the encouragement to "live in the moment." It sounds good and, perhaps resonates with anyone who has spent so much time living based on a past that can never be retrieved or improved or undone. Living in the present sounds clean and clear and unfettered by ancient habits. It sounds so ... what? ... evolved and sensible, maybe. To live in the present would be to learn how to shed or bring into perspective those things anyone might have stumbled over in the past. Living in the present would be ... ahhhhh.

It's quite an encouragement.

Its only flaw is this: No one can live in the present. If someone could live in the present, that would just amount to living in the past. The present is simply the present ... no one 'lives' there ... there is the present and no one can escape, any more than they could learn or capture it.

But still there is the encouragement: Learn to live in the present. It is a small fib which may encourage an actualization. Beginning here and now, with Sally or Peter, beginning with a deep love of or profound distaste for the Bible, we are encouraged to learn the truth because the truth, just now, is more than we can swallow. Trying to skip over the fibs and fabrications, the past habits that ensnare and entangle, simply doesn't work. So we begin with the lies, whatever they are, because they are all we've honestly got and any truth that lacks honesty is just more bullshit.

No one can live in the present. Forget I said that. Trust the love of Sally. Trust the love of Peter. Trust the love of God. Disdain the love of God. Find and good book that encourages everyone to 'live in the present' and trust that. Round up the honest matters and trust them with a complete heart and mind.

And ...
Monday, August 17, 2009
Tiger Woods?
Y.E. Yang, a South Korean who speaks through an interpreter, won the PGA Championship golf tournament yesterday.

This morning, the sports channels are brimming with news -- not so much that Yang won, but rather with the fact that the American Tiger Woods, a real phenom in the game, lost.

It's as if, after the World Series or the World Cup or the Indianapolis 500 or the Stanley Cup, all anyone could do was to talk about who came in second.

It's an odd configuration.

Monday, August 17, 2009
right and wrong
Maybe the usual way is to imagine you are wrong about being right.

And maybe the tricky part is realizing you are wrong about being wrong as well.

Monday, August 17, 2009
Aging is interesting, or anyway it interests me since that's what I'm doing. Besides the physical dwindlings, there seems to be a mental wispiness that sets in as well. The sky-hooks of the past -- the posts and pillars of definition and control -- seem to lose their force and it grows strangely harder to 'come back' to a world in which sky-hooks hold sway. But it is odd because the place from which to come back, whatever that means, provides no sky-hook either ... and my habit has been to find reference and definition in a world of sky-hooks...doing this, thinking that, and investing it all with some sort of importance or meaning.

There is nothing special or sad or happy about any of it. It just sort of seems to happen, like a sunset or a sunrise ... it's happening, and working up some kind or analysis amounts to the exercise of an old and somewhat stale habit ... 'coming back' in search of a sky-hook when sky-hooks are finding less and less compelling purchase.

I guess I noticed this today when, as on several previous mornings, I awoke and realized that there was a word that made me sad. It was like an orphan in search of a home, a way to 'come back,' a sky-hook that was socially acceptable and yet required more energy and fabrication than it deserved.

That word was "you."
Sunday, August 16, 2009
don't complain, don't explain
A teacher at a Zen center I attended once said, "Don't complain. Don't explain."

Aside from whatever other permutations and excuses such advice can arouse, what crossed my mind this morning was this: Outside of complaints and explanations, what else could spiritual endeavor possibly be? Subtle or gross, aren't explanations and complaints the life-blood of ALL the great texts and temples, philosophies and rituals of this world?

Complain, complain, complain.

Explain, explain, explain.

"Don't complain. Don't explain" is itself a complaint and an explanation.

Except when ... we don't complain or explain.

Saturday, August 15, 2009
church and state
A man on the street stopped to talk to the fellow next to me on the peace picket this morning. The two knew each other and launched into one of the conversational complaints I have learned to expect. The fellow who stopped to say hi was disappointed in President Obama: How could a fellow who claimed to go to church act as he was acting ... how could the future president not walk out of a church where the government he now heads was being dissed?

Funny ... ask a lot of Americans what they think of separation of church and state and they will say it is a good idea. And yet, by way of complaint, the first thing any of them might do would be to weld the two together.

The separation of church and state doesn't impress me much except as a useful attempt ... not an accomplishment, but an attempt. If church and state exist in people's minds, how are they supposed to separate the mind from the mind?

Saturday, August 15, 2009
cleaning up
Pretty much blew my writing wad this morning in response to a wonderful letter from a cousin I haven't seen in 40-plus years. So now it's time to eat breakfast, wash up, and go clean the zendo before the peace picket begins at 11. A Columbia University prof who is renting the house next door said he might be over to give Zen a try tomorrow and I like to offer a clean setting.

But what I really need to clean is this stupid mind: Someone may be coming to sit and ... doofus! ... how can I help? Will I ever get over such nonsense? Probably not, but that doesn't mean I can't be ashamed of myself.

Help? Hinder? Don't be an asshole!

Oh well ... Assholes R Us. Friday, August 14, 2009
reliable peace
Just so's we get it straight:

If you rely on others, there is no chance of peace.

If you rely on yourself, there is no chance of peace.

It is a worthwhile endeavor to seek out a reliable peace.

Friday, August 14, 2009
Sir Fluffy
I have heard that when a bird is ill or wounded, it will fluff up its feathers in a show of health and strength. Weakness in the animal kingdom (of which human beings seem to forget they are a part) could be an invitation to attack or even death.

One of the feather-fluffing activities which human beings can exercise is the unwillingness to ask questions. The facets of the jewel are endless -- from the old joke about men never asking for directions to the bad boy in the back of the classroom who can do no better than the shoot spitballs and into the halls of power where there seems to be a prepackaged answer for every question. Looking and feeling confident ... if I do that, no one will know my vulnerabilities, no one will laugh at or exploit me. Others will see me in a better light.

Graphically, perhaps a fluffy life looks like this:

Questions require a certain confidence or willingness to take a risk, but sometimes it feels safer just to pretend to confidence or health.

Perhaps it is hard to ask questions of others -- to put my ignorance on display. But worse than not daring to ask others is the unwillingness or inability to ask myself. Not only would I like others to see me in a good light, but I would also like -- or perhaps demand -- to see myself as healthy and strong. "I know!"

Better than "I know," of course, is just "I choose." But choice is less powerful, less fluffed up, less overtly assured: Choice, after all, is just choice, and if I choose one thing, others are welcome to choose another ... a far less fluffed-up position. What if I choose the wrong thing?

Well, I could prattle on and on about the usefulness of questions, but the bottom line is that, however spooky it may be, I think that asking questions is a good habit to get into. After all, a bird that is ill or wounded really is ill or wounded and no amount of feather-fluffing will heal the wounds.

Questions, however wounding they may be, heal wounds and offer some chance for an honest confidence.

Or am I all wet?

Just call me Sir Fluffy!

Thursday, August 13, 2009
People, like religions and philosophies, are undone by their exclusivities.

But since people are likewise undone by their inclusivities, perhaps an appropriate activity would be to study the nature of what it is that comes 'undone.'

Thursday, August 13, 2009
those ah-ha moments
I guess it is the nature of surprise and delight -- to be expecting one thing only to come upon another. Times and places of surprise and delight stand out ... especially the happy ones. The world becomes a wider place, a richer place ... basically, my own narrowed vision is reformed. Even when there is a sad surprise, still it can be a real ah-ha!

-- One day in New York, I was walking into Central Park when all of a sudden I heard very loud opera music. The first thing into my head was that some teenager was carrying what was then called a "boom box" -- a large radio/tape player that kids carried around on their shoulders, music blaring. The music, however, was seldom if ever opera, so the notion was a surprise and a delight.

As I entered the Sheep Meadow, a large open space with ball fields and space for picnicking, I could see several small figures in a band shell perhaps 400 yards away. The shell was used to offer outdoor concerts. The music was emanating from there and I went towards it.

On stage were four or five opera singers, one of whom I recognized as the tenor Luciano Pavarotti. I didn't much like opera music, but decided to listen and perhaps find out what it was about Pavarotti that made him famous in the news. Most famous people seemed to me to be famous based largely on a lot of public relations ... but I wanted to check out my own bias.

There were two or three tenors and one soprano practicing in the noon sunshine for a concert that night. Twenty-five or thirty people were scattered on the grass in front of the shell. It was like a private concert, not at all the thousands that would throng the meadow that night and I sat down to listen.

Each of the singers was clearly accomplished. But when Pavarotti sang, it was like an invitation to another universe, another dimension. Not that the other tenors were mediocre. It was just that Pavarotti's ability -- even for someone who disliked opera -- took your breath away. It defied praise. There was nothing to do but ... dwell. What a surprise: I had come to listen to singing only to find something I could not express at all ... right there in the middle of the singing.

-- On another occasion, I was again walking through Central Park when I came upon a group of people watching the American Olympic archery team give an exhibition. The archers were dressed in white and carried what seemed to be very hi-tech bows. Each bow was equipped with a peep sight and had a counter weight reaching like some goofy nose off the front of the bow. The archers stood perhaps 30-40 feet from whatever target they were shooting at and invariably hit their target dead center.

The whole exhibition was interesting, but even the archers seemed to have a sense of how static their expertise might seem to onlookers. And so, at one point, one of the archers asked the audience who would like to play out the story of William Tell and hold an apple on his or her head while the archer shot an arrow through it. A dozen hands went up. The archer smiled at the willingness, but declined all comers. Clearly some lawyer would have a field day if the archer missed or the apple-holder flinched.

It was one of the other team members who took his position holding the apple. He held it by the stem, at arm's length rather than on his head. The potential danger quotient rose even despite the fact that the archers had all hit their previous targets dead center. And as the danger rose, so did the attention of the audience.

The target-holder took his stance. The archer drew his hi-tech bow. And in an instant, it was over. The apple was skewered. Everyone applauded, partly, I imagine, because they were simultaneously relieved and disappointed that the potential danger had not come to fruition.

But what I noticed, and what really blew me away, was this: The arrow had pierced the apple not at the dead-center point, but rather about three-quarters of an inch off-center ... a point that took the strike fractionally away from the body of the young man holding the apple. It was not enough off-center to shatter the apple, but it was enough to add a margin of safety. The imperfection of the strike was purely perfect and as such far more compelling than the perfections previously exhibited with other targets. In the midst of shooting, there really was shooting ... and it was not something I had expected.

-- On a fiercely hot summer day in New York, a fellow Zen student called me up and asked if I wanted to go up to the Zen monastery we were both connected to and see a tea ceremony. I said yes, not because I wanted to see the tea ceremony (I had almost no interest in that), but because there was a lake at the monastery and I wanted to go swimming. It was very hot.

We arrived late at the monastery and, because watching the tea ceremony seemed to be the price I would have to pay for going swimming, I walked reluctantly into the Dharma hall and found a place to sit. My seat, as it happened, was perhaps eight feet from the man (very famous I was told) who would perform the ceremony. He was as handsome as a movie actor -- white hair, chiseled Japanese features, immaculate robes ... a real poster pin-up to look at. But what was hot in New York was still hot in the countryside and I hoped the ceremony would not take too long ... while walking to the Dharma hall, the lake looked like Nirvana.

And then he began. As an ignoramus, I had and have no adequate way to describe the gathering of implements, the care with clothes, the pouring of water, the mixing of the tea, the offering at the altar. I was just some guy who wanted to go swimming and yet the exact and exacting freedoms of his movements drew me in, erased the heat of the day, and exceeded any expectation or hope I might have had. It was, in the end, just a tea ceremony and yet too, it was JUST a tea ceremony. It was so encompassing that to this day I don't remember if I ever got to go swimming.

-- And then there was watching Mohammad Ali box. As it always seemed to me, he was the Luciano Pavarotti of the ring. Not that the other boxers were unprepared or bad ... it was just that he operated on some other level -- exalted and yet clearly with his feet on the ground.

I guess everyone has similar experiences to recall -- times when things just seemed to enter a whole new arena ... and the kind of surprise and delight a child might express when discovering how different the world looks through colored glasses: Same world, whole new world.

I suppose the folderol of high-profile fame and public relations can act as an attention-getter, something that entices the focus and hope and expectation for starters. But then, together with the saddle of spin, sometimes we are fortunate enough to find the horse, to discover the surprise within the chaff.

And the question that haunts anyone, I think, is this: Where is that delight and freshness when things are no longer high-profile, when things are ordinary, when the same old shoes are just the same old shoes? Why aren't things always like that ... dancing and ineffable?

And the answer is, of course ... they always are like that.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009
lookit me!
The child dances around parental skirts and exclaims,
"Lookit me! Lookit me!"

And the parent concurs with a loving heart,
"Yes, dear. Lookit you! Lookit you!"

Isn't it the same in spiritual endeavor? The student addresses his or her teacher, his or her life, and exclaims: "Lookit me! Lookit me!"

And this life concurs with a loving heart:
"Yes indeed, dear. Lookit you! Lookit you!"
Wednesday, August 12, 2009
useful question?
Although there are no answers to 'why' questions, still, maybe it's a question worth answering:

Why does this concern you?

Tuesday, August 11, 2009
another perfect patsy
I was never cut out to be serene and savvy. If anything, I think I was cut out to be the perfect patsy -- sad in sad circumstances, happy in delightful times. True, I can think through a few things, but basically I'm as much a sucker as the next person and can't see a lot of reason for revising it.

What brought this to mind was half-watching a movie on TV -- "Message in a Bottle" -- last night. Most of the family took off for New Jersey yesterday, so my oldest son, Angus, and I were left alone, lounging around, working out the details on a used car, his first, that he needs papers for. After plotting our moves for today -- trips to the insurance agent and so forth -- each of us retired to a couch and took up the famed Potato Position.

Not that Angus would watch a love story of the sort I was watching. Too un-hip, too chick-flick, too lacking in the kind of assurance and power that young men find informative. This was the story of two people whose lives left them halting and uncertain and trembling in the face of their growing love. For each of them, the love was clear, but .... And the bitter-sweet ending was sad -- resolved, in one sense, but sad in another. I found myself willing as a puppy to be sad too. The perfect patsy.

No one wants to be a patsy -- to be sucked in and suckered. When people or circumstances seem to take advantage, there is recoil and defense. Hard experience teaches hard lessons and yet ... what else is there except to be the patsy anyone might be? When the yes-but's have accumulated in every nook and cranny and still the circumstances of life cannot be outsmarted ... well, is this a time for yet more yes-but's?

I guess I shouldn't say that I am the perfect patsy. Rather, perhaps, just another patsy. But these days, the desire to be something other than a patsy seems to be on the wane. Imagining I might get sucker-punched is not so imperative. Yes-but is for patsies ... but yes-but is too energetic for me.

Just another patsy.
Monday, August 10, 2009
where the music lives
I got to watch a DVD version of "The Soloist" yesterday. The 2009 movie was the 'true life' tale of a columnist/reporter for the LATimes who got enmeshed with a schizophrenic homeless man. The man had flunked out of Juilliard, a first-class American school of music, and purely loved music ... most specifically, Beethoven.

The contrast between the reporter who told unconfused tales and loved very little and the crazy man who loved without reserve and yet found confusions at every turn was touching and interesting. For my money, the movie wasn't quite as good as it wanted to be, but it had the balls to try to sort out and quantify a pretty complex subject.

The social commentary (homelessness) of the movie didn't interest me as much as the crazy man's love of music -- his willingness or perhaps just his inability-not-to stand naked in the light. Since I too have loved that sense of being swept-up-and-swept-away, of being erased and blissed, of being in the presence of something literally worth dying for, of giving up without a backward glance ... well, the movie certainly banged my chimes.

And my guess is that everyone has had such a sense, whatever the circumstances. Everyone has known and longs to know again ... the music. Such music (in whatever form it arrives) is like food to a starving man, delicious and yet beyond deliciousness, sustaining with nothing sustained ... and somehow utterly clear: This is my birthright even if it belongs to no man.

Who does not yearn to return to such moments? And yet, like the crazy man in the movie, there seems to be a thicket of crazy brambles that bars the way. Somehow the strength and clarity is missing to make such moments everyday ... the usual way.

Once, during the army, I went to see the Russian violinist David Oistrakh in a gymnasium on the University of California's Berkeley campus. He played alone, under an upturned basketball backboard. The acoustics sucked. The chairs were fold-ups and uncomfortable. But as I listened, it was like looking into the sun ... it was so beautiful I simply could not go on listening. I did not have the strength or capacity and I think I was afraid ... afraid of what I longed for and yet longed for anyway ... slipping in and out of listening and hearing and then being unable to listen or hear: Something asked to be broken and for brief moments was broken, and then it was too much, too overwhelming...and I slipped back into my ordinary craziness.

Music, an orgasm, a friend's kind word, a painting, the woods all around, the sense of being at home ... who knows what will tip the scales and bring anyone naked into the light, the country of birthright certainty and ease? But beauty as it is known by those of us who are crazy remains hidden and exalted without some acknowledgment and effort on behalf of our crazinesses. No one can live on exaltation: That would be like eating nothing but chocolate as a diet. Bliss relies on whatever is not bliss, so whatever is not bliss deserves some attention and care if the full meaning of bliss is to be realized. Birthright is just birthright, as simple as salt.

What wonderful advertising -- exaltation and bliss! It really is to die for. And certainly there are enough books and metaphors written about the ineffable soaring. "Mystical" some may say ... as if that meant anything. "Swept away" others may claim ... without exercising the kindness required to examine what, if anything, might be swept away.

In the land where the music lives, praise is not enough, any more than blame is enough where the craziness dwells. In the land of the music -- in the land where nothing is lost and nothing is found ...

Isn't it music?

Isn't it just beautiful? Monday, August 10, 2009
writing what is true
One of the characters in one of Earl Thompson's books -- a character it is hard not to think or as the author himself -- says approximately: "I want to write what is true." And to my eye and ear, Thompson's novels were largely true and his character's words struck a chord with me ... to write what is true.

Leaving aside the matter that it is not possible to write what is true, still, what would it be like to write something that was true?

And the best I can come up with was this: Writing that is true is writing that touches the earth... touches the earth in much the same way that the Buddha touched the earth when turning aside the blandishments of gods and devas. It is straight and plain and does not struggle to convince anyone of anything. It is straightforward as salt. Taste it if you like ... or not, if you don't like.

Sunday, August 9, 2009
plain talk
Funny how what was once an artfully-put inspiration or poesie becomes a purely flat-footed description over time ... as if you asked a passerby for directions to a movie theater and s/he said, "Go down to the next light and take a left. It's two blocks up, on your right." Nobody falls down in a swoon, nobody imagines the blessings of heaven, nobody rouses up belief systems and hosannahs ... hell, you just follow directions and then enjoy the movie.

Dai O Kokushi

There is a reality even prior to heaven and earth;
It has no form, much less a name;
Eyes fail to see it; it has no voice for ears to detect;
To call it Mind or Buddha violates its nature,
For it then becomes like a visionary flower in the air;
It is not Mind, nor Buddha;
Absolutely quiet and yet illuminating in a mysterious way,
It allows itself to be perceived only by the clear-eyed.
It is Dharma truly beyond form and sound;
It is Tao having nothing to do with words.
Wishing to entice the blind,
The Buddhas has playfully let words escape his golden mouth;
Heaven and earth are ever since filled with entangling briars.

O my good worthy friends gathered here,
If you desire to listen to the thunderous voice of the Dharma,
Exhaust your words, empty your thoughts,
For then you may come to recognize this One Essence.

Sunday, August 9, 2009
the rise of crankiness
Advancing age, the loss of an employment habit to shape my days, and a sense of some ineluctable triage in which things seem to fall away ... all of this and more like it have contributed to a rise in a general crankiness. Whatever patience and whatever avuncular kindness I may have possessed in the past seems to be whittled away, bit by bit and there is a rise of "get to the goddamned point" and "do it my way." I am not particularly ashamed of all this, but I do notice it.

How's that for a lousy Buddhist?

One example was a trip to the doctor the other day. Trips to one doctor or another were once set in a context of can-do employment. Now, without the employment (or other frameworks of the past) to balance or bring perspective to the matter, such trips take on an added annoyance/fear/crankiness quotient. The doctor sat there explaining this and that, this and that, this and that ... all of it part of his profession. He handed me brochures to read and of all the things I hate doing, reading generalized brochures is pretty high on the list.

My (cranky) view is this: You are the doctor. You have the skills. You have the knowledge. If I were a doctor with skills and knowledge, I wouldn't be in your office in the first place. Therefore: Give me your best assessment -- even if it's not 100% certain -- and then shut up. If you run on and on about permutations and possibilities, I will zone out and may miss something that is centrally important to the situation. It takes too much energy to be sympathetic to your 'professional' approaches: If I ask, you can expand. If I want you to hold my hand, I'll ask. Otherwise, give me the facts as you see them and let me go home.

And the same crankiness extends to the supermarket checkout or strolling on the sidewalk or Buddhist practice. These are the circumstances: If you choose not to pay attention to them, please don't expect me to agree with your inattention and its results. Meanwhile, I, of course, am paying attention ... ha!

But it boils down to do-it-my-way. There is a certain smug satisfaction that comes along with these crankies ... crotchety feels pretty good. There is some laughter in it somewhere, but in the meantime, be careful of my canines!

Saturday, August 8, 2009
out cold
It was a beautiful day today -- blue sky, sunshine, warm-but-not-hot weather. Along the peace picket line, there was the usual mix of casual chat, obligatory outrage, and information sheets offered to those passing in the sunshine.

Bill, the 70-something man next to me, said good morning when I arrived. He told me briefly he didn't think he would stay for the whole hour that the picket usually lasts. We chatted a bit and then drifted into our usual modes -- he chatting with chums, I enjoying the passing people.

Bill stood to my left. At one point, I turned my head to the right to watch a toddling child and at the same moment, to my left, heard a thump as Bill hit the pavement. He was out cold.

By the time police, firefighters and EMTs arrived, his eyes were open and he was conversing but weak. After 20 minutes of assessment, the rescuers took Bill to the hospital.

Interesting the effect that facts have on philosophies.

Saturday, August 8, 2009
A downtown marquee announcing the appearance of a rock band, "The Decemberists," made me want to remember the details of the 1825 revolt by what came to be known as the Decembrists in Russia. The band apparently traces its name to the revolt, although the group chooses to spell its name differently.

Keeping pace with the times I live in, I looked up the Decembrists on wikipedia, an Internet resource created by whoever chooses to write a particular article. Wikipedia's intellectual yardsticks for accuracy and clarity vary, but a bit at a time, I have a feeling that its authority -- and the resulting mental slovenliness of its readers -- is gaining ground. Reading and researching and thinking take too much time, dontcha know.

The wikipedia article about the Decembrist revolt was a somewhat disjointed account, but was close enough for what I wanted. Very roughly speaking, in 1825 a group of soldiers rallied for, among other things, a more democratic government and a redistribution of land to the peasants. Some of the details of the revolt might be seen as farcical if they had not been so bloody: At one point, for example, a cavalry charge over cobble stones failed, in part because the horses could not get their footing on the icy stones. In the end, the revolt failed, the government reasserted its authority, and a number of people were hanged.

Some of those hanged were memorialized on a plaque that still stands today in St. Petersburg. There is also a square named after the revolt.

The plaque, the square, and for all I know, the rock band remember the intention of the revolt. Blurred by time, perhaps that memory is consoling or even inspiring. Those were the good intentions, the heroic intentions, the intentions that stir men's souls. The mixed messages of the time are not recalled with as much fervor or delight. The bright light is remembered, but not the shadows.

But whatever is recalled, it is recalled in contrast to what actually occurred -- a slow slide into the authoritarian ways of the past. A couple of changes, maybe, but bascially it was business as usual.

And when was it ever different?

Yesterday on TV, I noticed (not for the first time) that the advertising for banks and credit card companies was on the rise. The same people and institutions that had taken down the economy in the United States and the world were regaining their footing after being bailed out with money that did not belong to them. There was no more mention of the "toxic assets" they had created and that proved to be their and our economic downfall. If we don't talk about them, then they are not there, I guess. The advertising suggested that there was little or no shame at the personal difficulties created by their previous machinations. Everything was OK again because ... well, because they were advertising that things were OK and worthy of consumer trust.

My Zen teacher, Kyudo Nakagawa Roshi, once observed that, "Without ego, nothing gets done." And I think he was and is right. This begets that, endlessly. But the groundwork, for those willing to step back from the yowls of whatever personal or social outrage, is worth examining. Greed, anger and ignorance provide pleasant and unpleasant results. Social activism -- the hope for a better mousetrap -- can be a wonderful inspiration. Standing by in the face of outrage is not enough. And yet, as well, the rise and fall of better and worse is endless. Activism has one sort of effect. Torpor has another. Endlessly. But the search for a better mousetrap is likewise endless and putting a period on the human adventure is not possible. There are plaques and memories of efforts and attempts. Some had pretty good results. Some were forced to face unintended consequences. Some were simply new and improved methods of self-serving deviousness.


And in the face of this observation, however glossy it may be, I think that a man or woman of some sense would do well to investigate ... not so much what others are capable of but rather what they themselves are capable of. Whose authority is this? Whose revolt is this? Whose outrage is this? Whose greed, anger and ignorance is this? Whose rock band is this? Where does 'endlessness' begin? Where does 'endlessness' end?

What is the result of failing to investigate? Another plaque? Another farce? Another success? Another failure? Another bright light? Another series of shadows? Another mouthing of concern: "But we've got to do something!"? Another bit of self-serving deviousness?

There is no removing ourselves from the human skein. We all goof and succeed and goof some more and succeed some more. Outrage and satisfaction come and go. Without ego, nothing gets done. But without investigation of such things, without reflecting on the lives we lead, how can anyone ever hope to find a little peace, a little surcease, a little clarity?

White-whine yowling or genuflecting hosannahs don't interest me so much. What interests me is what works and what doesn't.

I'll put my money on reflection and investigation. It's the one revolution I can think of that stands some chance of success.

Friday, August 7, 2009
the laugh track
From the Internet:

While most associate the laugh track with television, this innovation actually was used in radio during the later 1940s. While many radio shows were done before a studio audience, as the medium's popularity waned late in the decade, recorded laughter was used from time to time. After all, who would know?

The television laugh track was introduced to viewing audiences in 1950 on NBC's 'The Hank McCune Show'. The program itself appears to have been rather run-of-the-mill, but in its review Variety noted the innovation: "there are chuckles and yocks dubbed in. Whether this induces a jovial mood in home viewers is still to be determined, but the practice may have unlimited possibilities if it's spread to include canned peals of hilarity, thunderous ovations and gasps of sympathy."

What would television shows be like without a laugh track?

Friday, August 7, 2009
doing the right thing
The only difficulty I can see with doing the right thing is to imagine you did something right.


Once upon a time, a lot of years ago, when I was a reporter and was sniffing around the spiritual-life fire hydrant, I interviewed a Zen Buddhist monk at a small temple back in some nearby hills. Professionally, I wanted to do a news story. Personally, things were less simple or perhaps more so.

The small house -- pretty close to being a shanty -- was set on an overgrown hillside. It was in need of a lot of repair, and the monk, who was thin and sinewy, was making them.

In the course of the interview, I asked the questions that might have been expected of a news story -- when did he start, how many people came, where did the impetus to site a temple in western Massachusetts arise, what was his background, how much did it cost, etc. And in among those questions, I asked him what he hoped to accomplish. He looked thoughtful and then replied approximately, "If I can help just one person...." and his voice trailed off.

It was the kind of response at which others can nod with a sort of agreement and satisfaction. Helping just one person sounds like a modest goal and monks are 'supposed' to be modest. Helping is nice and monks are 'supposed' to be nice. The response was one that dovetailed with what those inclined to suppose wanted or even demanded to hear. It was, perhaps, an inspiration, and inspiration feels good.

And, with or without the robes and shaved head, the monk was a nice fellow.

The other day, I ran across a thank you note directed to me from someone on the Internet. It was thoughtful and kind, and for some reason, I found it touching. Words that I had written had 'helped' and this man wanted to say thank you. Usually, I am not very good at receiving thanks of that sort. My ordinary habit -- not a very good one -- is to parry. In this case, the words, whether understood or misunderstood, got through and I realized that "if I can help just one person" was something I took quite seriously. It is something I can honestly credit, something I seem to be set up to do in some instances, something I like.

But it's somehow tricky as well. Altruism makes my teeth itch. But finding a way to "wish you what you wish," to suggest another way of seeing things -- your way, but a 'new' way -- yes, I'll take the hit for that. But am I different from anyone else? Nope ... and that's not modesty.

Somehow that note forced me to admit that I like 'helping' even if, simultaneously, it is not possible to help. There are circumstances and those circumstances are just what cannot be helped. The important part is just to make peace with the circumstances.

My circumstances seem to include: 1. I take 'helping' just once person seriously; 2. I write words even as I may despair of the belief that others (or even I) may invest them with. Imagine that ... much of my life spent writing and I wake up one morning to the appropriate accusation, "He's a writer." Not a famous writer or a good writer or a helpful writer ... just a writer. Why is this a surprise? I don't know, but somehow it is.

It can't be helped.

Thursday, August 6, 2009
never, ever, EVER
In the days before wide-awake-and-writhing-in-pain, pregnant women would be delivered while under anesthetic. These days, 'natural' childbirth is pretty much the norm, if I've got it right.

Any woman in the throes of childbirth has probably sworn to (or at) whatever gods she could get her hands on that she would never...ever...ever...EVER do this again. Ever! In those moments, any bystander suggesting that children, and the bearing of them, was some kind of blessing ... well, it might be wise to wear a flak jacket. Finding a target for this agony may not be much help, but it's easier than acknowledging a personal role in this ... this ... this idiocy! This ... is ... serious!

Without trying to compare levels of agony, anyone who has been to a sesshin or extended Zen Buddhist retreat has probably felt some of the same writhing wrath as the crossed legs burn like fire or the sorrow seems unbearable. Who the fuck dreamed this up?!

And any soldier who has been where the bullets fly and where what was a friend a moment ago is reduced to goo in a nanosecond knows from a deep and truthful place that all the philosophies in the world cannot assuage or explain or ease the unutterable, soul-searing wrong-ness that is beyond speech, beyond puking, beyond the pale.

And yet ...

Women have more than one child.
Zen students go to another sesshin.
And there is always an occasion for a new war.

Analysis (selective amnesia, virtue, greed, etc.) doesn't interest me much in this realm. What interests me is what actually-factually happens. In the face of what happens now, 'meaning' and 'explanation' can piss up a rope. Analysis can take a hike. Whether agonizing or glorious ... this is it.

And we do it again. Always. Only later, when the woes or wonders have slipped into the past, can anyone wax wise or shocked or wounded or elevated. Only later. But 'later' is not now and living in the past is a half-baked way of living...comforting and socially-acceptable perhaps, but with a sense of compromise and incompleteness that often nags gently at the edges of the mind.

Generally, that nagging is met with more explanations and more meanings, as if, somehow, we could out-think the present. It doesn't work, but that doesn't mean we can't try like hell...scurrying from wise nostrum to wise nostrum, from explanation to explanation, from meaning to meaning, from group hug to group hug -- trying to convince ourselves or others that The Answer lies ... well, The Answer lies somewhere or other...probably around the next corner or on the next page.

What actually-factually happens, happens now, and I just know no better advice on how to address this nagging fact than to recall the advice offered by Gautama ... not that it matters who offered it:

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.

For my money, it is in the implementation of this advice that there is at least half a chance to acknowledge and actualize the place we could not possibly escape.

Wednesday, August 5, 2009
This morning, as a couple of squirrels hung upside down in a Japanese maple across the street, reaching out for the distant and most tender shoots, I wondered:

In the inventory of important things anyone might save up in this life ... to what extent is that importance simply an exercise in keeping unimportance at bay. I don't want to pop anyone's balloon, I'm just wondering.

To the extent that importance is used to fend off unimportance, aren't importance and unimportance like two peas in a pod ... each asserting and underpinning the other in some endless round? Assert importance and unimportance arrives like a Siamese twin. Assert unimportance and importance rises up like smoke from a camp fire.

And if there is some usefulness in taking a little inventory of the important stuff, and if the unimportance seems to assert itself unbidden ... then what would be a more appropriate or clear-headed response to circumstances? What would it be like in a realm where importance and unimportance simply found no fuel?

And as the squirrels hung upside down, reaching out for the sweetest nourishment, the answer that popped into my head was:

Enjoyment. Tuesday, August 4, 2009
bang my chimes
This morning, I blew my writing wad by responding to an essay question someone posted elsewhere. It was pretty obvious stuff, pretty common, pretty simple ... but in that simplicity, it seemed to bang my chimes in ways that more ornate questions do not.

I'm not exactly sure why that should be. Maybe it's just laziness or ignorance. Maybe I feel sympathetic vibes ... I too have asked such questions and felt the confusions that simplicities can arouse. I too have wanted to box Buddhism, to put it on a 3x5 card in my file box, to 'understand,' to wax wise and profound. I too have wanted to be a 'teacher.' I too have hoped someone would write my essay for me.

I guess it's enough to have your chimes banged and not worry too much about why.

Monday, August 3, 2009
on the railroad tracks
According to a small Associated Press story I read some years ago, there was once a man in Russia who had collected something of a following based on his appreciation of the emptiness of all things, a facet of some, if not all, serious spiritual persuasions.

As a means of substantiating his claims, the man said he would stand on a railroad track in the face of an on-coming train. The implication seemed to be that the truth of his vision would allow him to survive. I suppose he invited others to witness the event: How else would AP have gotten the story? The man did what he said he was going to do. The story did not detail the funeral arrangements.

The story popped up in my mind again this morning together with the observation, "Just because someone believes something doesn't mean it's not true."

I think everyone would like to think that what they believe, little or large, profound or superficial, is true. What is believed can be inspiring or consoling, frightening or angry-making ... but whatever it is, there is an underlying sense or hope that such-and-such a belief is true. From "the sky is blue" to "God is just" ... we imagine or insist or act on or even overlook the fact that a belief may actually be true.

For those willing to put their beliefs on the line -- to investigate and find out what is true -- belief is a good starting point, a place in which anyone might be inspired to act. Not everyone wants to stand on a railroad track in order to prove in experience what may be just a belief, but investigation in practice is pretty daring stuff from the ordinary point of view.

And what a practical investigation reveals is this: However inspiring, it is belief that clouds the eyes and mucks up the obvious. What is true is just true and belief is extra, an unnecessary and untrue separation of one thing from another. Maybe belief and hope are like hand maidens that lead the prospective couple to the altar, but the fact is that it is not the maidens who are getting married.

"Water is wet," "the sky is blue," "all things are empty mind," "God is great" and a lot of other little and large beliefs and disbeliefs offer a direction and an impetus. They are good as far as they go, but they do not go quite far enough. Water, after all, really is wet. The sky, without any extras whatsoever, really is blue. Experience trumps belief ... so what is the experience? Wouldn't experience be better, more credible, than the cozy or horrific realms of belief and disbelief? I would say this is worth investigation, but others may be content to just believe it.

In meditation practice, someone once observed, "Understanding is knowing to get out of the way of an on-coming bus. Practice is for the bus we didn't see coming." And in actual-factual, walking-around life, which one of us hasn't been run over a time or two by the buses we didn't see coming ... buses of belief and disbelief perhaps?

Just because the universe could not get along without you doesn't mean the universe needs your help.

Stay off the railroad tracks, please.


Reading a (tres Zen) blog just now, it occurred to me: OK everyone would like to have their socks blown off one way or another... be out from under some sorrowful weight, be shapeshifted into another more profound dimension, find an ineffable softness where things are often shards and barbs.

And sure enough there are hints aplenty in Zen practice -- moments when there are no 'moments' and clarity is just, well, clear and bright and bountiful. And there is a longing to wax poetic or at least hear others wax poetic about such times. And there is plenty of poetry and waxing available.

Who wouldn't want to have their socks blown off? Who wouldn't like to be invited to get their socks blown off?

And it's all OK. The longings, the wise pitter-patter of small tongues, the enfolding hopes and efforts .... OK, OK, OK. Tall temples have been mortared with less.

But I think this: We begin among the lies because that is where we live. Lies are not especially naughty, they are just not yet clear about the topic at hand. For example, a "rock" is clearly a rock ... but that leaves out what, exactly, a rock is. If you asked a rock, what would it say? I doubt if it would say "rock," or, if it did, it might be time to rearrange your meds.

So in a broader sense, it is a lie to say that a rock is a "rock." But not to admit we live among the "rocks" -- that we had, before we actually had, penetrated the truth of a rock -- would be another fabrication.

And the same is true for spiritual endeavor. We begin among the rocks -- among the hopes and beliefs and longings to get our socks blown off ... among the lies. But those lies offer the most compelling foundation for anything that might, in the end, resemble the truth. If we live among the lies ... well, there we are. No amount of fibbing or gesticulating or simpering prose or text-reading will change it.

Deeeep meaning!
Profound understanding!
Subtle essences!
Ineffable realms!
Come-hither phraseology!
Yum! Yummier! Yummiest! -- Blow my socks off!

And still the rocks of our lives remain the rocks of our lives. Not acknowledging them in the plainest possible ways risks wasting a lifetime on something tentatively called spiritual endeavor. Another religion! Oh goodie!

In my eyes, it goes like this: We enter the lies with our arms wide open, tears flowing, delights ascending. There is no escape, but there is hope for escape ... and still there is no escape. We pay attention in the most prosaic of ways ... to our rocks or our breath or whatever excites our attention. But we also go further: We keep on paying attention. And, like the old silly about saying "banana" fifty times fast, the importance and meanings change and change and change some more. Rockrockrockrockrockrockrockrockrockrockrockrockrockrockrockrockrockrockrockrockrockrockrockrockrockrockrockrockrockrockrockrockrockrockrockrockrockrockrockrockrock

Tell the lies truly and completely and the truth will no longer elude you. Bask in spiritual fervor, weep for another time and place, swoon in a kiss, learn ritual down to the last follicle, wallow in holiness, elevate virtue, find a group that will support and then dismay you, be inspired and encouraged, feel the sweep and soar of 'break-throughs,' try and try and try and try ... honestly.

No one wants to be outwitted by a rock... that would be dumber than a box of rocks. Is there some wisdom beyond the ordinary rocks of our lives? How could such a thing be possible? If things could somehow be something else, wouldn't that just be like a dog chasing its tail? Could a rock or a tear or a kiss be something else?

C'mon! Lie a little. Lie a lot. Just lie well. Rocks don't mind... they're too busy laughing.

Sunday, August 2, 2009
invisible friends
An Internet Buddhist friend, Ben, reported in a nice note that his son had walked up to a local chaplain and said something I would give quite a lot to have thought of.

"So," said Quinn, "how's your invisible friend?"

What a great line!

Buddhists aren't much for the Christian version of God, so in one sense the line could be seen as a thrust at dualistic thinking. But I didn't hear it that way. The Buddhist firmament is every bit as filled with invisible friends as any Christian universe.

How's your invisible friend?

How is your hope, your fear, your longing, your love, your distaste, your belief, your kindness, your wonder, your sorrow, your virtue, your mistakes, your thought, your word, your deed, your ... well, how are your invisible friends?

Friends are those who help us out and the ones we help out in return. We pay attention to them. Ignoring friends, whether visible or invisible, would be to eviscerate the meaning of friendship. Perhaps it would be sensible to examine the reality of our friendships, but maybe that will come later and for starters, how about just...

How's your invisible friend?

Saturday, August 1, 2009
something to sink your teeth into
Let me say something light and frivolous and more open to social interaction:

How about, "Nice day. A little warm, but still nice, don't you think?"

I think I will practice that.

Saturday, August 1, 2009
old age and piffle
I am ambivalent about getting old.

On the one hand, there is a visceral memory bank that speaks with sprightly assurance of energy and lightness. Something is unfettered and alive and zippy as an otter. It has always been that way ... for everyone.

On the other hand, there are the various aches and pains and slownesses ... but more important, there is a kind of mental crabbiness. A friend, Janet, sent me an email the other day asking -- in what regard I don't recall -- if I were getting crotchety in my advancing age. And the answer I had to give was, "yes." An increasing number of things seem to qualify in my mind as piffle and I have a harder time than once reining in my reactions.

Wise nostrums.
Peace as the absence of war.
Peace as an expression of the ineffable.
True love.

You want to stick your finger in a wasp's nest, go ahead. But don't expect me to follow suit. Yes, crotchety. And the wonderful part is, I have what passes for an excuse: I'm getting old ... how's that for nifty, self-serving bullshit?

But when I think about it, I have to laugh: How in the world could anyone be "ambivalent" about getting old ... or anything else for that matter? A thousand points of view about what is simply a fact don't change the fact.

On the other hand, when has anyone ever let the facts stand in the way? :)

Friday, July 31, 2009
the wisdom of dog shit
Funny how, in the course of going to school, the printed word takes on a kind of elevated credibility. Because students pass tests and get ahead based on how much of what they read is absorbed, a habit seems to assert itself: If it is written or printed, it must be true or important. Or at least it takes on a forceful character in the mind. And if your advancements in life depend on written truths ... well, you can sort of see why the habit might grow up: If something is written and therefore important, then if I know what is written, I too am important.

All tables have four legs.
My dog has four legs.
My dog is a table.

Smart or stupid ... same habit. The tentative nature of what is known is rarely taught in a world of A's and B's. It is enough to know what I know and to find agreement among those who agree with me ... or even disagreement: That too elevates what I know and, by extension, who I am.

The fly in the ointment is that dog shit stinks whether it adheres to the shoes of a smart person or a dumb one. No perfume of smarts or stupidity can alter that fact. Life's lessons cannot be written, so the only real option is to revise our own habits, including the habit of imagining what is important or true.

Oh well ... others have pointed it out better than I ever could:

Swami Vivekananda said, "The mind (he meant intellect) is a good servant and a poor master."

The Zen teacher Rinzai said, "Grasp and use but never name."

But I guess you have to step in a lot of dog shit before you get their drift in any useful way. And that, when you think about it, really does elevate dog shit to the realm of wisdom. One man's 'serious' is another man's 'frivolous,' but either way, dog shit stinks.

There is suffering.
There is a cause of suffering.
There is an end to suffering.
There is a way to end suffering.

Thursday, July 30, 2009
In high school, I learned to hate poetry. Although that distaste has moderated over time, still many of its underlying causes linger ... even as particular bits of poetry can breach all walls.

In high school, poetry was something to be introduced to. Not many students, I imagine, had much familiarity with the form and effort of poetry and school was a place to become educated to the unknown. So, in the same way that there were chemistry tables and Latin conjugations, there was poetry, and in that sense, perhaps studying poetry made some sense. But....

In the 18th century, at the edges of the rationally-inclined French encyclopedist movement, there was a doctor who performed an autopsy and declared that he had discovered no part or organ that could reasonably be described as a "soul."

Underpinning the announcement -- which I can imagine was made with a certain glee -- was the assumption that what reason could not encompass lacked, obviously, any credible usefulness or worth. In the wake of an era that had been top-heavy with religious power and pronouncements, you can sort of understand why anyone might want to overturn the apple cart. Credulousness had enslaved far too many for far too long. But like far too many rational approaches, the oh-so-savvy club lacked the courage to investigate further ... and admit, finally, that reason only reaches so far and no further: As credulousness deserves investigation if it is to bear fruit, so reason deserves a similar investigation if it wants to avoid being merely smug.

And it was in this arena that I learned to hate poetry. First, poetry was posited as something great and reasonable men and women, educated men an women, all assented to that greatness. But worse, that greatness could be understood through rational discourse ... through amassing and collating the anapests and trochees and other grammatical formations that infested any particular poem. In high school, we were invited to dissect the body in the vain effort to find the soul.

Or anyway, that's how it felt to me. It was like extolling the deliciousness of chocolate to a man who had not yet tasted it. How can words, however sweet and however well-shaped, find the soul of good chocolate? Rationalists could fidget and fuss and defend themselves ad nauseam, mewling lines like, "we don't claim to have the whole answer," but the direction and intent of such teachings are clear: If you read a book or write an essay, then you display a true and satisfying understanding.
But ....

But the taste of chocolate goes begging. The soul goes begging. Poetry goes begging. The deep knowledge of what it is to soar like a hawk goes begging. And no one wants to live like a beggar ... it's too dumb and numb for words.

These days I dislike setting one thing off against another. Soaring like a hawk is wonderful ... but as some sort of goal or hard-and-fast rule, it can be every bit as stupid as intelligent dissections can be in theirs. I guess I think of this in terms of spiritual endeavor as well, but the yardstick seems to apply almost anywhere ... why should spiritual endeavor be any different? It's your spiritual endeavor after all, your hawk ... not someone else's. Think things through. Soar like a hawk. It's just your life.

What set all this blither in motion was a recollection yesterday of one of my favorite poems -- a poem I read over eggs and toast after a graveyard shift in the army. The poem was written by "anonymous" and appeared in Stars and Stripes, the military newspaper. I have carried it with me over a lot of years ... a perfect summing up of the spiritual adventure or the life adventure or the soul's adventure or something like that ... something that soars my hawk but may not soar yours.

The baby is
As soft and sweet
As if she were

Wednesday, July 29, 2009
out of the mimicry mode
As someone who seems to be interested in writing, I too will speak up for reading, for seeing how others have approached writing or executed writing. It's just how we all learn, isn't it -- mimicking and stealing and attempting and failing and trying again?

Yesterday, I got a kind note from a woman I had asked to critique something I was in the process of writing. I needed another pair of eyes and she lent them to me ... and then added that she felt she had been too harsh. By contrast, I thought she had been too polite. I felt she had held back her true voice in a social effort to spare some feelings she imagined I had.

Funny, when you get your footing a bit about anything, you'd really rather get that footing stable and true than to play some self-esteem game. And others, who may be a bit more stable or at least another pair of eyes, can be helpful. You can listen to them and choose to be swayed or not. You're no longer in the mimicry mode.

Wednesday, July 29, 2009
me first
It seems to me that the seriousness (or even just the solemnity) with which anyone might regard spiritual life is just an indicator of the seriousness (or even just the solemnity) with which adherents regard themselves.

This is not a criticism or a warning or some distanced analysis. It just seems to me to be true ... roughly speaking, "as I love God, so I love me." Not more, not less. For those inclined towards spiritual endeavor, there is no skipping over or being above such an observation. When you're hip-deep in shit or consumed with laughter, well, isn't that just shit or laughter? How could anyone escape?

Those still sniffing the solemn edges of spiritual persuasions may tuck this observation away in an intellectual ammo dump and drag it out during theological beer festivals as an acute or explosive 'understanding.'

But for those whose hearts and minds lead them deeper into investigation, it can form an awful paradox, clawing at the flesh: An actualized peace and contentment cannot be found in a universe that is filled with 'me' and yet what other universe could there possibly be?

As shaped by words, this may be another nifty nutshell. But where the night is darkest and the bedroom ceiling yields no answers ... well, it's enough to make anyone scream the seven dirty words George Carlin once said were taboo on TV. There is no way out but in. Those who hold out cuddly promises of a better future can piss up a rope! This is hard work, daring work, sweaty work, serious work, patient work ... and the fact is I am not at all sure that I have the daring or patience to go forward. Please God, take me back to the good old days when I believed in heaven and hell and emptiness and compassion and eternal life and a light at the end of the tunnel and enlightenment and nut-brown men in orange robes and temples ascending to the heavens and texts brimming with wise pointers! Please! Please! Please!

And sometimes such prayers are answered and the theological beer festivals roll on.
As someone once observed, "Be careful what you pray for, not because you may get it, but because you will."

The kindness of Buddhism as I have come to understand it lies precisely in the realm of serious effort ... in the realm where the me-universe is all we have to work with and yet the me-universe can never suffice when it comes to actualizing some settled peace. Buddhism double-dog dares its followers to step off the socially-acceptable religious macadam and 'fess up: It's a me-first universe, a me-first God, a me-first heaven and hell, a me-first ... everything. Your mother may have told you not to stick beans up your nose (it's not all about you!), but that only enhances the problem, so ... stick beans up your nose. It IS all about you. Double-dog dare you!

But Buddhism goes further ... and this is where the wicket gets sticky. In a me-first universe, exercise the patience and courage and doubt -- day after day, week after week, year after year -- and examine this 'me' and examine this 'first.' Since there is no escape, how could anyone escape? Look and look. Don't say what's true ... find out what's true. Yes, Buddhism, like any good parent, may pat you on the head or point you in more useful directions ... but pats on the head and $2 will get you a bus ride. Find out what is true.

What is it like without God ... or with God either, for that matter? What is it like before 'first?' If the best anyone can do is run around prattling about no-me ... how does this differ from prattling about me? How could expatiating about "delusion" be anything other than a delusion? Who says delusion is deluded?

Double-dog dare you! Deeper and deeper and deeper. Seriously. What's going on? What happens? Who says so? What do distances and proximities have to do with the price of eggs?

Yes, you are serious ... as serious as the God you espouse. But who would God be without you? How could you possibly be compassionate without being compassionate? How could you be empty without being perfectly full?

What about Buddhism?

Take a break.

Take a breath.

And smile.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009
on sneakered feet
According to Dave, the enemy wore sneakers when they came in the night. How he knew this I never thought to ask. Dave was one of the "Frozen Chosen," the American soldiers on the front lines of the Korean (I believe it was) police action that later came to be called a war. Dave and his American comrades would be dug in in a series of fox holes -- a perimeter to withstand an assault.

But at night, sometimes it was quiet, if no less dangerous, and it was then that the enemy wearing sneakers might come. No one would hear or see them, but the next morning they would know the enemy by his fruits: In several fox holes, American soldiers would lie dead with their heads cut off.

Dave told me this story, as I recall it, from the comfort of a porch chair. Around us, the New England countryside was green as summer. Each of us was sipping beer in a place where no one in sneakers could be seen. And yet they were there, in Dave's words and mind -- horrific beyond naming, terrifying, brutal, compelling ... and yet gone. Dave told his story calmly: What other choice was there?

Decapitation of friends is pretty compelling stuff. But, turning down the shock-value volume, who cannot find the sneakered feet of experience in their own minds? Searing, perhaps, or maybe unutterably joyful and yet gone now, with no escape and yet also, no meaning beyond the recesses of this mind. There is no 'sharing' of experience and at times the recognition of this reality can occasion a kind of lonely despair: Vastly important things -- or perhaps just medium-compelling things -- have no meaning: I have no meaning. Like some sand castle built before an in-coming tide, the efforts and experiences of this life seem to be whittled away and 'lost.'

Some, on recognizing this realm, row faster ... shore up their positions with more and more and more assertions and acquisitions: The castle cannot be allowed to fall, to dissolve, to have no meaning. It is too frightening. Somehow it MUST have meaning.
Buttressing the walls doesn't work, but the imagined alternative is too horrific: If the castle were lost, what would be left?

Others are willing to take up the challenge. It may be a halting and uncertain willingness, but still, when there is no escape, maybe it is worth assessing the terrain.

I think it is worthwhile finding out what 'lost' might mean, what 'meaningless' might imply. Can anything be lost ... ever? Can anything be held ... ever? Who despairs ... or rejoices either, for that matter? How meaningful is meaning? Or meaningless either?

Of course there are reams of intellectual bullshit, intellectual understandings, to wade through. More defensive perimeters. Slick alternatives. Analytical distances. Philosophical and religious posturings. But they are worth wading through because, in the end, the heart demands it. Who can speak in the face of a decapitated friend or a grain of salt or an evening kiss or a flood of tears?

On sneakered feet ... who is this?

Monday, July 27, 2009
hermit crab lifestyle
The hermit crab is a small beastie which utilizes the shells of others as it grows up in life. When one shell grows too small, it moves on to another ... usually snail shells. A new home, a new protection, more spacious quarters, less sense of constriction ... but always depending on another's realm. What I imagine was once a sense of ahhhhhh turns into a sense of arrrrrrgh and it's time to enlarge the boundaries. Again and again and again.

I imagine, but don't know, that there must be a sense of vulnerability and uncertainty as the hermit crab moves from one shell to another. For however long it takes to move in, the crab is unprotected. A naked time. Scary.

Maybe all of this makes a pretty nifty metaphor for how people lead their lives -- finding a home, outgrowing a home, finding a new home. Landing a job, working at that job, finding the job confining, finding a new job. Having a view of religion or love or freedom or peace or marriage or money, discovering that it is too narrow and stale, feeling simultaneously constrained and vulnerable, and reshaping the environment in some more comfortable format.

Not a bad metaphor, I guess.

But did you ever notice about metaphors ... metaphors always relate to something else, some other shell, someone else's home or philosophy or religion. People may see the applicability of metaphors -- "yup, that's me" -- but the recognition is not enough to become a solution to the problem. Metaphors point and can be cozy as a down comforter but....

Does a metaphor see itself as a metaphor? Is a hermit crab anything other than a hermit crab? Does a hermit crab trouble itself unduly about a metaphor it heard in a local bar or temple? Are the "sands of the Ganges" anything other than the sands of the Ganges? Is relying on someone else's home anything other than relying on someone else's home ... but in that relying, whose home is this really?

Different or same, vulnerable or protected, wise as a guru or dumb as a box of rocks, whose home is this? It ain't no metaphor, that's for sure.

Sunday, July 26, 2009
I don't know about you, but I think predictions are kind of magnetic and exciting. The notion that someone might see what has not yet come to pass is sort of ooooooeeeeeeoooo. And even today, there are people who pore, with furrowed brows, over the predictions of men like Nostradamus ... they look back to see if what he predicted came true.

I have had predictions made about my life: 1. A woman passing by the baby carriage I was lying in leaned over, looked at the baby, and said to my mother who was sitting on a park bench, "Ah! A minister." 2. A woman I was interviewing for a news story gave me a reading in which she said, "I see fire." And when I said I had recently been in a fire, she said, "No, this is in the future." And when I asked if it were dangerous, she replied, "No, but it will be important to you." 3. A nut-brown Indian fellow who was giving astrology readings outside the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, laughed at me when I asked about spiritual life: "Enlightenment in this lifetime. No doubt about it."

Aside from their oooooeeeeeoooo qualities, predictions are a little like fussing around about "past lives," I think. Whether it's true or untrue, you're stuck with the farm. And, when it comes to predictions, what anyone might imagine the prediction to mean in the moment of that prediction ... well, the meaning has revised itself by the time it comes true. Predictions are fluid and broad-brush and we tend to be static and narrow-gauge: We imagine our understandings at the moment of a prediction will be the same meaning when the "minister" or "fire" or "enlightenment" actually shows up. So there is some jiggering necessary in order to say something came true or didn't. It's never right on the gnat's ass when present circumstances arise. And even if it were exactly true ... still, what use would it have? It's fun, but still, just now, it's a rainy day. Did anyone ever escape a dismal future by listening to a prediction? How would they know?

I'm not trying to suck the fun out of predictions. I think they're nifty ... sort of like a good action-adventure show on TV. Predictions gather the attention and perhaps blow your socks off, but I think it is the attention, in the end, that has any useful meaning or direction.

A "minister?" Well, I am interested in so-called spiritual stuff, so maybe it's true in some sense.

"Fire?" Well, a couple of weeks after the woman made her prediction, I was hip-deep in an investigation of arson fires.

"Enlightenment?" If I knew what that was or wasn't, I suppose I could agree or disagree with the prediction.

So maybe these things come true. Or maybe they don't. But either way, without ridicule, so what? It's a neat tale, but ... now what?

And speaking of neat tales, did I ever tell you the one about being the secret consort of Queen Nefertiti? Talk about steamy! Nothing like a good action-adventure show (even if it's just fiction) to get your attention. :)

Saturday, July 25, 2009
your attention, please
Today, as I walked to the peace picket line in my robe, a fellow tapped me on the shoulder and we had a nice little conversation. Alan (sp?) had practiced vipassana and loved Soto and had done both for some time, so neither one of us had to talk in some stilted, deferential fashion. He was interested in the zendo, we chatted about that. I was interested in where he had practiced and he told me that. Just a couple of guys gabbing on the street.

Funny ... I wear the robes because guys in dresses get people's attention and I would like people to pay attention to the peace picket. But that same dress also puts other thoughts into people's minds ... weird, holy, authoritative, scary, magnetic ... all of which, from inside the dress, is pretty imaginative.

Clothes make the man? What a ridiculous notion. On the other hand, I'm not above manipulating the scene if it means people will think a bit about things. Sometimes I marvel at my ability to imagine I am different from the most manipulative politician.

PS. Again on the picket line I noticed and was somehow confounded by the willingness of those I heard to use their complaints as a source of conversation. It just sounds odd, generalizing from the self to the world. Eg. I dislike war and can describe my distaste from various points of view. And the same is true for peace. But somehow the willingness to wonder at my own perceptions is missing ... it's hard to describe and I am ashamed to say that LaRochefoucauld's maxim comes to mind: "The intelligence of the mass is inversely proportionate to its number." That's too cynical for me, but ... well, it comes to mind.

Saturday, July 25, 2009
It was in about the fourth inning yesterday, when my younger son's baseball team was ahead by three runs, that I knew they were going to lose. You could feel the sands slipping away -- the focus, the energy, the willingness, the care, the spirit. Shortly thereafter, along the parental sidelines, the excuses and explanations began: "They're tired."

And it made me think of something I had once heard about horses -- that horses will run until they die. When called upon, they will run into death without a backward glance. Without explanation or assessment or meaning, they will run.

How important I think it is for people to find their willingness to run. Any subject or framework or matter of love will do. No more half-measures -- just run. Run through the explanations and control and analyses. Run though others cheer or weep. Run through pain and fear and right and wrong and elevated and debased. Run through family and friends, enemies and detractors. Run through failure and success. No more cotton balls of excuse or wisdom. No more coitus-interruptus living. No more birth and death. Just find one thing and go the distance ... just

It doesn't matter what the framework or topic is.

Just once ... run.
Friday, July 24, 2009
sacred places
The Hajj, a trip to Lourdes, the 88 temples of Shikoku, and the aborigines' walkabout come to mind when I think about the word "pilgrimage." Others probably have different quick-hit associations or examples.

An Internet dictionary, which I had thought might be rich with definitions and suggestiveness, offered only one small description of the word "pilgrimage:"

"A journey to a sacred place."

I guess that's good enough: As with sacredness, the richness of a pilgrimage lies in the pilgrim, not in the pilgrimage ... making a trip into the holy or the important or the elevated or the unexamined or the unknown or the undiscovered or ... well, something alluring and perhaps imperative.

A pilgrimage is a special trip in the planning and intention. But in the execution, it is, however wow ... well, it just is what it is. Whatever the Mecca, sure, it can knock your socks off, but still it is just Mecca. Whatever the desert, sure, it can scare the pants off you, but still it is just the desert.

To mention this is not to disdain or belittle the planning and intention. It is just something to notice...and perhaps wonder: Is there a moment in the day that is not, in some sense, a pilgrimage? Seriously. If a man or woman never took a step out the front door, still, how could it help but be a "journey to a sacred place?"

In one way, I hate writing stuff like that for fear that someone might fall down and swoon in some oozy-goozy 'sacred' fit, some live-in-the-moment, holy-roller tent festival. But things worth noticing are just things worth noticing ... any excitement or despair is strictly my problem. Mecca is Mecca, the desert is the desert. "Sacred," I think, just means there is a willingness to pay attention ... and then maybe ice the cake with a little virtue or goodness or something similar.

For some reason all of this reminds me of the old silly about the fellow who is walking down the beach when he comes upon -- what else? -- a bottle in the sand. He uncorks the bottle and a genie pops out. The genie says, "I am at your command. I will give you anything you want." And the fellow thinks a minute and then says, "Make me a chocolate milk shake." So the genie complies ... and the fellow is turned into a chocolate milk shake.

Having gathered the intention to enter the holy city or the vast desert, the pilgrimage is begun. And then there is the effort, the travel, the adventure, the one-foot-in-front-of-the-other, the devil's-in-the-details. All notions are set aside in this wonderful effort, this wonderful journey. Others may call it sacred, but when traveling to Mecca or walking the desert floor or cleaning the toaster, this is just this. How could it possibly be anything else?

And what happens after the pilgrimage from this moment to that? Literally, what happens? Having been to Mecca or walked the desert sands or cleaned the toaster ... what is that like? Yes, there are memories to cherish and there is experience to call upon ... but really, is it THAT important? Who could hold onto some old pilgrimage when the new one was already in progress?

Maybe the word "pilgrim" should be a verb and the word "sacred" should be left to those who haven't figured out how to take a leak in the morning.

Thursday, July 23, 2009
places of safety
When there is no place that is safe -- that offers an abiding defense -- how could there possibly be a place of danger?


Thursday, July 23, 2009
the whole story
The letter from my sister, Revan, had slipped beneath the eddies and currents of stuff around the house and it wasn't until yesterday that it floated to the surface. Actually, it wasn't a letter, but rather a clipping from the New York Times -- a piece written by Bea, a cousin of mine, about the aftermath of her father's death. It was a gorgeous piece of writing and I felt somehow guilty not to have read it sooner. So I sent off my belated thank-you's and praise to both women.

Both Bea and Revan are into genealogy, the who's and where's and when's of the family tree they sprang from. Since it is my tree too, I have been included from time to time in the informational loop. And I have enjoyed reading the tales of those who came before. More especially, I have enjoyed the pictures, which are often stilted and posed and yet offering up some tantalizing hint of time and place and person ... high, lacy collars, stern lips, hair carefully combed for the camera, jackets perfectly buttoned, beards trimmed, and always the eyes looking back at me as if they had some story to tell.

I love stories, so I look, and, like some endless fool, always feel as if I ought to be able to find out the 'truth' of which this picture is an example. It never works. The pictures and the prose that accompanies them ... both were created as a means of transmitting some truth and yet that truth can never be told. I always want to know more about these forbears ... more and more and more, as if that would cough up their loves and hates and fears and laughter: Who were these people when they sat down for dinner or bowed and curtsied to a dancing partner or tilled the fields or farted in the parlor or came home drunk?

There is no knowing, or, if there is something that can be known, still there remains a raft of other queries, little and large, that escapes the pen or lens. Looking into the past is a matter of skillful fabrication, of lying by omission when answering the question, "Who are you?"

When it comes to genealogy or ancestor worship or even the hugger-mugger that people can enjoy about "my past life as..." there is often a presumption that a careful examination of the facts will reveal or circumscribe the core or essence or truth of one person or another. But I think this is a mistaken and possibly painful presumption. Not 'bad,' just mistaken.

Perhaps the yardstick that can reveal the mistake best is this: Suppose someone interviewed you for a profile of some sort. Maybe the interview would be politely limited to some activity in which you were skilled. Or maybe it would be more ranging -- digging down into the causes and effects, emotions and thoughts, beliefs and abhorrence about one thing or another. At some point, the interview would be over and the profile written. It might be very, very good indeed. And yet, because you have first-hand knowledge of the subject (because you are the subject), still that profile would leave something out. It would never be quite complete or accurate. Sure, you are a mother or father, a soldier or stock broker, a feminist or misogynist, a short person or a tall one, a philosopher or a nitwit, a party animal or a nerd ... but is that all there is? Certainly you can snuggle up with a profiled praise or yowl at some unfair portrayal, but whether the profile is pleasing or not ... is it true? Is it you? Is it all of you? Of course not.

And if we cannot credibly or completely tell or find the edges of our own story, how much can anyone rely on the stories told about others? They too have their own story ... which is never, whether the person is dead or alive, complete.

I am a lover of stories, of tales, of hints and pictures. I think such things as genealogy are interesting and fun. There are pointers. There are points of human connection and I can gobble them addictively, like potato chips. But the question I think worth asking is this: To what truth do all these wonderful tales point? What do I know when I claim to 'know' something about this forbear or that? When I 'know' something about myself, what, precisely, do I actually know? Is it really the 'truth' or is it just a place I have chosen to rest and nest -- a convenient bias, whether congenial or offensive? Surely I know something, some part of the story. But is it possible to write a credible "the end?"

Tentative, delightful, compelling, hilarious, woeful ... stories are neat.

But neater still, I think, is the fact that there is just no telling the whole story, the one anyone might be yearning to hear.

As the 'Zen Buddhist teacher' Shunryu Suzuki observed, "It is enough to be alive."

Wednesday, July 22, 2009
pimp my ride
When I was quite a little kid, maybe six or seven, my mother took me to a photographer in order to get some modeling pictures taken. Perhaps she thought I was pretty enough to warrant the expenditure. I purely hated it. Like any kid, I did not want my parents to be proud of me. I wanted them to love me. And at the photography studio, I knew I was being pimped -- being offered an attention that was not based on my deepest needs. It was love substituting for love instead of just loving. Or anyway, that's how I felt about it, however incoherently... being pimped ... and I h-a-t-e-d it.

Sometimes I wonder if there isn't a human habit, deep as DNA, that needs to be seen for what it is -- the willingness and effort to pimp ourselves in the world. A small, insistent voice says, "Love me for who I am!" and then we pimp ourselves out in hopes that this dream might somehow come true. Possessions, jobs, opinions, beliefs, unions, wrist watches, emotions, money, designer labels for designing lives, manners ... hoping against hope that this new outfit will do the trick.

But a trick is just a trick -- a ruse, a misdirection, an illusion. Turning a trick lacks the substance of reality. Nothing wrong with getting laid, but getting laid is not always the same thing as getting loved.

And then, perhaps, a little at a time, the dime begins to drop: In order for anyone to 'love me as I am,' we would first have to know who, exactly, we are. This recognition is enough to piss off the pope because the habit of pimping ourselves out relies on the good and bad opinions of others, whereas knowing who we are relies on us alone. There is no someone or something 'else' to bestow what we seek. Damn!

None of this is worth criticizing, in my opinion. But it is worth noticing, assuming it is accurate. Just noticing. Who or what is being pimped out? Who is this pimp? How many tricks can anyone turn before the dissatisfaction and uncertainty claim the scene? What is it that would actualize the love or peace or credible ease we seek? What is left when the pimp stops pimping?

Just something to consider, I think.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009
root canal
Today I had a root canal. As a result, I am sitting around a bit shocked and in some pain.

One of the interesting things about pain is that it focuses the attention. Whatever confusions or uncertainties had nagged and nudged before the pain arrived are wiped clean ... or almost clean.

There is no difference between physical and mental pain. I don't offer that observation as a fact -- which I think it is -- but rather as something worth investigating. Pain draws the attention and attention is something worth nourishing.

There is no need to fall in love with pain just because it has the capacity to excite attention. Loving pain would be no better than loving pleasure ... a temporary fix. Loving pain would be masochism and an elevation of that which has a dubious usefulness and reality ... the self.

But the attention aspect is worth something, I think.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009
Peace and war and dwarf-tossing and religion and baseball and tractor-trailers and chocolate and liberals and conservatives and philosophy and opera and politics and rainbows and freedom and love and money and Buddhism and astrology and ... the list goes on and on.

A friend sent an email saying, by implication, that she was sorry for a generalization she had made in an earlier note. And that made me think about generalizations.

Generalizations seem to be one way of writing our own book, of finding some grounding. Like pontoons, they seem to offer some balance and support and direction. Kids make the sorts of wild generalizations that adults smile at, but adults aren't much better ... just wilier. And by the time an adult recognizes that generalizations are often untrue and unkind, the first thing that may spring to mind is, "All generalizations are bad."

But that's not true either. Some generalizations spring from experience. Sometimes generalizations are pretty smart: That's right, it really is better not to mess with a timber rattler. On the other hand, is one experience or even 100 enough for a generalization?

I guess generalizations are just blithely-clothed ego trips and the only real trick about them is the extent to which anyone might rely on or disdain (another form of relying)them. And each person has to investigate (or not) in his or her own time: Who generalizes about what? Is it necessary? Or unnecessary? Who wins? Who loses?
Who's the general among these generalizations?

Notice how many generalizations there are in the above five paragraphs?


Monday, July 20, 2009
delicious tales
Once upon a time, a long time ago, I was talking to the Japanese fellow who led the zendo I belonged to. We were discussing the possibility of having an open supper to which anyone might come and enjoy themselves ... and, implicitly, not be immediately subjected to the rigors of zazen or seated meditation.

He looked skeptical and somewhat scornful: "Everyone comes when you're offering food," he said curtly. And my unspoken response was, "That's right. That's the point."

But I could see his point too. Either people want to exercise some effort and actually practice a Buddhist discipline or they don't. All the frills in the world don't, in one sense, make a rat's ass worth of difference.

I thought of this today because I realize how my desire and willingness to tell stories is dwindling (he said, while telling a story). Stories have a deliciousness. Stories are people and readers are people too ... who wouldn't chow down on something that might be delicious and comprehensible and sympathetic to the human adventure?

But nowadays there seems to be a swelling element of stand up/speak-up/and shut up. Just make the point and never mind the Ketchup. I think about writing another book and find myself unwilling to weave and spin ... maybe it's just lazy. But stuff like "living in the moment" and "emptiness" and "compassion" and "love" and "enlightenment" ... well, don't count on me.

And, having barfed up that little chestnut, I suppose it's time to finish yet another story.

Monday, July 20, 2009
gone before you know it
Interesting phrase, "gone before you know it."

No one can speak quickly enough, think with enough agility, move fast enough or do anything at all that doesn't fall prey to this one small reality: "Gone before you know it."

Aside from the initial tremor of fear or despair or delight that may accompany some acknowledgment of this reality, I think it may also be a place of relief. "Gone before you know it" is one thing to 'understand' and quite another to acknowledge in the recesses of our lives.

If things are "gone before you know it," then also they "come before you know it." Coming and going, ceaselessly.

You can think it through or not, as you see fit.

The only response I can find that makes much sense is, "get out of the way!" But even that is a bit too slick or pseudo-wise. How could anyone possibly get out of the way?

Sunday, July 19, 2009
The Sophisticates
There was once a pretty raunchy joke (one I will not repeat here) that was referred to as "The Aristocrats." I thought of it today after spending time yesterday on the peace protest line chatting with a woman who might roughly be called a sophisticate. Maybe there's a raunchy joke out there about "The Sophisticates" but if so, I don't know it. Even if I did know it, there's already enough joking on television shows and in books about the blind sides of savvy vision. It's a pretty old saw.

The woman was middle-sized and had grey hair and when I asked her, she said her name was Susan and she came from "the city." When I asked her what city that might be, I could see a look compounded of confusion and disdain cross her face. She meant -- but of course -- New York. We joked a little about the 'provincial' setting in which she was vacationing. And when I asked her what she did for a living, it took her about 30 seconds to give me quite a resume: Liked to write, had a tax business (she rolled out the Web address at this point), and did a show on a public radio station in New York ... helping people address their financial lives. She seemed quite pleased with her accomplishments and not shy about detailing them. She had a place in "the city" and you had to take your hat off to her: New York was a place of sophistication and accomplishment. As the author, Norman Mailer, once put it, "A million good ideas die in New York every day." If you were someone in "the city," you were someone.

Susan said, based on the robes I was wearing, that she also practiced vipassana Buddhism with a group in Amherst, a college town about 10 miles from here. She was quick to note that the group had no leader ... and that suited her fine.

I am probably not painting a complete picture of Susan, but our conversation was only a couple of minutes long. But what I thought I noticed in her recitation was a certain urgency, as if, somehow, I might disagree with her or disdain her life choices and, if this were the case, she had both barrels loaded ... she was ready to defend herself and her sophistications. Actually, I was happy for her accomplishments, but wondered a little at the urgencies I thought I detected: It was as if she were defending her turf before any attack began. Don't tread on me! What a lot of energy.

And, fairly or unfairly, it made me think: Sophisticates are as provincial in their ways as provincials can be in theirs. Elevation of intelligence and stature and accomplishment is every bit as wobbly as (Archie-Bunker fashion) elevation of ignorance. Everyone wants to rest easy and yet in order to rest, the best they can think of is to run around expending assertive energies. Assert your intelligence, asset your Buddhist preference, assert your capacity to see possibilities ... assert, assert, assert: You are someone. And the urgency in this realm takes its force, I think, from the small question that cannot help but insist: If you are someone, who the hell are you?

The most intelligent man I ever knew was a neurotic, homosexual academic named Newton Arvin. Bald and bespectacled, Newton was a colleague of my father's at Smith College. He was, at one time, boyfriends with the writer Truman Capote. Newton was enormously well-read and could think the pants off the pope, but what elevated him in my mind was the fact that he was kind. This, to my way of thinking, was the apex of intelligence ... to be kind. Newton wore his intelligence as he wore his baldness: It was just part of the scenery. When called on, he could tell you the time of day and more about Hawthorne and Melville and a lot of other greats. But this was not a necessity. He was at home with his baldness -- what other choice was there? He was at home with his intelligence -- what other choice was there? Calling him modest or humble struck me as ridiculous ... just more sophisticated claptrap. Newton was Newton and that was enough.

No doubt my view of Newton was clouded by the provincialisms and inexperience of my youth, the time when I knew him. I knew that Newton 'tried' to commit suicide a couple of times -- thus exciting the concern of his friends -- but that didn't matter to me. I knew that he was smart and sophisticated. But that didn't matter to me. What did matter, and continues to matter, is that he was kind.

Anyone, sophisticated or provincial, can be kind. It may take some effort and it may involve some false ('sophisticated' or 'provincial') starts, but anyone can be kind. Anyone can be at home ... even when they imagine they are not.

Saturday, July 18, 2009
the sweetest fruit
Out the porch door and across the street in Mike and Doreen's Japanese maple, two squirrels ventured along the branches this morning. Looking for food, I guess. And each in turn would move further and further out along the branches to places where the footing grew thin and tenuous. Out where the footing was less assured was the place where the sweetest shoots grew ... the tenderest and newest and yummiest.

The sweeter the fruit, the riskier the footing.

Even squirrels know that.

Saturday, July 18, 2009
don't interrupt
As a mantram or exercise or discipline or reminder, perhaps this is a pretty good one:

Don't interrupt.

Blue sky.
Don't interrupt.
Warm or chilling thoughts.
Don't interrupt.
Talking to a friend.
Don't interrupt.
Blissful or confusing times.
Don't interrupt.
Looking both ways before crossing the street.
Don't interrupt.
Thinking profound thoughts, believing or finding meaning.
Don't interrupt.
Walking the dog or preparing the taxes.
Don't interrupt.
Making an effort not to interrupt.
Don't interrupt.
Don't interrupt.

Maybe it's a good experiment or effort.

Friday, July 17, 2009Thursday, July 16, 2009
"outside the scriptures"
Zen Buddhism is sometimes described as "the teaching outside the scriptures."

Jesus! What a delightful phrase! How inviting to anyone who has felt the lash of one scripture or another in life. The phrase can take you back to a time when you were a teenager and you discovered that the authority exerted by school or parents was really "so unfair."

But by the time anyone runs into the notion of a "teaching outside the scriptures" in Buddhism ... well, we're no longer teenagers. We're grown-ups, right? And we are more aware of the compromises that life imposes. Right, we're intelligent and competent adults... and yet the idea of a "teaching outside the scriptures" still contains an allure that is, what? -- yummy perhaps.

How many scriptures does anyone write and act on in their lives? Lots, I imagine. Scriptures of employment, scriptures of marriage, scriptures of intelligence and emotion, scriptures of religion, scriptures of creativity, of failure, of success, of ... well, the world seems to be full of scriptures and it can be a terrific relief to run into a scripture that suggests there is a way "outside the scriptures." As adults, we can sense that, however savvy and serene we may try to be, however much we may play by the rules, however devoted we may be to one scripted persuasion or another ... still, we long for an unscripted and unscriptured something-or-other: You can't tell ME what to do!

And in one sense this is absolutely true.

But then comes the hard part: Anyone can moon and croon and wallow in a phrase like "outside the scriptures," anyone can mouth the words, but who has got the nerve to actualize what it might mean? "Outside the scriptures" may be inviting, but it is also sort of scary. If a whole life has been immersed in and devoted to pleasant and unpleasant scriptures ... ummmmm ... who would I be without them? Everyone else does script and scripture, so something "outside the scriptures" feels like an invitation to loneliness and death ... even as it beckons deliciously.

"Outside the scriptures," despite whatever dreams it may inspire, just means that experience trumps belief. It's not a rebellion or a denial. It's just a fact: Experience trumps belief. And the strange part -- at least to the one immersed in a scripted and scriptured life -- is that it has always been that way: What you are attempting to achieve is just the way things actually are: Outside the scriptures. It's nothing unusual or philosophical or religious or scriptured. It's just the way things are ... take a look. Seriously, just take a look.

In Zen Buddhism, the scripted and scriptured suggestions all point to the facts that inform anyone's walking-around, get-up-and-pee-in-the-morning life. The facts are nothing fancy ... only we can do that. Without any woo-hoo or hoo-hah, this moment cannot be scripted or scriptured. Scripts and scriptures relate to the past, relate to old and tested habits, relate to limitations which ... well, are they truly limited?

Like it or not, believe it or not, try to escape it or not, laugh your ass off or weep bitter tears (or not), philosophize or bullshit, grovel or elevate, bob and weave ... at this moment, how could things be otherwise? Inside the scripts and scriptures cannot help but be outside the scripts and scriptures. It's not sexy or mystical. It's just the way things are.

OK, so it takes some practice to get your head screwed on right. So practice. Just don't expect to get outside the scriptures ... or inside either.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009
My older son returned from a golf tournament today and was relatively, but not greatly, pleased at how he had done: Low 40's for each of two nine-hole rounds. His chipping and putting were good, he said, but his driving was off-course.

But the fellows he had been paired with were blowhards. True, they hit marginally better than my son, but their sense of their own prowess and presence made my son scowl. Dimwits and dickheads.

I guess nobody likes a blowhard -- a person (or people) whose sense of self and accomplishment positively oozes over any who might be willing to listen...or is incapable of escaping.

It's as if someone said s/he had read a book about "Buddhism" or "mountain climbing" or "piano playing" or "the art of war" and therefore actually knew his or her ass from his or her elbow. All the analysis and dissecting of the psyche in the world cannot allay the annoyance and cringing such a performance can create. But of course there will always be someone who will be taken in and it is that person (or people) that blowhards count on in life ... people who will elevate the blowhard because the blowhard says "elevate me."

Of course usually, it's all much more subtle.

Chuck, a one-time friend who never met a book he wanted to read, was sometimes dragged to literary parties by his light-hearted and well-read wife, Dixie. You might have thought Chuck would be out of his depth and bored stupid, but he had one thing going for him -- a photographic memory. Whenever two savants were scratching their heads, trying to remember an obscure title by some well-known author, Chuck would chime in with a charming wryness, "Oh, you mean XYZ." He would have seen the title on a shelf once. And, as Chuck drifted off smoothly towards the canapes, the savants would marvel at his keen (and no-doubt well-read) mind. Chuck and Dixie loved to laugh about stuff like that.

Abraham Lincoln once remarked, "You can fool all of the people some of the time and some of the people all of the time, but you can't fool all of the people all of the time."

Fooling others and elevating the self is a game without beginning or end. We've all done it and remain capable of doing it -- pretending to know what we do not know, be who we are not, and dress for the occasion. And we are all capable of scowling with disgust at the course others may take.

But the important part is, let's do our best not to be caught up in our own spin, our own bullshit, our own pretense. Find a thing or two to know and then really find out about it/them. Anything will do ... Buddhism, model trains, thimbles, astrophysics ... just try not to end up with a life, as they say in Texas, that is "all saddle and no horse."

Wednesday, July 15, 2009
Athenian democracy and fleas
Last night I watched a TV program about the myth and reality of democracy in ancient Athens. The program, if a bit herky-jerky in its presentation, was a wonderful cautionary tale for those who, in later times, might extol democracy or the Athens in which it had some basis in fact. The program also supported Winston Churchill's observation that "Democracy is the worst form of government except for all the rest."

I liked the fact that Socrates, who was forced to commit suicide by the very democracy that had nurtured him, died as a sensible man, one willing to take responsibility for his inconvenient views.

And today, because there is some (publishable?) writing on which I would like to expend my energies, I will borrow a topic posted by Peter on Zen Forum International. In general, I dislike quoting others for fear that someone might imagine my own status was elevated just because I could quote someone or something else ... but that's a topic for another time.

Anyway, Peter's words:

One of my teachers once said that we were like people who were trying to pin down five fleas, one under each finger. We get the first flea pinned, Then the second and third, as we work towards the forth, the first wriggles free. We try again. This time we manage four fleas before the second one gets away...He said your life is like that. You have got your job and love life sorted out, but your car breaks down. You get that fixed but you start having problems at work. He said that there is never going to be a time when we pin the five fleas for any length of time. If our happiness lies there, in anything outside ourselves, we will always be constantly disappointed. Its the same with sangha, whether real flesh and blood sangha or cybersangha. No sooner do we get on better terms with A, when B says something we react to. We pm them or post a reposte . That goes down ok . Unfortunately C, who we were never that keen on to be honest and who we thought had left, comes back...Five fingers, five fleas, we cant control anything, but we suffer from the delusion that we can...

Tuesday, July 14, 2009
And now, about 10 hours after I started, I feel like a ripe cantaloupe run over in the road. I have been trying, on the one hand, to correct computer glitches (about which I know little or nothing) combined with, on the other hand, navigating the vagaries of a Medicare prescription program (about which I think I probably should know more but get utterly lost in the permutations) ...

I would really rather not think at the moment. Strange how mental exhaustion translates into the body.

Monday, July 13, 2009
learning to cuss
Anyone who has learned a foreign language knows that probably the highest art within that language is knowing the appropriate uses of slang. But I think somewhat the same thing is true when it comes to someone's native language and its ripples and pools.

Cussing comes to mind.

The first time my mother ever heard me use the word "fuck" she took me aside. She was a woman who appreciated language and was not afraid of it, but she was aware of the variety of applications and impacts it might have. So, instead of washing my mouth out with soap, she told me all the meanings of all the various cuss words in English ... in blushing detail. Then she told me she didn't mind if I used such words around her or, if I thought it was all right, around my friends. But it was not all right to use them around her friends, who might be offended in some way.

My next lesson in cuss words came when I was 16-17 and was collecting rubbish as a summer job. The guy I worked with was a very nice man, very easy to get along with. But at the time, I was into what I imagined was pretty manly language, so I said "fuck" quite a lot. Somehow it seemed to improve my stature. But one day, in the mildest possible tone, the guy I worked with said, "Look. If you don't know how to use that word, I wish you wouldn't." It was a real slap in the face. I came from a brainy family and imagined I knew a thing or two about language and its uses. He was a working stiff. How could he be correcting me?! And yet as I listened to his uses of the word "fuck" -- and he wasn't shy about it -- I could hear what he meant. There were places where the word fit and were appropriate to the linguistic situation and there were others in which it simply didn't work. It was a wonderful lesson.

In Buddhism, there is a suggestion that adherents employ "right speech." And a lot of times "right speech" is interpreted to mean no cussing ... and other humble-pie applications. A kind of Boy Scout goodness and restraint. And it's probably not a bad idea not to make too much of yourself, whether linguistically or otherwise. But I also think of the times when going against the grain, when challenging rules and regs by breaking rules and regs, is precisely the appropriate and effective approach.

"Goodness" that relies for its meaning on "badness" will never be content. "Peace" that relies on the absence of "war" cannot be at peace. "Vegetarians" who rely on "meat-eating" for their philosophy are still minus some training. And "compassion" that relies on an object of compassion may forever sound nice, but still fall short.

I suppose it's OK for a while to play Stepin Fetchit Buddhism like the central character in the TV serial "Kung Fu" -- to rein in old and sloppy habits in an effort to revise the scene -- but there is, I think, a deeper meaning and usefulness to our discipline than simply praising this or blaming that. If the 'authenticity' of the Buddha's teachings were proclaimed on this basis alone ... well ... shit!

I'm too old and lazy to worry much about cuss words or virtuous credentials, but I do think there is something to be said for investigation.

Monday, July 13, 2009
why do you weep?
I once read that it was the visitors to the monastery who felt its wonders and delights, who wept sweet tears within for some half-forgotten beauty. But those who lived their lives within those confines found nothing unusual about it.

Across the dike from here, my favorite garden is taking shape. The man who tends it, year after year, is lean and careful. He seems to take no particular notice of his neat rows or weedless spaces. He just does it year after year and the flowers and fruits bloom in what I take to be an astounding display of expertise. Though I have talked with him once or twice, I don't know the gardener's name. But recently he got a new truck -- a Toyota. I guess the old one wore out. I am speechless at his garden, but he is not.

And across the street recently, Stan, a mason, began rebuilding the four or five brick stairs leading to Mike and Doreen's house. Brick in New England, Stan let me know gently, was a bit of a foolishness, but that doesn't keep him from fixing what needs to be fixed. Hair greying, glasses perched on his narrow face, his movements bespeak a long relationship with brick and mortar. He makes it look easy. He is fluid. He wastes nothing or when he wastes, he knows what he is doing. Everything about Stan displays a deep understanding ... but for him it's just what he does. He is patient and thorough and bit by bit the bricks rise up, level and plumb and brushed clean of stray dribbles of mortar. Stan is serious, but not solemn. His congenial smile seems to ask without disdain ... why do you weep?

Monday, July 13, 2009
pleased as punch
My daughter came bouncing down the stairs at 5:30 this morning. She returned from three weeks in Australia last night/early this morning, and according to her clocks, it was 7:30 at night and she was bubbling with what she had seen and done and bought.

The most interesting tidbits for me were pictures of people drinking out of tea pots and the fact that tipping was not a custom. But the most compelling part was the deep satisfaction I felt ... she had been some place else in the world, had sniffed the wind, had lived in another way -- whether frivolous or profound -- and had enjoyed herself. Perhaps my satisfaction was akin to what others feel about an offspring's academic or athletic achievement ... but to me, this was miles more important: To learn that there is a wider world, a milieu that is the same but different from the at-home assumptions ... even in the cozy safety of suburban Sydney ... something in me whispered with delight: "Thank God!"

I have no clue as to what the adventure meant to her, but I am positively gleeful that she had it, that it was inside her. These were serious smarts, for my money: Not that anyone has to travel far from home, but rather that s/he might be immersed in what had not gone before... a challenge and an education ... a shaking of placid trees: My world is not the end of the world. Perhaps she will use the experience to cling more tightly to her own prejudices. Perhaps not.

Hell, I'm just pleased as punch. Sunday, July 12, 2009
bad dog!
Maybe one way to look at things is this:

Discovering Buddhism can be a wonderful surprise. And what that discovery implies is that a lot of habits we have exercised in the past really don't fill the bill when it comes to a happy and peaceful life. Buddhism points out greed, anger and ignorance. We recognize those qualities in ourselves and are delighted by the sensible and corrective directions Buddhism offers. Hope springs up. Belief is installed. It's pretty terrific.

This morning, however, I was reading some writing by a fellow who awoke one morning and found himself horny as a bedbug. The words said nothing about how sexual excess might have screwed things up in the past, but it seemed to be implicit between the lines. He then described how he had recognized his state of mind and used a variety of 'Buddhist' methods to curb his current horniness ... thinking about the death and decay of the body, citing texts in his mind, reflecting on more serene and 'wholesome' states and the like. And whaddya know -- pretty soon he wasn't as horny any more. He had achieved what he referred to as a "small victory."

I can remember trying to do the same thing with the koan "mu" -- using it as a club to beat down all thoughts and longings and fears that were, I imagined, not "mu." I imagined that this was the way to do what the old fellows used to refer to as "cutting through." I too wanted victory where my life seemed to be filled with sometimes ineffable defeats.

I didn't comment on my horny brother's thread. Everyone needs a chance to make his or her own mistakes. Where, after all, would the wonder of Buddhism be without mistakes? We take up arms against our own mistakes and beat the crap out of anything that resembles a mistake. Victory beckons.

It is good to understand that the habits of the past just haven't worked very well. Sometimes, in fact, they have gotten us into a lot of hot water. Sex, power, greed, control, intellectual acuity, emotional vortexes ... OK. Any or all of them can prove very painful or uncertain-making. So when something called Buddhism offers a different approach, maybe we're all ears and willingness and enthusiasm. We may not be entirely clear about what "enlightenment" or "Nirvana" or "emptiness" or "compassion" is, but it sure sounds better than where we have been. Bring it on! Show me victory!

The trouble with any victory is, of course, that it relies on defeat. Just as those who proclaim peace may rely on the absence of war, so the delighted Buddhist may rely on the bad old days in order to confect the good new days. And just as a peace that relies on the absence of war invariably devolves into war, so the good new days that rely on the absence of the bad old days (or "Mara" or "Samsara" or something similar) ... well, how could anyone claim an honest victory with such an approach?

It's not a criticism to call such an approach a mistake. A mistake is just a mistake, meaning that it doesn't work. Noticing works. Beating the crap out of things amounts to beating the crap out of clouds ... clouds that come and go without any effort or battle plan.

The wonder and gift of Buddhism lies in our willingness to notice ... and then go on noticing. Good and bad, cutting through and failing to cut through, are extras. Wake up horny as a bedbug ... how wonderful is that? Later we are not so horny. How wonderful is that? Maybe we'll be happy or sad. How wonderful is that? And there's always chocolate. How wonderful is that? And then there's the one who creates or acknowledges these wonders. How wonderful is that? Sometimes things are not so wonderful at all -- in fact, they suck. How wonderful is that? Endless mistakes -- how wonderful is that?

See what actually happens ... horny is horny, sucks is sucks, chocolate is chocolate. Pretending any of it is wonderful or awful ... well, we can all do it, but just because we CAN do something doesn't mean we HAVE to. Who's running this show, after all?
following directions
I wonder what it would be likeSaturday, July 11, 2009
peace activists
I had wanted to do it and finally did it -- drove downtown and lined up with five or six other weekly peace activists on Main Street. They had signs focusing on Iraq, Afghanistan, drones and other topics. I just wore my robes and, as expected, got several sidelong or friendly glances ... glances that drew attention to the statements made by others. Or at least that's what I hoped. Guys in dresses ... how about that?

There was congenial talk as we stood there -- the rain that had damped down the crops, the status of health care, who was going to take a hike where, what kind of mileage particular cars got, protesting in Washington. Time passed between 11 and 12. Someone passed out a single sheet of paper to passersby.

In the town where I live, peace statements are largely preaching to the choir, but my view is that it is the choir that often needs more reminding than those who are convinced by an opposing view.

Interesting to note that those along the line seemed prone to using the word "they" a lot. "They" were oppressors, "they" had things all wrong, "they" were the manipulators and connivers, "they" were the ones who hurt others. It had been a long time since I had been in a group with an agenda -- even Buddhists -- so it was interesting and informative to hear. Good teaching.
it weren't like anything at all.

Saturday, July 11, 2009
in the bull ring
A couple of days ago, a young man was gored to death during the running of the bulls in Pamplona, Spain. The annual event was raised in public consciousness by Ernest Hemingway's "The Sun Also Rises" and Hemingway's appreciation of the courage and grace and manliness of bull fighting was probably one reason I did, once, take myself to a bullfight in Mexico.

It was an excellent lesson for me. I was younger then and full of easy understandings, not least about courage and grace and death. Like all understandings, my understandings were true understandings, convinced understandings ... not understandings I would necessarily foist on anyone else, but understandings that made me feel somehow that I knew who I was. Courage was admirable, for example. Being willing to put your life on the line was admirable. Skill was admirable.

I was content in my suppositions.

I paid for a ticket and brought my camera to the arena. I wanted a record of the fact that I had been and, having gone, had somehow allied myself more firmly with my convictions and assumptions and, perhaps, courageous manliness.

There were several fights scheduled on that sunny afternoon. I looked forward to the entertainment. What I got was a lesson in full-bore revulsion. It was visceral and wordless. It rose up like some inchoate wave, wordless and powerful. When I tried to put words to it, it came out as a jumbled mess ... nogoddamnedfuckingwayisthisawaytolive!!!!!!!!!!!!! It was vile and disgusting in my belly. It was beyond puking. Nothing I could say or do could withstand the wave. No 'understanding' sufficed to either placate or elucidate. It was stupid and cruel beyond naming. If some animal rights type had whispered in my ear at that time, I probably would have punched him out. No mewling, loving, soft-spoken and 'humane' drivel reached ... THIS was off the charts.

No one was going to eat this animal. Someone had chosen to create the situation and then cover it up with 'courage' and 'skill' and 'entertainment' and 'money.' If the creators had decided to put a small, feisty child in the bullring and then employed entertaining moves before stabbing that child to death ... it was beyond what the cells in my body would allow.

I didn't stay. I left the arena shaken and enraged and then realizing that my own assumptions were a part of this complicitous activity. And that enraged me even more ... how dare the realities of life correct my easy assumptions, my easy understandings, my easy, book-reading assurances? And later still, it occurred to me that my revulsion was no real answer either, no real basis for a different set of easy understandings ... that would just be more cowardice, more pretense and preening. Bullfights and wars actually happened. Philosophy and religion could piss up a rope when it came to what actually happened.

How then to be at peace with what actually happened and not just asserting well-meaning 'principles' like some virtuous twit. There was a challenge in it -- to get to the bottom of imagined good and imagined evil, imagined love and imagined anger, imagined compassion and imagined selfishness. But how the hell did anyone do that ... get to the bottom of things while surrounded by 'principles' and 'understandings' and 'heartfelt cries.' Whining was not enough. Agreement was not enough. Understanding was not enough. What was enough?

I could refine and revise principles and understandings forever and never really have things right -- have things in accordance with what actually happened. No one wants to get stuck in the pisspot of evil. But how do you go about escaping the honeypot of 'principled' and 'loving' and 'virtuous' goodness? What actually happens actually happens ... how can pretense and rich raiment ever hope to address such things accurately?

Well, my answer is this: Stop going in the wrong direction. Instead of trying to purify muddy water from a distance, dive in. Dive in and dive deep. Get to the bottom of evil and, perhaps more difficult, get to the bottom of good. Don't stop. Don't be sidetracked by goodness and evil. Take the very principles and understandings that can never reach ... and then get to the bottom of it.

Isn't it true? -- things actually happen. They don't have to be vast and revolting as my experience at the bullring was. They don't have to be blissful and soaring. Things actually happen, don't they? Moment after moment, things actually happen. How long can you subsist on a diet of cotton candy? Get to the bottom of things.

How about them apples?

Friday, July 10, 2009
little or no effort required
In an effort to keep things under 100 words:

Is there any difference between "living each moment as if it were your last" and "living each moment as if it were your first?"

Friday, July 10, 2009
comic book mind
Skimming here and there on Internet bulletin boards concerned with Buddhism, I ran across one topic that addressed the "trap of meaninglessness" and another that speculated about a "world without men." And these two topics flowed like rivulets off the mountain into a stream of recollection, one that called up a time when, as a kid, I had an enormous stack of comic books.

For adults, comic books can excite a head-patting indulgence, a kind of forgiveness for childish things. Since comic books did no particular harm and since, in that time, pretty much every kid enjoyed them ... well "aren't kids cute?"

But for a kid, comic books had layers and layers of seriousness. To have a lot of them was a mark of prestige, for one thing. For another, each comic book provided an invitation into a universe of imaginative delight, sometimes funny, sometimes vastly serious as the world faced destruction and some the hero or heroine solved the problem. It was a world filled with complications that a kid could sympathize with. It was a world filled with competence a kid longed to have ... to fly or disappear or stop crime or just provoke laughter ... the kind of laughter that might be missing in a kid's life.

Comic books were important for a kid ... even as the adults might smile indulgently. They were important because, relative to adults, kids were unimportant and unskilled and uncertain. Adults were the ones, after all, who could make a kid eat broccoli and tell them when to go to bed and punish a wide array of transgressions. Comic books created a universe in which there were clear, powerful and unassailable answers, even when that answer was just a good laugh.

In the same way I had a stack of self-affirming comic books when I was a kid, so later I had a stack of books lining the shelves of wherever I lived. They were companions and color and reassurance and definition and understanding on the walls. I believed (or disbelieved) them. And why not? There were no longer any adults patting me indulgently on the head. Adults (at least in that time) read books, were consoled and informed by books, and recognized fellow book-readers as "my kind of people." In books, the mind could soar or be informed or visit distant places or stretch its current vistas. Books, like comic books, asked and answered the question, "what if...?" There was solace and symmetry, competence and power to be had from books.

And why not? Thinking is a good thing -- a thing that presents possibilities. And the more possibilities anyone can envision, the more likely they are to find rich and perhaps successful directions. The fewer the possibilities, the more likely anyone is to feel trapped and perhaps ground down by circumstance.

The only fly in the ointment, of course, is that there is no end to collecting comic books or books either. No end to "what if's." No end to the desire for some new and improved happiness or power or wealth. Each achievement or book or comic book poses a new "what if?" It is as if life were patting us on the head indulgently ... yes, we were all children once and had child-like habits, but now ... well, hell, I'm an 'adult' now, with 'adult' habits, habits that other adults concur in ... and still I am playing with comic books. Somehow my adult life is littered with childish habits and there is no one to show me how go grow up. About the only benefit to being an 'adult' may be that I no longer have to eat broccoli if I don't feel like it. And yet there may be a simultaneous longing to find that set of circumstances or religion or philosophy which takes the high and powerful ground adults once held: Eat your broccoli, dear.

Naturally we don't call them comic books any more. Now they are clothed in importance and relevance and meaning. Now we know polysyllabic words and indulge in complex thought and excuse each other for our wisdoms. Now we are 'adults' who have set aside comic books ... and yet somehow the comic book mind remains.

What about a world without men? What about the trap of meaninglessness? What about the answers to our questions? What about my comic-book habits?

Comic books are pretty good things, I think. They inspire attention and intention. But attention or intention ... for what? I imagine the answer to that is something like "to be happy, that's what!" But that inspires the question, "how shall I be happy?" And that in turn often leads people back to their comic books and books and religions and philosophies. Around and around it goes ... when all the time the answer was staring us in the face:

Eat your broccoli, dear. It'll make you grow up big and strong.

Thursday, July 9, 2009
waiting for the rooster
I am waiting for the neighborhood rooster.

The other birds wake up at 4 and stake their claim to the universe from behind leafy branches through which I cannot see. They are noisy as kids in a school cafeteria, chattering with purposes that are clear and yet hidden. Perhaps they long to dispel the darkness ... or perhaps to welcome the light ... or perhaps they are concerned with boyfriends and girlfriends. Whatever their purpose, it is clear and yet hidden.

But where is the rooster? A rooster is a bird, my mind argues, and a cocky one at that. So where the hell is he? Somehow I cannot imagine a rooster being tricked by having been locked overnight in some darkened coop. The needs of the universe are beyond light and dark ... so why is he not asserting and chorusing as well?

I know I will hear him later, crowing and crowing and crowing from down the street and across a small field. But where is he NOW? Where are his purposes that are clear and yet hidden? He is somehow not-yet and yet not-not-yet either.

I wonder and wait. Wednesday, July 8, 2009
the way of things
This morning, from the porch with it's open door, I saw Joan across the street looking absently at the small, decorative garden her daughter Doreen has created. She then looked down the street as if assuring herself in some easy way that her world was still there. Then she saw me sitting on the porch and waved. I waved back.

Joan is getting older now. She walks with a limp and her body has gone slack. Her hearing has declined, which was why I didn't call out a "good morning" and just waved instead. Joan's husband, "Biz," died several years ago and yet she continues with some small job and she continues to trim the bushes and mow the lawn. It's a slow business, getting these things done, but she does them. Sometimes I think that when it comes to toughness, women have it all over the men.

And yet, before she saw me and as I simply watched her standing there, reviewing the world before her drive to work, once or twice, without a thought, she ran the fingers of her right hand through her grey hair. Making it neater. Making it prettier.

Women are beautiful. They have earned the right to run their fingers through their hair, however slack and slowed things may become. It is the way of things, I think.

Maybe that's the rooster's wake-up call.

Wednesday, July 8, 2009
At the copy shop yesterday, I talked with a young woman behind the counter about the particulars of a couple of projects she was working on for me: 1. digital renderings of a couple of small calligraphy and 2. a business card to post here and there, advertising for reading, editing, writing assistance. I enjoyed talking to this young woman. She had brought her expertise to bear on something I considered important and her expertise really pleased me. We were talking about the parameters and particulars of beauty and I am a sucker for beauty.

As I looked at the proofs of the calligraphy -- one by my Zen teacher's teacher, Soen Nakagawa Roshi, and one by my teacher, Kyudo Nakagawa Roshi -- I realized I had no particular use for them (I had the originals) and so I would send them along to a friend, Dave.

Dave and I go back a bit. We met along the Zen circuit, both spent time at the same monastery, both lived through a bunch of sex scandals at the same Zen center, and wrote some songs together. Dave's mother carved the Buddha statue that stands in my backyard zendo. It is made, she told me at the time she made it, out of African wonder stone ... black and beautiful in my eye.

Dave is an 'ear' guy. He works for former-Beatle Paul McCartney's music company in New York ... in the copyright department. But Dave loves the beauty of music ... plays piano and guitar. I am more an 'eye' guy, loving the beauty of, say, the calligraphy I was having copied. Still we both love beauty and would probably give up quite a lot (including the recognition that 'beauty' is little more than a perception) in our enjoyment of it. I wouldn't be surprised if the neatly-trimmed hedges of Zen practice were a part of what drew us both to it. Beauty.

Anyway, the thought of sending Dave copies of the calligraphy I was having copied really made me feel good. Lighter, somehow, and pleased. I like giving away what I love but the delight made me realize as well ...

There was an element of selfishness in it all -- a need to assert control. As the self-centered may demand that the world provide for their needs (think stereotyped Jewish mom), so the reliance on giving to others can also present an assertion of self. It's a bit wily because it has a patina of social 'goodness' woven around it ... but still. I had no particular notion that Dave might like my gift -- he could like it or not as he chose -- but the idea of giving satisfied some long habit within. There was a knee-jerk potential in my delight.

I don't mean to analyze and pick apart and 'understand' all this. It was just something I noticed, an aspect of the situation ... altruism and goodness as an assertion and conviction of self ... even, perhaps, a weapon.

I still plan to send Dave the pictures. I still plan to enjoy my delight. And I'm getting a bit old to surrender whatever it is that beauty does for me. It's just an aspect of this world and I like it in the same way I like chocolate. Deeeelicious!

Tuesday, July 7, 2009
making things easy
Funny how we say thank you to people. Often we thank them because they have made things easier. "Here," they may say, "don't hold the hammer like that. Hold it like this." And sure enough, it's easier and we are thankful.

But today I am thinking of the old guys in Buddhism -- the Huang Po's and the Rinzai's and the Hui Neng's and the Marpa's -- who seemed to make things impossible. How is it possible to thank such men and women? If they had taken us by the hand and crooned gentleness in our ears, who would thank such people? Wouldn't we scorn them as poseurs, as people who barred the door?

"Drop it!" says one. "Do good, refrain from evil and purify this mind" says another. "If you can't put it down, pick it up," says a third. What insufferable bastards they were and remain. But truly insufferable are the ones who know no better than to mimic their style, aping the role of bastard and playing snuggle-bunny from behind a mask of loving those old bastards ... ego-tripping assholes blinding us all with bright lights and shitting on all and sundry ... the beads-and-baubles crowd ... making things easy.

I feel so lucky to have met those old men.

And they ain't dead yet.

Making things impossible.

Jesus! -- I melt with gratitude.

Tuesday, July 7, 2009
let's not talk about it
Yesterday, I plopped down on the couch next to my son who was vegging out watching a TV sitcom. Between laugh tracks and advertising, the story concerned a guy who couldn't seem to make friends with his neighbors. A chum counseled him that he had to learn to talk about the weather and sports.

The fellow who wanted to be accepted but felt left out could not believe that people would not want to discuss such things as the European Union. His friend assured him that no one wanted to discuss Japan and was not phased at all when the outsider said Japan did not belong to the European Union.

As a plot line, it was pretty thin tea, but still it was tea: A lot of people would like to assert their wisdoms by defining the ignorance of others and everyone has felt the sting of being left out and the desire to be counted in.

And all this strikes me as true with or without the laugh tracks and advertising. There are rules to situations and relationships. Back in the day, for example, mothers might counsel their children, "Never discuss religion or politics at the dinner table." And then there was the old joke about the mother who wanted to go out and admonished her child before she did: "And don't stick beans up your nose."

There are rules that guide and shape circumstances: Let's not talk about the European Union or, alternatively, let's not discuss the weather and sports. And some of the rules may have a useful and kindly quality. Such boundaries can make the social connections easier and less dangerous. It's no good pooh-poohing them. But there comes a time when it's no good enshrining them either.

If you tell someone not to stick beans up his nose, what's the first thing into his head? If you tell someone to limit the discussion to sports and the weather, the question whispers and insists ... what else might we discuss; what lies beyond the limits of the current rules? What about the European Union?

Social commentary doesn't interest me much. Who is a "conformist" and who is a "non-conformist" is best left to righteous teenagers and other 'wise' analysts. What does interest me is the extent to which anyone might apply similar limitations in their own lives. What about the stuff that comes silent as a shadow while the sports and weather and laugh tracks resound? In the interior dialogue, what about all those thoughts and feelings which may be surrounded by barbed wire that advises: "Let's not talk about that?"

Whether it's on TV or in the most compelling spiritual endeavor, this shit really happens I think. And it's no good pretending it doesn't: Set up a rule and the first thing the human mind does is to wonder what lies beyond that rule. Is leading a life according to "let's not talk about it" really enough? On the other hand, does talking about a person's own version of the European Union really suffice either? Many, if not most, may find some compromise between what suffices and what does not, but a compromise is too often just another way of saying "let's not talk about that," of setting up and settling for new limitations ... and there is a lingering curiosity about what lies beyond, of what it might be like to stick beans up your nose, of being somehow free from limitation... even if the notion of freedom is limited by the notion of lacking-freedom.

As a teenager, I once took myself to a grassy athletic field. It was night and there were no lights outside the stars. No one else was there. I stood in the middle of the field that was soft and lush with grass and closed my eyes, extended my arms and turned slowly, slowly around. Around and around. If I fell, I would not get hurt -- the grass was soft. So I could turn and turn as I tried to rid myself of some something that seemed to limit and inhibit ... something. I look back on the exercise as a strange, perhaps yowling, acknowledgment of limits I could not escape. I was trying to talk about what otherwise bore the yoke of "let's not talk about that." I tried ... and of course I failed. I was looking for "God" and, like all people who seek "God," I completely missed the point.

Sometimes I honest-to-goodness wonder why, when there are perfectly good sitcoms available, anyone bothered to create such things as the Tripitaka or soaring temples or the magnetic movements of a tea ceremony. I guess that creating the rules may be as good a way as any as pointing out a land without rules (or with rules), but ... but...but...

Talk about it or don't talk about it, who created these rules? Who imagined s/he might be limited or unlimited? Who longs to stick beans up his nose or analyze the particulars of the European Union? Who meditates diligently or feels somehow less whole when s/he doesn't? And who, when they have any sense, doesn't turn the TV off?

Monday, July 6, 2009
--- Yesterday, a woman who works at a local copying store called to say that the store was short-staffed and could she delay by a day or two the work I had asked her to do on a couple of small calligraphy pieces (one by Soen Nakagawa Roshi, the other Kyudo Nakagawa Roshi). Since I was in no particular rush, we reset the completion time between us.

But I was impressed. I mean really impressed. Her call represented what I considered to be both professional and responsible. I was as happy to think that such a thing existed in the world as I might have been to receive the completed work. Literally. It made me realize one of the expectations I have: If someone says they are going to do something, I expect that they will actually do it (why say so otherwise?). And if they can't or won't deliver, then I expect some acknowledgment. I really don't care one way or the other -- do it or don't do it -- but not to take responsibility strikes me as a mistake, both in terms of others and in terms of yourself.

Of course my expectations and a couple of bucks will get me a bus ride.

--- The recent rain -- day after day after day of it -- has slowed the growth of the corn in the fields across the nearby dike. Not by much, but still by some. The green rows appear to have missed the nutshell saying of the past: "Knee-high by the fourth of July." It's funny about nutshell sayings like "a stitch in time saves nine" or "red sky in the morning, sailors take warning/ red sky at night, sailors delight:" No matter how much experience went into shaping those brief observations or encouragements, still their wisdoms need to be relearned in a later time. Maybe that's why anyone might cringe a little when hearing a well-versed person say something like "Truth is one, wise men call it by many names" or "Do good; refrain from evil; and purify this mind." The universe invariably whispers, "Prove it, bigmouth!"

--- And speaking of sayings whose depths I have not plumbed, Sri Ramakrishna, the 19th century expositor of Hindu Vedanta, once said, "Bhakti is best in the Kaliyuga." I was up to my armpits in Vedanta texts at the time I first read it, so it had some come-hither meaning in my mind. Now, I suppose, it sounds a bit like gibberish ... another example of words that may not mean much to anyone else.

A "yuga," if I recall, is something over a million years. "Kali" is the god/goddess of destruction. And "Bhakti" yoga is a practice of kindness and an underlying assumption that God -- Hindus aren't as gun-shy about "God" as Buddhists -- is present in all things. So the Kaliyuga is an Iron Age of sorts, a time when spiritual attainment is difficult if not impossible. Things suck in the Kaliyuga, but their suckiness may suck below a surface of pleasure and acquisition and wrong directions. By Hindu yardsticks, we are currently living in the Kaliyuga.*

Against the Iron Age backdrop, Sri Ramakrishna counseled the practice of kindness. And it seems to me, as I skim various Buddhist bulletin boards on the Internet, that the Theravada tradition (one that I take to be woven with kindnesses and a willingness to credit texts and uses words like "authentic" as regards texts or teachings) is indeed more magnetic and popular than the Mahayana tradition (which I take to encourage a way that is "outside the scriptures.")*

Hard times, whether personal or overarching, respond to the "kindness of strangers" as the fictional Blanche Dubois was famous for saying. Who would not breathe a sigh of relief or gratitude when, from out of the blue, some sweetness is added to life's sometimes bitter tea? Who would not be grateful for a staff to lean on?

But to the extent that the practices of kindness relate to some imagined other beings and to the extent that those beings begin to suggest that altruism is the goal and the completion ... to the extent, in short, that anyone would imagine a nesting place within the bright light of kindness, well, to that extent, my teeth begin to itch and I see the Iron Age nourished and prolonged. By experience, kindness and love are the only thing that make sense, but without the experience, they are bound to remain a hindrance and a foolishness... like a man who goes out to his garden and waters the weeds.

OK, OK, I hear my wiser brethren counseling balance and the "middle way." Teachings inside and outside the scriptures are both open to calamity, but the calamitous potential of the kinder, gentler way, strike me as particularly wily. When people suffer, they seek relief, but relief without experience, relief without investigation, is hardly any relief at all. And because of the power of the get-down uncertainties and sorrows of this life, it is easy to be ensorcelled by the good stuff, the kind stuff, the gentle stuff. It is easy to suggest that anyone might investigate the bad stuff in their lives, but when you suggest that the good stuff should be investigated, well, you might as well suggest they put their cat in the microwave oven ... they get pissed.

I heard the Dalai Lama talking to a largely-academic crowd once. He counseled them to use their good education to spread the kindness. On the face of it, the encouragement sounded like an altruistic direction, much as "save all sentient beings" may sound like an altruistic direction. Yes, be kind. Yes, rein in your own self-centered ways. Yes ... it's good stuff and certainly warranted in an Iron Age.

But kindness is not only making-nice or doing good or other praise-worthy compass points. Kindness is just an inescapable conclusion based on experience. It's like looking at the blue sky ... of course it's blue, dimwit. What other choice is there? It's nice to practice kindnesses of this kind ....

Right up until the moment you actually are kind.

*I apologize to all and sundry if I have unduly manhandled or been too broad-brush when summing up these philosophies or directions. Chalk it up to a poorly-educated mind and a poorly-informed body of experience.

Sunday, July 5, 2009
going, going ....
Where I am going, you cannot go.

Where you are going, I cannot go.
But we can go together.

Sunday, July 5, 2009
what's the upshot?
What then is the upshot of spiritual endeavor? Of course using a word like 'upshot' suggests an end and will send people dithering about saying there is no end, it's an endless 'process'(I'm not sure why, but I dislike that word ... maybe because those who use it do so as a means of suggesting they have a handle on things). And those who love their institutions will set up defensive perimeters and suggest that any 'upshot' would just be a crisis of faith ... one more reason to come back to the church or temple and put a dollar in the collection plate ... here, let me scare your pants off for the umpteenth time with "death" or some other big stick.

But I think the quiet ones, the ones whose longing and effort and uneasiness come to them in ways and places seldom perfectly expressed, deserve an answer. Not my answer or even their answer but just the answer. What then is the upshot of spiritual endeavor? All those minutes and days and weeks and years of what is roughly referred to as spiritual endeavor ... what's the upshot?

Rather than calling it a "crisis of faith," perhaps it would be better to call it a "resolution of faith" -- the easy and natural segue from believing it's true to allowing it to be true. For example, if someone believes in God, surely God does not need a believer's help or improvement or explanation. Help and improvement and explanation refer to the believer, but God refers to nothing whatsoever ... or everything, if you prefer. And the same is true for enlightenment or Buddha nature or Tao or ... well, the quiet ones pick their own arenas.

But what, after all, is the upshot? Shut up and tell me the upshot!

Having dressed the woodsmoke of spiritual endeavor in robes and rituals and efforts and laughter and tears that reach out over the years ... was it worth it? What's the upshot?

If you drop a rock -- small or large -- into smooth lake water, the ripples immediately start to extend outward ... beautiful in their perfect circularity ... further and further and further and further and further and further. As a poetic invitation, some say, "endlessly." Ripples of faith, ripples of experience, ripples of uncertainty, ripples of me. Further and further and further and further ... reaching to far horizons, or so it seems. Wider and wider the arms open in some nameless longing for embrace. So ... what is the upshot?

What happens when you pick your nose and there are simply no more boogers to be extracted? What's the upshot?

Eventually, in some magic that probably has to do with gravity or the natural order of things or something, the ripples seem to disappear. The rock has long since sunk to the bottom, the ripples have made their smooth and perfect journeys and, just now, the water is smooth once more. How did that happen? How could that not happen? Sure, there are boogers, but there are no more boogers.

Maybe it feels a bit odd where the water is smooth ... we are so used to our beautiful ripples, out spiritual endeavors, our woodsmoke and boogers. But boogers and woodsmoke and ripples are OK. And if we want to have a crisis of faith, that's OK too. If things grow too odd, we can always throw another rock in the lake. Smooth is OK and rippling is OK.

Of course there are those who will say, "yes, yes -- I understand." To which I would reply, "Bite me!" Smooth water does not require your understanding. It only requires you to know the one throwing rocks...or not throwing rocks. Good or bad is not the point ... that's just more woodsmoke, more boogers.

What's the upshot of this grand and glorious faith, this profound effort, this 'deeeeeep meaning?'

Enjoy yourself.

Isn't the lake beautiful? Isn't the sun sweet? Doesn't a rock sink? Don't the ripples reach out forever? Isn't the smoothness smooth? Doesn't your finger fit precisely and effectively in your nostril? Doesn't woodsmoke refuse to be dressed? Isn't your crisis of faith a perfect crisis?

Go ahead ... drop a rock into smooth water. See what happens. Don't take my word for it. If need be, drop another and another. Dazzle yourself with the wardrobe for woodsmoke. It's just you or just me or just sunshine.

Who could not be laughing here?

Or crying either?
Saturday, July 4, 2009
the fence line

A pretty good line that popped up in my mind and I think I'll save :):

Just because there's a fence around the farm doesn't mean there's a fence around the prairie.

Saturday, July 4, 2009
listening to Bill Moyers
Flitting around the TV channels last night, I ran into Bill Moyers, a guy I admire for his quiet, careful journalisms and a guy I find interesting for his spiritual leanings, most of them Christian. There he was, discussing the spiritual elements (Christian) of this life with three people who seemed to be in a position to know. Each came with a symphony of credentials -- books, degrees, CDs, fame. Each seemed well-intentioned and energetic, like people it might be fun to know.

But after a bit, I switched the channel to some action-adventure drama whose plot and conclusion I could pretty much guess: Biff-bam-boom-sex-and-success. Easy stuff. As a pre-sleep soporific, it was pretty much what the doctor ordered.

But it made me wonder why I had switched channels. I like Moyers. I like spiritual adventures and quandaries and possibilities. I like serious discussion. What was it that turned me off?

And then I realized that what I had expected from Moyers was perhaps too much ... that he would, with his good mind, apply the same careful, pointed and sometimes uncomfortable questions to spiritual suppositions that he could give to global warming or banking skulduggery. What was it that made anyone imagine that a term like "moral compass" should be given a free ride, as if everyone "just knew" what such a thing might mean and agree on its importance and impact? And was "equality" just some let's-pat-each-other-on-the-back-with-our-agreements supposition?

Somehow there seemed to be a substrate of suppositions about religion that was out-of-bounds and no longer open to honest questioning ... the kind of questioning that any sensible journalist (or huamn being) might apply ... relevant to an informative and informed discussion. It was as if banking and political high jinx were fair game, but religion were simply too wholesome or sensitive or something.

Foregone conclusions strike me, after 35-40 years of spiritual interest and activity, as cheap and unkind and an invitation to unhappiness masquerading as good news. I dislike it.

But then, of course, that's why God created the remote: There's nothing saying people can't change the channel and ask the questions that really do need to be asked ... and do the work that needs to be done.

In the meantime, there's also nothing wrong with a little soporific biff-bam-boom-sex-and-success. At least that isn't pretending to be a wake-up call.

Saturday, July 4, 2009
pity the swiftest horse
Take pity on the swiftest horse.

In "Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind," Suzuki Roshi uses the image of four sorts of horses -- the horse that runs without the whip, the horse that runs at the shadow of the whip, the horse that runs at the sight of the whip and the horse that requires the whip in order to run. (I haven't got that quite right, but you get the drift.) And Suzuki asks, on which horse does the Buddha take most pity ... isn't it the one that requires the whip?

But I wonder this morning about the swiftest horse, our own most competent and fleet abilities and understandings. Isn't this too a time for deep patience and kindness and encouragement? Isn't this a realm in which to take pity?

The pointer arises in my mind: "Having some attainment is the jackal's yelp. Having no attainment is the lion's roar." And of course everyone would like to be a lion ... sort of.

I guess all this comes up in my mind because I am aware of how a gradual disinterest has asserted itself in my head: I am more drawn to those whose steps are the steps of early childhood, all wobbly and delighted and prone to falls. Those who have learned to walk, well, there's no need to speak to them of walking. That would be preaching to the choir. Those in the choir know they want to sing, know they love music, and practice what they love. They are the swift horses, the assured walkers ... sort of.

In Zen Buddhism, someone once summed things up this way: "Begin. Continue." And for anyone who has given it a shot, who has put their money where their mouth is, it is the 'continue' part that is tough. Moment after moment, day after day, week after week, year after year ... continue. Sing, sing and sing again. Continue.

It is a thorny realm because in continuing, there is a natural tendency to rest, to nest, to become part of the choir, to create some imaginative lion who is nothing more than a jackal. Oh shit! -- another religion! It is hard to continue. It is as wearing as driving cross-country ... who wouldn't want to find a rest stop, a place to be at home, a place in which there is the bliss of taking a much-needed piss. I can sing now -- even the hard things like "The Star Spangled Banner" or Beethoven's Ninth Symphony or "Jerusalem."


Even the swiftest horse is never swift enough. Is this not a realm for kindness and for pity? No whip, no rider, no horse, no jackal, no lion, no choir, no rest stop ... and yet no lack of whip or rider or horse or jackal or lion or choir or rest stop ... who will continue here?

Others have more energy than I to encourage those who continue. These encouragers will raise the whip and offer a profound kindness. And yet in the end, who can raise the perfect whip? I am happy for those who encourage and those who would be encouraged, for those who continue and makes such wondrous efforts. But preaching to the choir is off my energy charts, despite all these words.

Sing! Isn't that enough? Isn't that kindness and pity enough?

Sing! -- and in that singing know that there is no other lion.

Friday, July 3, 2009
I infer that my daughter, who has been visiting a friend in Australia for almost two weeks, is homesick. She sent an email yesterday that included the words, "miss you guys," a dehydrated summation whose implications spread out like the ripples resulting from a rock dropped in smooth water. She has another week to go on a vacation she entered into with excitement and bravado ... in a sure vision that she would be happy in some new and improved way...just as anyone might go on vacation.

The young woman she is visiting lives in Australia and is, of course, at home. But my daughter is a visitor and not at home at all. However much fun, still, I imagine, the whole thing is like going to a movie you want to see and then the movie mysteriously turns out to be much, much longer than expected. Enough, already! There is some longing in the heart to return to ... to what? To what is known? To whatever constitutes 'home?' To the assumptions and comforts of another time and place? To an arena in which there are handholds of irritation and love and lounging and laughter ... and a refrigerator you can raid at will?

Once at home, of course, my daughter will chafe and fidget at the limitations and find some new encouragement to venture forth. It's human and I hesitate to analyze it ... erecting some explanation and then imagining analysis or explanation could sum up or contain or hold at a distance the vagaries of the human heart. The 'home' anyone finds in explanations is just like the home my daughter may want to come home to or the vacation anyone might long to go on ... satisfying and inviting at the outset and yet invariably limited and perhaps cloying or frightening in the event.

Explanations of such things don't reach -- they are far too limited and frequently smug without the hard evidence that would justify such smugness. But what I hope my daughter will learn is a willingness to examine. Just take a look. Home may be where the heart is, but where is the heart?

There is a part of me that aches for my daughter's ache. I long to protect her and to make her feel safe. But there is another part that rejoices in her learning at least a bit of some real-life lesson. If you are limited and uncertain there and limited and uncertain here, then is there a place without limitation and uncertainty? Are the pretenses and pointers of explanation and analysis really enough? Without making a federal case out of it, I do think it's worth a look. Is there some place without homesickness?

Home is where the heart is, but where is the heart?

Thursday, July 2, 2009
It may be sort of silly on the face of it, but did you ever think of the general (or maybe spiritual) questings in life as little more than the longing to find your enjoyable place in the world around you -- a world you couldn't possibly escape if you wanted to?

And that therefore the only way to seek out an assured footing is in the very place where the footing is slippery and uncertain?

Questing in any other arena -- assuming such a thing existed -- would just be a flight of fancy, don't you think?

I guess all of us have to go through a silly phase before we serious-up.

Thursday, July 2, 2009
the soaring heart
On Facebook this morning, I wrote with the brevity Facebook demands,

It occurred to me today that I am more or less content with the adventures I have had. No particular rush or hope to fill in some imagined blank spot ... except perhaps a visit to Tierra del Fuego or the Orkneys or Afghanistan. :) I wonder if others are likewise more or less content. It seems sensible, if not always possible.

In one sense, it is ludicrous to be discontent with the adventures of this life: Who, after all, can revise the past ... or the present or future, for that matter? But what makes sense -- what's actual-factual -- isn't always what moves the heart or assures some ease. When something is "missing" or "missed," well, there's no talking the heart out of it.

I wish I could have ...
I am so...
I wish I could....

The heart can stamp its foot like some hysterical child in the supermarket checkout line ... "But I WANT a Hershey bar!"

I didn't sign up to get old. I didn't sign up to get sick. I didn't sign up to die. There has been a terrible mistake! Age is supposed to bring wisdom ... so where's my wisdom? Maybe tomorrow I'll wake up and things will all be straightened out: The past will be a satisfaction, the present will bring a smile, and the future will be littered with a hundred joys.

Writing it down can make the heart seem foolish, but the heart is not swayed by intellectual distances. It proclaims and desires and ... I could give a flying fuck if it's rational or serene.

Over and over the facts assert themselves, however. The past cannot be revised or improved. The present is as elusive as a drop of mercury. And the future, however beckoning or distressing, is not yet.

Thinking things over, the oh-so-sensible mind suggests, "Lower your expectations." But to the soaring heart, this is little more than consoling, self-help bullshit. The soaring heart does not do compromises and is unswayed by fortune-cookie wisdoms. The soaring heart was built to soar, to wallow in and BE the music ... and never mind the factual barriers. It longs as that child in the supermarket checkout longs: Where is my soaring?! Where is my Hershey bar!?

Buddhists are luckier than many, I think, because the format within which they make their efforts does not deny the soaring heart and does not deny the facts that such hearts encounter. "God" is far too convenient and limited and without true notes. Whether yowling or delighted with some imagined 'understanding,' Buddhists pay attention and take a responsibility they cannot evade. Step by step. Step by step. Patiently, courageously, doubtfully ... step by step. They may imagine that some 'improvement' is in the offing, yet even so ... step by step.

Until, perhaps, one day there is nothing but soaring, there is nothing but limitation, there is nothing but Hershey bars, there is nothing but wrinkling skin and one ache after another and something others call death ... nothing but the yes-but's or wishing I had made it to Tierra del Fuego. :)

Wednesday, July 1, 2009
death heaped on death
As I had told him I would, I called the executive editor of the paper I retired from last Saturday. I wanted him to write me a generalized letter of recommendation. Not that I expect to find work in writing or editing or teaching or tutoring, but I thought I would try to line up a few ducks, so I called him yesterday, the first day on which I might otherwise have been at work: Tuesday was always my Monday at work.

The group I 'retired' with were all pretty confused by the process ... knowing they had once loved newspapers in one way or another and yet recognizing that the newsroom had become so toxic and devoid of what once was purpose that ... well, it was time to go, whatever the difficulties and confusions that departure presented. All of us left by choice.

But as I was chatting with Wayne, lo and behold, he passed along more bad news. Even after the the departure of my group (about 27 people), on Monday, the company instantaneously trimmed another 13 ... a couple of editors, three photographers, five reporters, a copy editor and some others. Bang -- just like that.

Wayne ticked off their names and they were all people I knew -- most of them very good to pretty good at their jobs. Tim, Jane, Bob, Chris, Mary, Angela, Dave, Jim, Alex .... One or two were dead wood at what they did, but the rest ... the rest were the kind of people who made the newspaper any good, even as it waned. Many in the group had young children and mortgages and were cut down in what appeared to be an indiscriminate fashion. It seemed a bit like the German machine guns at the Battle of the Somme... everyone's fair game. Even as the Wall Street bankers who had contributed significantly to this bloodbath were reconsolidating their positions, the people I knew were getting hurt.

"It was all based on seniority," Wayne said.

And somehow the news of these new reductions was sadder than my own departure. I suppose it might qualify as a displacement of sadness -- acknowledging the sorrow of others as a means of camouflaging or explaining the sadness I hadn't quite acknowledged in myself -- but still it was sadness.

I asked Wayne if he saw any bright lining to it all -- any direction or plan that might reconfigure the newspaper, even if it were to something as suspect and dumbed-down as the Internet. And he basically said no.

In the midst of all this, there was a small recognition that however difficult my own departure had been, still it had been, more or less, by choice and not by the choice of another.

Death is death. But the sadness is not therefore the less. The tendrils reach out from the patient and touch one thing or another, one person or another. So I am sad for these colleagues and there is nothing to be done about it. As with any other death, there is no way out except in.

And I am sad that stupidity masquerading as smarts should wax and flourish. All saddle and no horse. A banker's world in which responsibility goes begging...the same bankers who probably went to some of the finest schools in the country. Stupidity hurts people and I don't like that. Not that newspapers made people significantly smarter, but it was one thread in the weaving.

I guess I am just in a sad mode ... or just old and fat and grumpy.

Tuesday, June 30, 2009
be patient
Be patient with yourself and others. Very patient. It is really amazing how people come around -- in time -- to what actually makes sense. The wisdoms of the world are not the wisdoms that are written or spoken or heard ... no matter how loud the accolades or how voluble the disapproval.

The wisdoms of the world make themselves apparent through attention, not through adoration. Be patient -- what you seek is not what you adore.

The wisdoms of the world come like a curious horse with whom you share a wide field ... shambling and carefree and perhaps a bit curious at this stranger. The stranger may come or go -- no matter -- the wisdoms just sidle up and sniff and are sniffed in return.

Once upon a time, I used to sit outside a Zen center I attended in New York, waiting for the doors to open, and watch the passersby. And I was truly dumbfounded that they should be headed home from work or headed to work when the zendo was about to open. How could this be? Why were they not waiting with me? Why were they not taking things seriously ... as seriously as I was? But of course I was in an adoration phase, a world of praise. And of course praise is limited, where the wisdoms are not.

Be patient and be of good cheer. People come around in their own time. I come around in my own time. Be patient with the praise and blame and philosophy and religion and accolades and disclaimers. Just be patient and pay attention.

The wisdoms cannot be found. They are never missing. Always. But there is no pushing the river. Just be patient and attentive and now and then, sniff the wind.

The wisdoms that you speak of are not the wisdoms that you seek. Be patient and attentive and, as sure as Sunday, they will appear.

Tuesday, June 30, 2009
impossible realms
Wings beating like a humming bird's at the mouth of some flower comes the thought:

Of all the endeavors (wo)men put before themselves, spiritual endeavor is probably the greatest. By "spiritual," I don't mean whether someone is a Christian or a Jew or a Hindu or a Buddhist or an atheist. That's minor, though many may be willing to shed the blood of others in the quest for organized goodness, an assertion of something major.

What makes spiritual endeavor the greatest of endeavors is that it is impossible. And for those inclined, it is the impossible the lingers and nags at the edges of the heart, delicately asking to be recognized and addressed, until one day, when all the possible things have lost their savor and sense, when the things that suggested certainty only nourish a greater uncertainty, only the impossible is left. And what is it that is impossible? Perhaps it is the sense of longing for some something that is truly unlimited while the one who longs is consigned in every pore to a limited realm, a realm confined by body, mouth and thought. The impossible is The Answer which, if given, could not possibly be The Answer.

Spiritual endeavor is, on the face of it, profoundly human and touching. It is also, in its deeps and shallows, profoundly ridiculous. Those who attempt to do the impossible are willing to be ridiculous ... that's how forceful the impossible questions can become. Whatever the format, no one can see, touch, taste, smell, hear or speak the language of the impossible. Seeing, touching, tasting, smelling, hearing, and speaking are limited and woven with uncertainty. What, then, is certain? It is an impossible question to answer and yet, when the fires of power and position and control and sex and love and money and whatever other limited possibility die down, only the impossible questions make sense ... the ridiculous, impossible and human questions. Suggesting that impossible questions are impossible, so why bother, is like saying "Don't think of a purple cow." When the answers gathered to date no longer hold water in any convincing or consoling way, it may be a time when what is ridiculous is no longer quite so ridiculous. What other choice is there?

The Dalai Lama once said softly, "Everyone wants to be happy." Five power-packed words that most may consign to fortune-cookie status or self-help yummy. But to enter here, to put efforts and tears to work, is to enter a fiery, impossible realm.

Happy, without a whisper of doubt, unlimited. Happy in birth, happy in death, happy in times of joy, happy in times of sorrow, happy etc. etc. etc. An impossible realm that beckons where the night is most silent or the rush-hour crowd harries the small, ridiculous traveler.

Ah well ... perhaps I will continue this later. Just now, I have a doctor's appointment in Amherst (time to get the stitches out) and then there is more retirement bureaucracy to deal with. Time to get cracking. It's impossible, but I guess I'll try. :)

Monday, June 29, 2009
interesting people
The other day, on the radio, I heard a National Public Radio interview with the actor Gabriel Byrne. The interview was so compelling to me that I tried to send Byrne a copy of my book. It was a strange thing for me to do.

The interview itself was just plain interesting and I love listening to interesting people, even if they are actors. He sounded like a smart, thoughtful, somewhat randy, and quite canny individual, all wrapped up in an Irish accent.

Then, a couple of days later, on the same station, I heard a couple of people remembering the early days of late-night talk shows on television. What these guys were old enough to remember was a time when guests came on the show simply because they were interesting and not just because they had something to sell ... a new movie or book or business. Talk shows were not quite so laden with infomercial, not quite so pimpmobile.

Somehow, listening to Byrne, I was just interested in this person. If he had picked up garbage for a living, I would have listened. And the fact that he might have been selling something (I can't recall if he was plugging a new movie or play or not) seemed to drop back into the shadows. Maybe it was just a great con job, but if so, I was delighted to be conned.

It was the spiritual threads that prompted me to send the book. He quit some Catholic monastery or training ground and yet found a bit of solace in returning to an unnamed church in Brooklyn on Sundays. I hesitated to send it, for fear I would fall into the same con-man trap ... the sort of mutual-admiration society, you-scratch-my-back-I'll-scratch-yours-and-between-us-we-will-attain-some-greater-status gamesmanship. But in the end, I sent it in the hope that it might return the favor his interview had done for me.

What the hell ... interesting people -- or perhaps just people I am interested in -- are a wonderful gift. I like saying thank you.

Monday, June 29, 2009
Did you ever see a dog chase a ball on a linoleum floor? The dog races for the prize, closes in, overshoots the mark, reverses course and, for a moment or two, can find no purchase on the slick surface: Its legs scramble and scurry in order to attain an improved trajectory, but its forward motion is still in play and things are all slipping and sliding. Its previous intentions and hopes and actions have a life of their own. To the onlooker, its all somewhat comical, but I don't imagine the dog is laughing.

Maybe spiritual endeavor is a bit like that -- all pedal-to-the-metal for those who make the attempt -- only to find the target is 'back there' somewhere ... as, for example, here.

Is there a truth so true that it is actually true? Is there a falsehood so false that it is actually false? Alternatively, is there a truth that is false or a falsehood that is true? Maybe it's better not to pose such questions ... they lead to a lot of philosophical or emotional folderol, a lot of desperate slipping on the linoleum floor.

Maybe it's just better to do as bidden and ... fetch!

Sunday, June 28, 2009
the dangerous world of goodness
I was reading an Internet thread about e-sangha, a Buddhist bulletin board that has left a number of people disillusioned. I too once posted there and enjoyed its previous richness. Now it strikes me a bit like Stepin Fetchit Buddhism ... but that is just my view.

But my view is not the point that nudged me as I read the thread. What did nudge me was this:

There really is no place or time or verse so good in the spiritual adventure that it does not pose a serious danger. There is no place or time or verse so dangerous in the spiritual adventure that it does not offer up a rock-solid goodness.

I mean this seriously. Buddha, Dharma, Sangha, Tripitaka, Vinaya -- pick your entry point, praise it volubly, never give up ... but realize that until you can know from your heart what is true and what is not ... until that point all those 'good' and 'true' things are nothing but truly dangerous comfy as a pit of vipers. I don't care how sweet or complex or compassionate or psychologically sound the arguments are ... until you are certain, you will be walking through the fires of hell, asking to have the flesh ripped from your body.

The safety and succulence is yours.
The danger and disaster are yours.
The Buddha is yours.
The Dharma is yours.
The Sangha is yours.

It's all yours. No exceptions. No excuses. It's all yours.

Everything else -- and I do mean everything -- is pure horseshit.

Horseshit grows nice flowers, but that doesn't mean you shouldn't be able to recognize horseshit when you see it.

Sunday, June 28, 2009
my life as a hamster
In Louisville, Kentucky, yesterday, some 200 people answered the call of the New Bethel Church pastor, Ken Pagano ... and showed up at the church wearing guns. The gathering was a celebration of the U.S. Constitution's second amendment which says that since a "well regulated militia" is necessary to a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed. There was no word in the Associated Press news story on whether any who showed up for Pagano's celebration belonged to a militia.

Earlier this week, I read a letter-to-the-editor in which a woman argued that wringing our hands about "illegal guns" was a fruitless endeavor. True, the drive-by shootings and gang dust-ups that left children and adults wounded or dead were deplorable and sometimes gut-wrenching, but what was left out of the wailing equation was this: Every gun ever produced always started out as something legal. For this reason, she argued, our attention should be focused on the legal aspects of weapons, not the illegal ones. I liked the argument and it made me think of ...

Religion ... and beyond.

How many stories has anyone read or seen or heard about the horrors of what are sometimes referred to as "cults?" The pain and corruption visited on individuals can be truly awful ... money extorted, personal lives manipulated, families ripped apart, gurus elevated at the expense of others. And when we hear the particulars of such cases, we can cringe and wail and take legal action. The results can be truly vile.

But within what can be the visceral revulsion that can accompany such tales or experiences, little or no attention is given to the source of such groups: Where did they arise from? I think the answer is much the same as for guns ... every gun began as something quite legal, as something with a legitimate and perhaps praise-worthy use in the human endeavor. And I think the same can be said for even the most vile of cults ... didn't they too spring from some praise-worthy earth, some benevolent source? I think they did.

But there is a longing to keep the good aspects of religion and excise the bad and so an investigation of the source within the context of something so repulsive is ... what? ... out of bounds somehow. God-fearing (so to speak) folk are aware of or hopeful about the benevolent aspects of their spiritual endeavor and refuse rigorously to acknowledge the perverted potential and actuality of what they love.

To the extent that any of this argument holds water, I am not so interested in the social commentary or criticism it may involve. Hand-wringing and wise analyses are a cheap date ... a pastime for pundits. As a social conventions, they may help to revise one scene or another, but social conventions, while cozy and perhaps virtuous, invariably represent compromises that can cloy and restrict. Live and learn.

Human beings are far more interesting and variegated and unrestricted than their restrictions could ever enfold. The legal stuff inspires the illegal stuff and back again. The holy stuff inspires the unholy stuff and back again. Altruism inspires selfishness and back again. Compassion inspires anger and back again. The pure inspires the impure and back again. It is all quite touching, quite human, and, often, quite painful. To rail or extol or explain or find meaning in all of this is the ordinary way ... OK.

But it is endless and, on examination, a bit like a hamster running at top speed in a wheel ... as if, were the hamster to run fast enough, it might get somewhere better, more satisfying ... some place else.

The illegal is woven, DNA-fashion, with the legal. The virtuous is woven, DNA-fashion, with the vile. The stupid is woven, DNA-fashion, with the intelligent. The cruel is woven, DNA-fashion, with the kind.

Some, on recognizing some piece of this truth, shrug their shoulders: "It's human," they may say with an oozing kindness. "It's just the best we can manage. We are frail. We just do our best." But what constitutes the "best" that such shoulder-shuggers embrace? Is it just some lazy, deterministic, couch-potato surrender gussied up with religious platitudes? Is it just relying on the legalities and illigalities of others? Is it just more hamster-wheel imaginings?

Maybe so.

But I think there comes a time when this hamster deserves a break. And the only way I can think of to attain some ease, some peace, is to reflect a little on the facts as they stand. Who holds this gun? Who embraces this religion? Who belongs to this gang? Who extols this cult? Who is capable and incapable? Who snuggles down with one assumption or another? Who praises compassion and disdains selfishness? Who speaks of enlightenment and turns up his/her nose at samsara? Who longs for something else because something else would not be this?

Is there another way? If so, I don't know it.

Just because anyone is a hamster doesn't mean they have to be stupid about it. :)

Saturday, June 27, 2009
beyond beauty
Did you ever enter a place of beauty, some time or place or set of circumstances that took your breath and words away? It was a death of sorts and yet completely alive. A painting, perhaps, or a piece of music, or a welling up of something laughingly called pure love. It was a nameless and unnamed place where every cell and hangnail, every inch of this life, was at home, for however brief a moment.

I remember going to an art gallery once and seeing a painting that overwhelmed me in this way. I was staring at it when the gallery owner came up behind me and began to talk ... arty talk, structure talk, composition talk, color talk. And I grew infuriated with this salesman. I was really, really pissed. How could he be such a through-and-through asshole?! This was a place of no words ... of being alive ... of dying, of incomprehensibility comprehended ... how dare he suggest it was comprehensible?!

Beauty is like that, maybe. But I wonder if all life, every moment, isn't precisely the same ... glowing and unspeakable and full of ... full of whatever the hell it is full of ... life, perhaps. Or just not-me. Beyond beauty.

Shut up and die!

There! Isn't that better? :)

Saturday, June 27, 2009
last day
Somewhere in my mind, there is some movie maven suggesting that now is the time when the music should swell as the picture segues into a "the end." The pop singer Michael Jackson died a couple of days back and the press is awash in his "the end" and somehow my retirement should offer a similar crescendo, if not so public. (Somewhere on the internet, someone suggested that since Michael Jackson was 90 percent plastic, his body should be melted down and turned into Legos that little boys could then play with.)

As I listen to my movie maven, I can round up a lot of reasons why and how retirement is a "the end" or a death and why, therefore, the music should swell. Work at the newspaper has been a longstanding habit, after all. I have loved the "news," for all its frailties. Some of the people I have worked with or known have been on the same frequency ... loving a good story, loving to winkle that story out, loving the decency that goes with telling others information that may make their lives easier. And there is a concern or fear that peers into an unknowable and unknown future ... what the hell will I do with myself; what if I just become a burden to others; what if there is not enough money; what if I walk out of this movie theater and get run over by a taxi?

But there is another part to all this as well -- a part anyone might know when the reality of what might be called "the end" comes calling. Sure, there were butterflies about some big event -- from going to the dentist to getting married to setting out on a cross-country trip -- but then the moment came when the actual event occurred. And at that point, it's just what happens. It may be pleasant or unpleasant in the particulars, but it is just more particulars ... no "the end" any more than there ever was a "the beginning." It's just factual. There is no 'perspective' possible, no distancing any more than there is some embracing.

In the office last night, there were a lot of handshakes and hopes expressed and way too much sweet stuff to eat. The Monday-Friday work crowd said goodbye. My "Friday" has always been Saturday ... today. One woman sent me a very nice note. It is unlikely I will ever see again people I have seen for 20 years ... everyone's got stuff to do. And while I will remember what I have done, still I cannot deny there is a profound relief at leaving that particular stage. I haven't got the energy for the atmosphere any more even if I would like to pretend I had. There is something easier about saying "OK, you win." Not that there is any winner or loser, any more than there is a beginning or end, but it's a relief just to relax. Let others win or lose, begin or end, if they want to.

It's a mishmosh of sensations, but it's not all that serious, somehow. I try to find the seriousness, but, outside the paperwork particulars ... well, let someone else be serious. Or maybe I will find that I have completely overlooked or sublimated some deep concern ... something I hadn't counted on or acknowledged.

Maybe so. I guess, as with any situation, I'll just have to find out. :)

Friday, June 26, 2009
same toy, new day
Is it possible that everyone is just saying the same thing ... dressing up some favored doll in one costume or another?

Is everyone just saying the same thing?

I think so.

Friday, June 26, 2009
hey stupid!

Someone sent me a nifty, if dated, picture of Joshu Sasaki Roshi on which were printed the words, "I am a hundred years old. My ears can no longer hear stupid questions." With all my might, I do hope people will listen to and actualize his words.

When I listen to my kids, which is not always easy, sometimes I hear them trying to avoid being perceived as stupid. It is more important to them to be seen in a good light, a smart light, a light that portrays them favorably. "Stupid" is for dummies and we all know what the world thinks of dummies. So sometimes, my kids would rather bite off their tongues than ask a question to which others may have a well-doh answer: Maybe if they keep quiet, no one will find out how stupid they are and thus think less of them. In short, my kids are about like anyone else.

In the news-reporting business to which I have been a party, I learned one thing: Always ask the simple questions, the obvious questions, the stupid questions. The ornate and intricate questions may come later, but don't ever neglect the stupid questions, the ones summed up with the old saw, "who, what, when, where, why and how." A lot of reporters ask smart questions and just end up with a lot of explanatory gibberish. Ask the stupid questions and the story is bound to be miles better.

And I think it is the same when people question themselves: They get so wound up in and delighted by the intricacies and profundities of the situations confronting them that ... it's endless and fruitless ... the stupid questions have been left to wither on the vine, the questions that whisper and nag and then whisper and nag some more. It is so much easier, it seems, to be smart and well-versed and well-thought-of. Endless explanations heaped on endless explanations; endless 'understanding' heaped on endless 'understanding.' Without disrespect, it is all like a man who can't grab his own ass with both hands. It is stupid ... but it is human and common.

But no one wants to be stupid and so it is important to listen to the stupid questions in this life. Questions about death, disease, drugs, divorce, delight ... just to wax alliterative for a moment.

For those who find the courage and patience to address their stupid questions, the question has to be asked: Is the stupid one really stupid? To my mind, that's a pretty smart question, although if anyone were to imagine s/he had an answer, that would probably be pretty stupid. What is the source of stupid questions? Who creates these questions? How could there possibly be a stupid question ... or a smart one either? Don't stupid and smart questions arise in the same place? What place is that?

Whether Joshu Sasaki Roshi sits in the place where stupid and smart questions arise ... well, this is not so much the point. He may be a scary or wise old man, but that and a couple of bucks will get you on the bus. The point isn't where does he sit, the point is, where do you sit ... and are you at home?

It's a pretty stupid question, perhaps, but it is worth answering I think.

Thursday, June 25, 2009
tattoo fantasy
If I were into tattoos as a means of improving or decorating or announcing my life, I might get something tasteful and discreet ... on my ass, perhaps.

And the words with which I might adorn my body and mind would not even by my own ... I would use someone else's freshness ... a guy I try not to mention too often because others think he was little more than a ladies man and a carouser who never did a lick of work. All the other Zen students were, well, studious and severe, but not (after some pretty severe training) Ikkyu.

And Ikkyu's words -- the ones I fantasize on my ass -- are truly some of my faves. These are words worth a lifetime, so I imagine my ass would be a good place for them:

"I am not a Buddha. I am just an ordinary fellow who understands things."

Sit on that for a while. :)

Thursday, June 25, 2009
grieving and caring
In the course of a small email correspondence yesterday, a friend wrote:

To not grieve is to not have really cared.

Is this so?

It sounds good and maybe it's true.

But is it?