Wednesday, June 30, 2010

zazen weather

Woke this morning with the babbling delight of a teenager in love: I had slept, really slept, eight hours. After five or six previous nights of sleep deprivation based on various body aches and pains, it was like dying and going to heaven. The key seemed to be a sleeping pill the doctor was willing to give me in the face of my complaints. And, while I have come to hate pills and their implications, still I woke this morning and basked in it all, not caring the source, just basking in the result.

A brisk and beautiful day and a woman I had been forced (aches and pains) to put off on Sunday for zazen is coming this morning for a little meditation sitting.

Good zazen weather.

Tuesday, June 29, 2010


In Zen Buddhism, there is an encouragement to "make no distinctions." No distinctions between this and that. No distinctions between beautiful and ugly. No distinctions between happy and sad.

It's a good encouragement, but I think it is useful to the serious student not to jump the gun: The fact is that we do make distinctions and that it is only through such distinctions that we come to some actualized sense of what it means to "make no distinctions."

So, with our distinctions well in hand, we make our choices. Chocolate is good. Anchovies suck. Zen Buddhism is for me. Christianity is a false god. Little and large, we make our distinctions.

But with some investigation and a little luck, pointing out what was bad about something tends to wane. Having made my choice, well, isn't that enough? Isn't it time to act? Of course, the gossip potential of distinctions may cloy and clutch, but really doesn't there come a point where what others do and think is not so much what counts? Sure, I can go on picking my nose about anchovies or Christianity and point out a lot of reasons they are seriously wrong. But now comes the time when I might be better advised to point out what is right about what I do ... and then prove it.

Setting aside my observations of others, I have a lot more energy to devote to investigating my own terrain, to tilling my own field, to growing what I hope will be some half-decent crops.

A little at a time, when the fruit begins to ripen, distinctions lose their sex appeal. It's enough to care for the fruit and watch out for the weeds.

Distinctions aren't that bad when you don't make distinctions.

Monday, June 28, 2010

talking the talk

If you make it too complicated, no one will understand you.

If you make it too simple, no one will listen.

I guess the only option is to know what you're talking about.


Tomorrow will mark the first anniversary of my 'retirement' from 20-plus years of newspaper work. What, if anything, have I learned?

-- I've learned that the retirement stories that appear in newspapers are largely eyewash that don't even begin to scratch the surface of the human adventure ... but then that's true of a lot of other stories that pass as news.

-- I've seen more doctors in a year than I had in the previous ten.

-- I've learned, like all aging people, that things tend to slip away. Only it doesn't feel that way to me. To me it feels more like a surprise at how much I imagined and assumed I could be attached to with any concrete foundation. Work, for example, took up eight hours a day and was implicitly important. "Important" just means I think I am important. But in any case, work was a long-term habit, just as remembering the days of the week was a long-term habit. Long-term habits don't stop overnight, but they do demand some attention and revision.

-- More bad news is less astounding.

-- Relying on others, while odd, is possible.

-- Although they don't say so, I think my aging bores and frightens my children, much as I suppose it once bored and frightened me. I have become, in some sense, what I feared and it's not that interesting.

-- The innocence that once marked youth is as much in evidence when aging: What the hell, you've never done this before either. What was shattered in youth is likely to be shattered with age.

-- The Hindus -- somewhere or other -- have a timeline that marks a life: In youth, we play and learn; in our twenties-plus, we work and raise the children; and in old age, we devote ourselves to spiritual life. As generalizations go, I suppose it's OK. But the same slip-sliding effect that has marked other aspects of aging and retirement has also affected spiritual fervor as well.

-- When someone says "keep busy," my question is, "why?"

-- I do miss people of a similar fabric ... people to whom you can tell the punch line of a dirty joke without telling the whole joke. Or people who have the timeline for the Revolutionary and the Civil wars straight in their minds.

-- Convincing others becomes less and less convincing, no matter how loud the volume or how sincere the effort.

-- I also miss people who can reflect on their own arguments and try to see that what is right can also be terribly wrong ... and vice versa.

-- As Mark Twain once remarked on how much smarter his father became as Twain grew from 14 to 21, so it sometimes seems that I am on the opposite trajectory when it comes to younger souls. Still, I do try to keep my mouth shut about it.

.... and there is probably other stuff as well, but I can't think of it just now.

Sunday, June 27, 2010

among the shrinks

I was thinking about my sister the other day and it occurred to me that once of the reasons I liked her company probably came from the fact that she is a social worker. Yes, Revan is funny and bright and kind and a lot of other laudable things in my mind, but the social-worker aspect suddenly hit me as something that shed light.

If, fairy-tale fashion, I had to pick one profession whose members I might prefer to hang out with, the shrink-oriented would probably be it. Not because they are necessarily saner than any other group (they can sometimes be even more devious than the more recognizably troubled), but because they are in a profession that cannot so easily sidestep the panoply of human life -- the real wowsers and the dull-as-dishwater details that influence people. Secrets are often their business ... and then the secrets beyond the secrets. Their pomposities can be wearing, but still, the framework, when healthy, makes for good conversation.

The other night, when I was talking to a funeral home employee, I found myself right at home, talking turkey, no holds barred ... about a profession he admitted he didn't often expound on in social settings. Death is one of the secrets that do not generally make up 'polite' conversation, but one of my failings is to wonder endlessly, why not? If it's true and if it's human and even if it's scary ... well, all that is natural, don't you think?

But of course many people do not think so. But when among the psychologically employed, there is a chance to rest easy and talk free and wide ... death, the Red Sox, serial killers, raising roses ... and, assuming some pomposity of cool distance doesn't ooze in, it can be a delightful thing. Anything is fair game. Anything is interesting. Anything goes. Sure, there can be pauses for one bias/meaning/explanation or another, but in general, the world is your conversational oyster.

Yes, I like getting into a ranging conversation like that with my sister or anyone else. But sometimes I think that my delight in what is delightful stands in the way of fully enjoying what is not so delightful. I feel constrained not to say what I might have said to my sister or any other enjoyable interlocutor. Perhaps this is one reason I can find less and less to say for spiritual life.

"It's important," the Zen teacher Shunryu Suzuki once said of spiritual practice, "but it's not that important."


Not much sleep last night.

Not much energy.

But skimming over various internet threads, it occurs to me how easy it is to get caught up in dithering along the edges of spiritual life. Let's change things. Let's make improvements. Let's uncover deep meanings. Ain't it awful? Ain't it corrupt? Ain't it shamefully wasteful and cruel? Let's hold out hope for a brighter tomorrow.

It's all pretty good encouragement, perhaps, but it's also a grand way of sidestepping the effort that might assure a more peaceful time. If virtue is allowed to gain some brilliant seat, how could this ever do much more than perpetuate what people seek to improve? Of course it sounds good ... but does it work? Does it reveal or is it simply a feel-good way of concealing?

No sense trying to talk someone out of their fondest hopes, but that doesn't mean we need to join the chorus.

Saturday, June 26, 2010

memorial service

Afterwards, I stood on the funeral home porch with one of the home's employees, Chris. We chatted about this and that, mostly the fact that in his business, which he enjoyed after 18 or so years, he often had a hard time discussing his 'work' in social settings.

Stock-brokering, teaching, nursing, long-haul trucking, parenting, and fixing alternators might enter the conversation as easily as a rivulet flows off a mountain in into the greater stream. But a funeral home employee???!!! Socially, that was too edgy, too scary, too icky, too eeeeeuuuuuw, too in-your face.

I said to him that I imagined he might enjoy holding the hands of those who, after all, were likely to beat a path to his door -- easing, consoling, comforting and not making such a big deal out of it. No one may want to talk to the likes of Chris, but death passes in and out of focus in everyone's life like a cat in the mist. Hints, whispers, secrets ... and tell me about the hard time you had changing the brake pads or the obstreperous third-grader or the latest philosophical conundrum that has come calling.

It was all easy conversation on the funeral home porch. One of the other employees commented softly that "people hate having to come to a place like this and yet they like it when they do." It struck me as a good comment -- facing facts when the facts really weren't all that bad.

And it also struck me how much like spiritual endeavor the environment was...people tip-toeing around facts that were as plain as the nose on your face and yet, when they stopped tip-toeing and simply met the facts that could not be gussied up ... hell, it wasn't that bad and, in fact, it was a relief.

No more nonsense -- you're enlightened, that's all. Manipulators might try to scare people into religious or philosophical agreements, but what the hell -- there are snake-oil salesmen in any line of work.

Funny how so many -- and I am certainly not exempt -- may make a great noise unto the lord about being concerned with birth and death and god and enlightenment and whatever all else ... and all the time they are keeping at bay what they may take with great seriousness. Oh well, out of the lies (sometimes artfully passing as the truth) comes the truth ... maybe. Either the truth comes out or there is another spire on Main Street.

PS. The memorial service went fine ... or anyway no one kicked me in the ass for saying something egregiously stupid. Before the talk, one of the funeral-home people handed me a translation of The Heart Sutra and suggested I might read it during my talk since the deceased, Fran, had loved it a lot. The Heart Sutra is wonderful stuff, but it is a bit long and, perhaps, a bit confusing without much purpose. Anyway, I declined to read it, but left it on the make-shift altar and called attention to it as something people might like to read for themselves.

Anyway, things went OK.


Last night I dreamed of something that did not exist. I didn't know what it was, but I dreamed of it anyway.

Since dreams relate to longings and fears, I looked around to see what I longed for or what I feared. I couldn't find it because I was dreaming of something that did not exist.

Last night I dreamed of something that did not exist.

But when I woke up, it was gone.

All in all, I imagine it's better to be awake.

Friday, June 25, 2010

assured assumptions

Like some shameless politician who votes to send other men's children off to war and then praises those children as "heroes" when they return in flag-draped coffins, I am sometimes free-wheeling and assured and too glib by half in my assumptions.

What made me think of this was the funeral at which I will say a few words about the deceased this evening. Fran was a Zen Buddhist for twenty or more years, so it is within that framework that the family expects me to say something -- something for Fran.

And as I thought of what I might say, it occurred to me that although I had never met Fran and that the biographical information I had was sketchy and second-hand at best, still, when someone said he was a Zen Buddhist for 20 years, I knew a hell of a lot about Fran ... more, perhaps, than even the friends and family members who plan to assemble.

Really, I felt utterly assured and cozy as a well-washed shirt.

But what was I assured about? Where did I get off being comfortable about another human being? Wasn't I just ascribing to Fran experiences and comforts and leanings that I had experienced? As I picked at it, the assumption struck me more and more as presumption ... and yet...

There is a clubbiness about Zen Buddhism -- at least on the surface. Those who practice have gotten beyond the Alan Watts stage and know what it is to squirm and yowl and laugh. To speak of a right knee on fire is to evoke an instant camaraderie.

But what really fried my presumptuous grits was this: Without any fear of contradiction or controversy, I would say that a practicing Zen Buddhist is a person of courage, of determination, and of kindness. And I'm not trying to polish halos here -- any practicing student is an amalgam of capacities ... and yet, even so, courage and determination and kindness are bright.

I would say all this of others with the same slick-willy ease that a politician might use the word "hero." But when I turn the mirror around and consider my own version of Zen Buddhism, I would never say that I was a person of courage or determination or kindness. It's not some toe-in-the-sand modesty that seals my lips. It's more the fact the in some strange way, courage and determination and kindness are utterly irrelevant to the practice of Zen Buddhism.

Sure, for assured conversational purposes, courage, determination and kindness.

But for real time usefulness ... cut the bullshit!
A BBC report suggests:

Stand-up comedy is drawing appreciative audiences in Saudi Arabia, where cinemas and many forms of public entertainment are still banned and men and women prohibited from socialising in public.

Some people are managing to put shows on at secret locations, away from the religious police.
Article/film clip

When I was a kid, there used to be an expression that went, "don't stick beans up your nose." It was a joke based on the mother who had to leave home to run an errand, but before she went, she left her children with several instructions for acceptable behavior, one of which was, "and don't stick beans up your nose." The kids, who had never entertained the idea of sticking beans up their noses ... well, you get the drift.

All you have to do to make something alluring is to say, "don't do that!" The advice may be very good, but the question and scent remains ... what would that be like? Don't think of a purple cow!

As a result, there are 'underground' comedy clubs in Saudi Arabia -- places the religious police (I do have a hard time getting my head around that one) will not exercise their restrictive viewpoint.

All of this made me wonder idly if there were any correlation between the youth of a spiritual endeavor and its propensity for rigid strictures. Christianity, Judaism and Islam are relative new-comers. Hinduism and Buddhism are pretty old. The moment the thought is out of my mind's mouth, I can think of exceptions. Each religion will have its strict and playful streams, but I am over-generalizing here ... and wondering:

The younger the player, the more inclined towards spit-shined rigidities?

More interesting and important than the social possibilities of this speculation are the internal potentials. I wonder if, when we find ourselves in some hardened position as regards spiritual practice, we cannot rightly infer that we are exercising an immature approach ... not naughty or bad, just immature and worth examination. To the extent that anyone exercises and interest in spiritual endeavor, don't we all build some pretty sturdy police stations, write some pretty fiery rule books, and drive the comedy acts 'underground?'

I suppose we could chalk all this righteousness all up to "youthful indiscretions" except for the fact that the Peter Pan syndrome is afoot and there are those who are well and truly determined not to grow up: If they're going to be miserable -- brimming with virtues to inflict on others -- you can be sure they will try to make you miserable too.

I'm probably making too much out of all of this. Everyone is young at one time or another and everyone grows up (with luck) at some point. There is no talking someone out of stupidity, so the best any of us can do is to try to talk ourselves out of it.

As American humorist Will Rogers put it:
There are three kinds of men. The one that learns by reading. The few who learn by observation. The rest of them have to pee on the electric fence for themselves.


Wednesday, June 23, 2010

funeral preparations

Sometimes I really am afraid -- not just humble-pie, toe-in-the-sand afraid -- that I won't remember why anyone might want to practice zazen, the seated meditation that is a focal point in Zen Buddhism. The meanings and importance and particulars are all around, but it's like looking at a lily -- it's beautiful ... what else is there to say?

And then along comes someone like Pat, with whom I spent an hour or more this afternoon going over what it was she might like me to say or do at the memorial gathering for her brother Francis (Fran) who died June 3. Pat and I met at an obscenely immaculate funeral home and were attended by the owner of the home -- a man groomed as tight and clean as his carpets.

Fran had been into Zen Buddhism and Pat wanted someone to say something in line with what Fran cared about. Fran had been a student for 20 or 30 years. And Pat asked me about what Fran did at the Zen center where he lived.

As soon as Pat asked, it didn't seem so complicated. But the nature of Friday's gathering -- mostly members of the large Polish-American, Catholic family Fran haled from -- were likely, if Pat was any yardstick, to be nice people who loved Fran to varying degrees and would remember him in their own ways ... all of them good. In my mind, although I didn't know that family, I imagined they wouldn't give much of a shit about Zen or Buddhism ... what they would care about was Fran and the fact that he was dead.

Anyway, Pat and I had a nice conversation and we agreed that whatever I would say might run about 15 minutes -- a time frame in which I might get one foot in my mouth, but would probably have difficulty inserting both feet. I will do what I can to suggest the family find comfort in family and friends ... and perhaps (without too much emphasis) investigate some of the silence that crashes like thunder after someone dies.

So ... I'll do a little chanting, light a little incense, talk a little ... and keep an eye on the clock.

the blandishments of ego

How is materialism (that's materialism, not acquisitiveness) possible when all things change all the time?

And how is nihilism possible when, if nothing exists, still there is someone to notice that nothing exists ... which means something exists that notices nothing exists?

All I can think is that ego is a miraculous and wily customer.

grumpy is good for you

Somehow, this brightened my day:

Grumpy is good for you

ascending to mediocre heights

Across the street, in the rising sun, brilliant drops of water light up along the Japanese maple leaves. The bright perfection of the scene is enough to stop any mouth, and yet here I sit, writing.

I guess if anyone hangs around long enough they are bound to feel the cloying hug of mediocrity. Like the Supreme Court justice's assessment of pornography, mediocrity is hard to pin down: "I may not know what it is, but I know it when I see it," the judge remarked about the habits of the scantily clad.

And it is tiring and cranky-making...the swell of conforming voices speaking of virtue or excellence or ... well, whatever is not supposed to be mediocre and yet slips inevitably and inescapably into some saccharine, group-hug pool. From spiritual endeavor to scrambled eggs, where is the bright twinkle hanging from a Japanese maple leaf?

Maybe it's just something everyone needs and deserves -- a chance to ascend to mediocre heights. But lord it can be tiring, whether within or without, as, one after another, the latest sequined bit of philosophy or food or clothing or position takes to the stage like some inept fifth-grader who is much loved by his or her parents.

And the question has to be asked: If this be judged mediocre, with what certainty do we clothe the next item in excellence? And with that question, we're off to the races anew, parsing with mediocre insistence the sentences of an excellent life. You can sort of see why people long for a 'simple life,' one full of serene water and silence and comforting pines, and yet there will always be the odd cigarette butt floating down some distant gutter or some 12th Avenue hooker leaning through the window of the businessman's car and asking, "Goin' out, honey?"

Somehow, there is an imperative to break free of our own mediocrities, our own shiny excellence.

For my purposes, the twinkling of the droplets among the Japanese maple leaves is a start.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

a little comic relief???

Received in email:


growing importance

My daughter took the call while I was out yesterday -- a local funeral home looking for a "Zen master" to conduct a funeral on Friday. Someone had died in North Carolina and a ceremony was planned here as well. My daughter took the phone number and, when the polite young man asked in what way he should address the person he was seeking, my daughter said, "'Adam' will do."

I tried to call back but had no immediate luck, so perhaps I will get a call today or maybe the funeral home found a "Zen master" elsewhere. I was calling back as a matter of courtesy, thinking maybe I could help find the person the funeral home wanted. I don't know any particular funeral format and so, unless the family wants me for personal reasons, I'm afraid I wouldn't really fill the bill.

Funny how things that were once light and airy and hopeful without much substance turn into established fact.

Kurt Vonnegut, in "Slaughterhouse Five," tells the tale of a man who works as a propagandist for the Nazis during World War II. The man is convinced that he can remain aloof from the politics he finds both ridiculous and repugnant and yet, over time, becomes the very thing he was convinced he could avoid.

Once upon a time, I thought to build a small zendo or meditation hall out behind the house here. For a year or better, I was up to my ears in lumber and cement and how to build a roof. I never had it in my mind that this would be something established and recognized ... that would somehow be ridiculous.

I did hope that A. I would have a place in which to practice zazen B. Others might like to do the same. C. Those who came might help me even as I might help them. And being a "Zen master" was something better left to those with over-active imaginations.

But here it is so many years later and someone is calling up as if Black Moon Zendo were something more than a twinkle in its daddy's eye -- some established entity, some shaped and solid monolith ... sort of like Microsoft or something. True, there is a web site I keep meaning to take down, and there are various contact points along the Internet, but for someone to take it seriously -- C'mon man! They're just Nazis! -- strikes me as peculiar. Suddenly I too am a Nazi.

How did things get from idea to idee fixe, from hammer and nails to a funeral home's looking for a stand-up act at a pretty serious event ... a funeral?

Luckily, there are a couple of people I can think of around town who have the requisite thin lips and formal know-how to conduct a funeral. So it's not as if I can't lend a hand if called upon.

But in the meantime, it is interesting how what began as a pretty simple idea -- something without any real borders or claim to fame -- suddenly is seen in some corner of the world as an established Blarney Stone it might be useful to kiss. What was important in some small way has suddenly taken on a life of its own and is leaden in its weight.

I suppose the same is true for individuals in their lives -- finding acknowledgment in what once lacked or even needed acknowledgment at all. But still ...

Weird stuff.

the best

The doctor I visited yesterday was pristine in carriage and raiment -- a man who knew his stuff and dressed in the easy-going comfort of the well-to-do. And as he outlined various courses of action as related to an irregular heart, it occurred to me that he was probably one of the best local cardiologists.

Which made me think about seeking out the 'best' of things and people. Who wouldn't like to find the best auto mechanic or the best educator or the best partner or the best ... pick a noun? By picking the best, we stand to gain more, so we set out looking for the best.

But the 'best' carries with it a real danger, one that is demonstrated over and over again in life, I think. People who are the best at something may actually be the best, but if they think they are the best, then they have no clue about what being the best might mean. "The best?" -- isn't there only what anyone does?

So seeking out the best invariably turns back in on itself, demanding the best from that which, if it were the best, could have no inkling of anything as mundane as 'the best.'

When it came to the particular cardiologist I was seeing, I thought how good he might be at his job and yet sensed in his presence that it might be better to find another doctor, someone less 'best' and more committed.

You can learn a lot from the 'best.'

Or maybe I was all wet.

Monday, June 21, 2010

the fat lady

If you've been to the opera or read a comic book or fairy tale, you know what it means to "suspend disbelief." I don't know about you, but I have never walked down a crowded city street and heard a bulldog-proportioned woman discussing politics with a friend in High C. But in the opera house or fairy tale, anything goes. It is the onlooker who is asked to "suspend disbelief," to imagine that this is the way things actually do occur.

But which is it that we do when we go to the opera or read a comic book: Do we suspend disbelief or do we suspend belief? I was brought up saying the former, but I have heard people say the latter and it makes perfectly good sense too... to suspend a belief that people do not generally converse in High C.

Unless I am completely off-base, this suggests that the distance between belief and disbelief is ... what? ... non-existent? -- same stuff, different spelling? But how can belief and disbelief be the same when they might be offered as antonyms -- pure opposites in which chasms of difference reside?

I guess none of it matters much, but it whispered in my ear this morning and I wondered again about all the fervor that can go into belief and disbelief.

PS. And yes, I put the picture in there to forestall any comments about "it ain't over till the fat lady sings." :)

World Cup

Lately, as a means of entertainment, I have taken to watching the World Cup soccer tournament. I am not a sports aficionado, but I enjoy the fact that the people shown on the screen are actually doing something that they are willing to pour their hearts into. Those guys can do things with their feet that most people I know couldn't do with their hands.

The rest of television seems to be populated either by women with breasts who own or are about to purchase something and whose vocabulary consists entirely of the variously-accented phrase, "Oh ... my ... God!" or by men with glistening teeth, spiked hair, a vast sense of their own magnetism, and an advanced degree in how not to shave. And then, of course, there is the canned laughter to flavor the mix. I can understand that someone might take such people seriously. I just don't happen to be one of them...and do wonder what such people see when they look in the mirror.

On the soccer field, there is life, however slow the game. With the exception of some garish falls designed to penalize the other team, there is no time for faking. These are not actors or pretenders. Based on some of the close-up's of players' faces, there also seem to be as many ways to say "Shit!" as there are languages in the tournament. And in the run-up to the tournament, I heard a radio show in which someone was saying that scoring a goal was orgasmic -- in line with the ineffable woo-hoo that goes with sex -- and that players had to be warned not to kiss eachother in delight. This is no-screwin'-around stuff.

How nice it is to see something serious, even if I am not serious about it. It is like watching a child trying to draw a picture of a car -- that sense of complete concentration and a devotion that is willing to stake the farm on things. In Japan, I have heard, there are celebrations of great military adventures that failed and I imagine, but don't know, that it is because success and failure, while interesting, cannot hold a candle to a complete effort.


No holding back.

Win, lose or draw ... go for it!

Thought, word and deed ... nothing in reserve. No more canned-laughter safety nets. No more posing.

Just this once....

Sunday, June 20, 2010

no more mooching

I'm not a big fan of mooching off someone else's adventure, but I suppose it's par for the course, especially since, as this morning, there is no particular theme-bird chirping in my mind.

Today, I guess I'll mooch off the news report that a British doctor is in hot water for "shortening the lives" of some 20 patients, one of whom was his son.

It's not a story anyone hasn't read before, debated before, found sane or insane before, inveighed against or lifted up as enlightened at last. Death is one of the biggies, so it's always good for another journalistic ride.

Gautama Buddha was alleged in The Dhammapada to have said,

All fear dying
All fear death.
It's hard to imagine that his was an original thought. Everyone mooches and the Buddha was no different. Of course, what anyone does with their mooching is another question. Some mooch in order to raise their own status. Some mooch as a means of asserting their power. Some mooch as a means of instruction... and that's what I think the Buddha did -- mooch from common knowledge to encourage an uncommon understanding.

All fear death. Christianity and the like can use the notion to keep their constituencies in line. It's good leverage since death has a nearly-universal currency. And I'm sure the Buddha got people's attention with such a topic even if a glistening spire was not his intention.

When you fear something, eventually you have to turn around and face the fear, if for no other reason than that the alternative grows threadbare and boring over time. So, if I fear death and yet grow I-don't-know tongue-tied when asked, "What is death?" something is out of whack. It's not possible to fear what you do not know. You can only fear what you know. So ... what do you fear about death? If I'm so all-fired sure of myself about my fear of death, well, what is it I fear?

These are not questions for round-table discussions. They are personal and deserve personal and unfettered attention. If you cannot answer and yet you go on being afraid, then fear is an answer. But fear of WHAT? Isn't it worth your curiosity? Isn't it worth your effort? Isn't it worth setting aside the imaginative tapestries that others have and continue to weave?

Maybe that's a good way to describe spiritual endeavor: No more mooching. On the other hand, I probably mooched that from someone and don't even know it.

Mooch and smooch -- the way of the world.

Saturday, June 19, 2010


Artifacts -- the repository of memory; the fuel of present warming fires; that which is redolent and suggestive and glowing with ... with ... with....

Some of Mother Teresa's artifacts went on display recently here in Massachusetts.

From the article, it is clear that onlookers were moved in a variety of ways -- truly moved.

A piece of the "true cross;" one of Buddha's bones; an artillery shell dug out of a French farmer's field so many years later ... artifacts excite reactions. Very touching reactions, very human, very moving.

But I also find it interesting that artifacts that are truly moving do not always create in those who are moved a reflection on what it is that moves. What door is it that opens onto some new and touching plateau? Why is it enough simply to be moved -- sometimes to tears -- by a bit of wood or a bit of bone or a bit of steel? How could the onlooker be moved if what moved them were not already embedded in their lives ... goodness, evil, sorrow, laughter, joy. Where does that come from?

Too often the wondrous effect of artifacts stops short. It just strikes me as a pity.

"who died and left you in charge?"

Yesterday, the nurse who insisted I go to the hospital emergency room (now!) made a nice observation. After she had done her routine blood test and was considering my pulse rate (which was through the roof), she said evenly, "Sometimes you are your own worst enemy."

And as I thought it over, I realized she was right. I was not brought up to think that being hurt or having an ailment was something I might complain about. True, I might have to get it fixed, but when regarding what needed fixing, I did my best to stand at a distance, assessing and addressing the issue together with those who might likewise be considering what to do and how to do it. This stance formed a kind of camouflage for those doing the repair work ... if I seemed so even-tempered, it must not be that bad. But sometimes it was that bad ... or worse.

Besides my upbringing -- a bit of stiff-upper-lip or you-don't-deserve-it or something like that -- there was also, on my part, a desire to assert control of the ailment that was, in fact, in control: I could remain cool, calm and collected and place the ailment at some distance from myself.

It's ludicrous when you write it down, but I also don't think it's uncommon ... holding things at a safe distance when all the time they are in your face, plain and simple. Being in control is the habit, but what's wrong with not being in control -- what's the matter with things as they are, plain and simple?

The whole situation also made me wonder why it should be necessary to use up 40 years on something called Zen practice when there was Ann, the nurse, acting as a straightforward and no-bones-about-it teacher: "Sometimes you are your own worst enemy." Plain as salt ... ain't it the truth? What would convince me that there was some other approach -- something other than daily events -- that could somehow out-teach, out-inform, out-clarify what was in front of my nose?

Well, the short answer is, I love Hollywood ... the flash and glitter, the stunning scenes, the wise, wise wisdoms of something I'm magnetized by ... something that will get my attention and awe and determination. And who knows: Without Zen practice, perhaps my ears would have remained deaf to Ann's good teaching.

I'm not criticizing. Just noticing. All that time fussing about one kind of brass ring or another, when all the time ... well, I'm just sick. Or, sometimes I am my worst enemy. Or laughter is a delight. Or ... sunshine.

It all feels a bit as if the universe were smothering a guffaw: "Who died and left you in charge, nitwit?"

Well, no one died and even so, you are in charge. Not in control, perhaps, but in charge.

Friday, June 18, 2010

truth to tell

In one of his novels, author Earl Thompson ("Tattoo," "A Garden of Sand," etc.) puts words in what I took to be his quasi-autobiographical central character's mouth. The character, a writer, says that all he ever wanted to do was to write something true. Judging by his novels as I remember them, Thompson did a pretty good job of writing something true.

And yet the wishful words linger in the mind ... to write something true. On the one hand, all words are liars from the get-go -- approximations or indicators of some vastly luscious whole. Often, when reading, you can sense the author's darting eyes, full of creative and contriving effort, scanning the heavens for just the right lie. Yes, it may be good, but still you feel what is missing ... the truth being coaxed from the lies.

On the other hand there are moments among the words and among the lies, that all artifice seems to fall away and there is a sudden unveiling ... this, fershur, is the truth and you know it. It is naked and you are naked with it.

Maybe spiritual endeavor is like that, rolling around in the coziness of the lies in a heart-felt effort to winkle out some truth, only to find, in a rare moment, that this, by God, is the truth ... the truth you had swooned for and begged for and were afraid of and coaxed until -- surprise, surprise -- it appeared without effort or contrivance ... sticking it's nose out from behind some closet door like a mischievous kid saying a delighted, "Boo!"

There's no more fakin' it when the truth comes calling -- the 'fershur' kind. No more prattling about truthful novels or spiritual whirligigs ... it's just "boo!" And just about the time you recognize it and are stripped delightfully bare and plead "pleasepleaseplease don't go!" it trots back into the fabricated bushes, delicate and powerful and shy as a unicorn.

precious worlds

Tenderness strikes me as a component in that which is called "precious," but there are other competing dictionary components as well:

▸ adjective: of high worth or cost ("Diamonds, sapphires, rubies, and emeralds are precious stones")
▸ adjective: characterized by feeling or showing fond affection for ("Children are precious")
▸ adjective: obviously contrived to charm ("An insufferably precious performance")
▸ adverb: extremely ("There is precious little time left")

So what is precious can truly touch the heart or cloy like a self-help missal.

In spiritual endeavor, people sometimes seek protection in the preciousness of their observances and outlook: Because this endeavor is truly touching to an uncertain heart or mind, adherents can build up adamant excuses for not really looking into things. "God is good. End of story."

But where is the line between what is truly precious, truly touching, truly consoling and sensible ... and the defensive spires that can grow up out of that uncertainty or sorrow or suffering? I don't know.

Lately, I seem to have been surrounded by a lot of sad stories, a lot of confusion, a lot of very touching stuff. So I was thinking about what might be precious and what might be excused because it was called precious.

Just an idea that got caught between my teeth.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

gated communities

Several months ago, during "spring break," my daughter and her boyfriend went to the Dominican Republic. She returned full of what a good time the two of them had had and I was happy for her.

But when she showed around the pictures she had taken, all of them were scenes within the gated community in which they lived. Palm trees, swimming pools, dining rooms, pictures of each other. There wasn't a church or historic fort or downtown bazaar or mountain trail or anything that would indicate the two of them hadn't been locked up on the east coast of Florida or someplace similar.

The gates were to keep the poverty and its implications at bay.

Gautama Buddha lived in similar circumstances, behind walls and surrounded by eye-popping comfort and luxury.

But never mind the fancy names of the past. The gated communities of the mind and heart serve similar purposes and are similarly protective and defensive. Jobs, finances, relationships, religions, cultures ... the walls are there to distinguish what is within from what is without. I am more interested whether it is true and less interested whether it is "good" or "bad."

I think it's true.

And I think it is pretty wearing.

Walls that keep something out also hem something in. And no one likes being hemmed in ... except when they imagine their safety is in question. And when the notion arises to escape the walls that hem in, as like as not, the escape route leads to yet another gated community, another safe haven, another protective and protected place.

Over and over again -- pictures of palm trees and swimming pools and faces smiling in the glamorous sunshine ... that then begins to cling and cloy.

It's not worth ranting about, but I do think it's worth consideration.

goodness and originality

Woke up thinking ...

It is better to be original than to be good.

Goodness is always in need of exercise and correction and company.

Originality is not something anyone could escape. It is always relaxed. It does not require duct tape.

No doubt there will be a penalty for having said so -- spiritual-endeavor mavens rushing in with rolls of duct tape to assure others that goodness and originality are the same or different or profound or shallow ... sticking together all the dangling shards with their good and reliable tape.

A little trailing-vine story along the same lines, perhaps:

The First Principle

When one goes to Obaku temple in Kyoto he sees carved over the gate the words "The First Principle." The letters are unusually large, and those who appreciate calligraphy always admire them as being a masterpiece. They were drawn by Kosen two hundred years ago.

When the master drew them he did so on paper, from which workmen made the larger carving in wood. As Kosen sketched the letters a bold pupil was with him who had made several gallons of ink for the calligraphy and who never failed to criticize his master's work.

"That is not good," he told Kosen after the first effort.

"How is that one?"

"Poor. Worse than before," pronounced the pupil.

Kosen patiently wrote one sheet after another until eighty-four First Principles had been accumulated, still without the approval of the pupil.

Then, when the young man stepped outside for a few moments, Kosen thought: "Now is my chance to escape his keen eye," and he wrote hurridly, with a mind free from disctraction. "The First Principle."

"A masterpiece," pronounced the pupil

That's pretty good duct tape, but originality is easier than juicy little tales. Goodness is a good start, but who ever said things need to be stuck together?

Why waste perfectly good duct tape?

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

beloved enemy

A lone American was arrested in Pakistan Sunday and apparently said he was on a quest to kill Osama bin Laden.

The 52-year-old Californian construction worker was arrested by Pakistanis, but I can imagine the Americans breathed a sigh of relief. Not that paying the extant bounty of $25 million of taxpayer money would be a problem, but the United States would be deprived of a prized enemy if someone actually killed or captured a man who heads up a very small group (Al Qaida) which the American public has been fetch-trained to despise.

Without that card in the expensive house of cards called "terrorism," how could more funding be forthcoming? Finding or fabricating enemies is a long-standing ploy by any number of governments, but it does get tiring when people go hungry or uneducated or uncared-for because the funds are not available.

The convenient enemy helps to consolidate power of those who do not wish to relinquish power, but it can hardly be said to pass for leadership. CEO's, battlefield commanders, and religious leaders all know the efficacy of fear and too often use it as a default position.

The trouble with fear is that those who are afraid are constantly looking over their shoulders and covering their asses -- and thus unlikely to produce the 100% effort that might advance some fruitful cause.

Sometimes it's hard not to wish for leadership.

But as the old saying goes, "If wishes were horses, beggars would ride."

a symmetrical peace

As the light gained pace this morning, I sat on the porch looking at the roof-lines of nearby houses and thought, not for the first time, that where there is a straight line, there also is man.

In the woods or mountains, nature creates straight lines casually -- it's just one of the possibilities, and so is not often seen. But elsewhere, man creates straight lines for ... for security and profit, I imagine.

Mathematically, the shortest distance between two points is a straight line ... or anyway, I think I remember memorizing that in some math class. Straight lines are efficient and carry with them a whiff of perfection. There is no distraction or imperfection. Nothing sticks to a straight line. It is pristine.

Which is why, I think, people like the Mona Lisa ... the crooked, quirky smile brings savor and irregularity and life to what otherwise might be (metaphorically) straight or symmetrical. The eye longs to fall in love and it is hard to fall in love with straight lines and coiffed symmetry.

And yet we can work at it pretty hard -- falling in love with symmetries. Jobs, relationships, spiritual endeavors, possessions -- don't we work pretty hard to find the straight-edged container that will bring a symmetrical peace to what can be an irrepressible asymmetry ... our lives?

A symmetrical, straight-edged peace, a peace over which we have control, a peace that comes when we whistle, a peace that will hold what is unpeaceful at arm's length. I suppose that such efforts fall under the heading of banging-your-head-against-a-wall-because-it-feels-so-good-when-you-stop. Not that there isn't something to be learned from all the straight-edged efforts, but rather that it simply doesn't work. What is asymmetrical may be confusing, but it contains sass and juice and makes the eye fall in love.

And in the end, even the straight lines of a symmetrical peace is nothing more than another asymmetry, another Mona Lisa smile, another reason to enjoy yourself.

Or anyway, that's what I imagine.

Monday, June 14, 2010

a properly executed crime

Generally, if uncertainly, attributed to Honoré de Balzac (1799 – 1850), the line is still interesting in its force: "Behind every great fortune, there is a great crime."

Whether or not Balzac wrote those exact and more pithy words, he did write in "Le Père Goriot" "The secret of a great success for which you are at a loss to account is a crime that has never been found out, because it was properly executed."

A properly executed crime -- one whose particulars remain hidden -- wreathes the success in unassailable light. I think that is probably true, but I don't think it's a good idea for individuals to fall prey such much-accepted activity.

I don't mean that anyone would want to run around raining on every available parade, playing the cynic and pessimist. I do mean that good things carry less-glorifiable elements and that those elements deserve attention and care.

Yin and yang are not just some symbol on a Chinese restaurant. They are the way of the world and failure to accord with the way of the world is bound to encourage uncertainty and sadness.

Success -- yes. Examine it.
Failure -- yes. Examine it.

Where is the resting place of all the pros and cons?


A ratting-around night trying to sleep or at least get comfortable provides what I imagine will be another 'doc day.' There are some heart problems that need addressing -- probably beyond the pills that doctors these days so freely dispense.

Interesting how the body knows things that leave intellect and emotion in the dust. The body knows and there is simply no discussion necessary.

In the midst of racketing around last night, the name "Karlovy Vary" refused to get out of my mind. I couldn't remember where I had read it or what it meant, but it repeated itself often enough so that I looked it up on the internet when I finally did get up. All it means is Karlsbad in western Bohemia of the Czech Republic.

What brought it to mind was a complete mystery.

The body, however, was not a mystery at all.

Sunday, June 13, 2010

a single incense stick

I remember how shocked I was when Dokai Fukui, a monk who ran a small Zen temple in Japan, wrote to me and said that he usually sat zazen, or seated meditation, for one incense stick a day and then went about his business.

I had assumed all Zen monks were all but grafted to their sitting cushions ... and sat four, five, six, seven, eight hours a day. Hell, even as a layman, I was sitting two or three hours a day at the time. And here was Dokai -- a wise soul if ever I met one -- sitting for an incense stick ... 30 or 40 minutes.

I remembered all that with a smile when I got up from my incense-stick's worth of sitting this morning. Maybe it's old age or delusion or laziness or understanding or misunderstanding ... hell, I don't know. I know I wasn't mimicking Dokai. But I was amused to come out at what seemed like much the same place he had depicted so long ago.

Or not.

selling out

I suppose the American legislative branches count on people like me -- people who will not do what, for a flashing moment, I seriously considered doing when it came to the financial reform bill currently being whittled away in the House and Senate.

Not that my action would have amounted to much. All I was thinking of doing was sending a note to senators and representatives from my state saying, "Please don't screw us ... again."

It's such an impotent little whimper. Mentioning decency and honor to those who don't operate that way is like spilling a drop of water on a hot frying pan. It disappears almost instantaneously. And you can hear the indulgent, hissing chuckles.

Banks will continue to be "too big to fail," meaning that instead of setting money aside to pay for their own errors, the taxpayer will foot the bill for the banks that have lobbied and paid off various legislators whose main hope in life is to get re-elected. Credit cards will be allowed to charge usurious rates. Mortgages that might stun a mogul ... well, caveat emptor. And there will be smooth, articulate descriptions of how this legislation has done its best for the little guy.

I'm too old to be enraged by the selling out of public trust. It has happened before and will happen again, but I do wonder how people who are entrusted look in the mirror. It is a question that reflects more on me and less on them, I suspect.

And it is all the same as with other mistakes observed in others:

Just don't YOU do that!

Saturday, June 12, 2010

the little bird

It's old, but I had occasion to send it along anew today and thought I would repeat it here as well:

Once upon a time, there was a little bird who decided not to fly south for the winter. His friends begged and cajoled, but he was adamant. So his friends took off to the south and the little bird sat on his branch.

Pretty soon, the winds grew colder and the snow began to fall. The little bird decided he had made a mistake and he took off after his friends. Alas, he was too late: The temperature was below zero and the ice formed on his wings as he flew. He grew more and more tired and finally he just plain gave up and plummeted to earth.

As it happened, he landed in a field of cows and as the little bird lay there, waiting to expire, a passing cow crapped all over him. The manure warmed him and thawed his wings. He would survive! The little bird was so happy that he began to sing. A passing cat heard the singing, dug through the manure, found the little bird and promptly ate him.

There are three morals to this story:

1. Not everyone who shits on you is necessarily your enemy.
2. Not everyone who gets you out of the shit is necessarily your friend.
And ...
3. If you're happy in your own pile of shit, keep your mouth shut.


light and sound

Received in email without attribution:

Light travels faster than sound, which is why some people appear to be bright until you hear them speak.

Cracker Jack importance

At 2:30 a.m., it was bright and important and interesting and chock-a-block with stuff I did not want to forget: Cracker Jacks.

Popcorn and peanuts covered in caramel ... often with a prize in the box.Sticky. A confection whose name later segued into a means of praise -- eg. "a Cracker Jack job."

But as I dozed closer to dawn, somehow I could no longer remember what importance it all had. If there had been some spiritual metaphor I was going to spin, I simply couldn't remember what it was. All I could remember was Cracker Jacks, a candy I had never found as delectable as, say, chocolate.

And after I rolled myself out of bed, got a little coffee and donned the functions of being awake, there was an email from a cousin who said her publisher and agent had agreed two days ago that her latest suggestion for a book was ... well ... they simply didn't like it. She had been banking, in some part of her mind, on acceptance and importance and work to do and suddenly the balloon simply lost its fullness. Ouch. She threw herself into cleaning the closet and, a day ago, came up with a new writing project to pitch to her agent, one that apparently was received more enthusiastically.

Important stuff. Really, at the moment it's important, it really is important. The oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. The war in Afghanistan. Unemployment. The latest ways in which politicians would sidestep the hard choices necessary to helping the constituents they wanted to be seen as helping. Or the more mundane, up-close-and-personal stuff ... relationships and sock drawers and, oh yeah, what was it about Cracker Jacks that was important?

How many important things have come and gone and yet the habit remains strong ... THIS is important. On the one hand, you couldn't call it unimportant. On the other hand, if it's so all-fired important, how come it's not as important today as it was yesterday? I know, I know -- I can sit down and rework yesterday's lather so that it seems to maintain an overarching and ongoing importance, but is it true?

I do wonder what I thought was so important about Cracker Jacks. I know it was important, but ... what was it?

Friday, June 11, 2010

guns and religion

Reading on the internet a question about how anyone might approach the topic of religion with their kids, I was reminded again of a time when my youngest son, then perhaps 9, came to me an said, "Papa, I want to build a gun."

I knew what he meant. He did not mean he wanted to build a gun so that he could become a neighborhood serial killer. He meant he was fascinated by exactly how a piece of machinery -- especially one so powerful -- was put together ... literally.

I used the occasion to pile all the kids (one girl, two boys) in the car and make a 20-mile drive to a Smith & Wesson plant where the gunmaker had a firing range. Going down, the kids were pretty excited and there was a lot of chatter laced with swagger and wonder.

But when we got there, the tone changed and exactly what I wanted to happen, happened. First there was the selecting of weapons. I picked a .22 revolver for starters, something without too much kick. When we went onto the range itself, I grabbed the range officer and told him to look after the kids ... to make sure they got things right. Then I stood aside: No kid listens to a parent the way s/he might listen to an expert.

The range officer laid down the law: Always point the pistol down-range. Keep the safety on until ready to fire. Here's how to hold the revolver, etc. The kids paid attention and one by one took a turn shooting at a paper target, reloading and then shooting again. The gun had weight. It had noise. It had palpable power. There was nothing flashy about it. It was all business.

After the .22, we returned to the gun case and I asked for a pistol that shot the most commonly used ammunition, whatever that might be. The salesman gave us a 9mm pistol and a box of bullets. We returned to the range and the range master. The clip was hard to load. It took time and energy. The gun was heavier. The kick was larger. The noise more insistent. If the .22 had be serious, this was s-e-r-i-o-u-s. It was harder to hit the target anywhere near the bulls-eye.

When we walked out, the conversation was still excited and proud and a bit macho, but now it was laced with an experience that spoke from within. This was not TV or some detective movie. This was not simply kool. This was business and each of the kids knew something about business instead of the excitement of a faith depicted on celluloid with its attendant woo-hoos and swagger and cardboard retributions.

It was a good experiment, I always thought. You want to play guns? Here, try a gun. It's part of the world we live in and you should know something about what a gun is and isn't, what it can do and can't.

And I guess I feel somewhat the same about spiritual life. It's part of the scenery so you should know something about it. But it's not enough to run celluloid hosannahs and haloed hoorahs. That's the glitz. It has no heft, it carries no challenge, its stories are not its truth.

So I kind of hope that at some point my kids will rent a religion and investigate its ins and outs in the care of something more than an idiotic range master. No need to find the perfect and complete answer or bias ... just pick it up, feel the heft, pull a trigger or two, enjoy the bang ... and just know it's out there, awaiting your actual-factual pleasure or dismay.

It's part of the landscape so....

Thursday, June 10, 2010

right on!

Of all the scrumptious trip wires in life, I sometimes wonder if being right isn't pretty close to king of the castle. The scrumptiousness comes, of course, not from actually being right but from the warming sun of imagining you are right.

The other day, I ran into a heart doctor with whom I have had some personal contact and, since he seemed to have time to chat, I said to him that I had always been grateful to him for an observation he once made after I retired: "Your health is now your business." Depressing in one sense, still the advice was good, I said. He took that conversational ball and ran with it: "You can't imagine how many people I tell that too -- guys with a gut out to here and can't even walk across a room without difficulty -- and they just don't listen. It's like spreading grass seed on concrete."

His eyes and mouth tightened slightly as he issued this judgment. It was a small nod towards a what-a-bunch-of-assholes assessment, scrumptiously cranky-making. He was right. Why wasn't the world listening to him? He wanted to help, was offering help and much of the world he inhabited was spurning his good intentions and experience-based virtue.

And the same trip wire is visible in many nooks and crannies. Spiritual life is littered with people who may, in fact, be right, but then add on an insistence that they are right. And when people agree with them, it's Nellie-bar-the-door ... suddenly it's OK to insist you are right when there is a lot of applause for your being right.

There's only one fly in this ointment: It doesn't work and it engenders uncertainty. Being right is OK. Thinking you are right means you must constantly buttress your position, shore it up against those who, implicitly or explicitly, suggest you are off the mark.

The exterior versions of being right -- politicians, Tupperware salesmen, virtue merchants, etc. -- are really not so bad as what people can do to themselves within, basking in being right when in fact they may merely be right. In Buddhist lingo, this is called attachment ... and it is so scrumptious that it's a hard habit to break. The Buddhists are right ... but there's no telling that to others, even other Buddhists.

In Buddhism, for example, there are the Four Noble Truths. These are observations about the way the world goes around:

There is suffering.
There is a cause of suffering.
There is an end of suffering.
There is a way to end suffering.

But there is no convincing anyone that such observations are true or right. There is only finding out that they are true or right and then working forward based on your own discoveries. The fact that anyone can quote these lines or write these lines or agree with others about these lines ... well, it's all piss in a snow bank...a scrumptious relief, perhaps, but lacking ease. It's right, perhaps, but there is no need to be right about it. In fact, the need to be right will stand in the way of being right no matter how scrumptious being right may be.

And if this depiction rings any bells within and if it suggests investigation and attention, then I think the same investigation and the same attention might be warranted about being wrong. Nothing wrong with being wrong ... unless of course you think (scrumptiously) that you or someone else is wrong.

Speak your piece. Spread the grass seed. As the Zen teacher Shunryu Suzuki once observed approximately, "There are things to do and there are things not to do -- that is enough."

But I concede that scrumptiousness requires some effort.

Wednesday, June 9, 2010


All I can think of this morning is that there seems to be quite a lot of emphasis placed on learning from the mistakes of others ... studying history, being observant, finding connections and the like.

But the only kind of mistake-learning I can figure as being worth much is the willingness to learn from our own mistakes ... the other stuff is all eyewash and diplomas by comparison.

A press release seeking donations for a Zen monastery project came in email yesterday. Its efforts included the phrase, "Mysteriously, the Dharma arranged for...."

The fact that there are those who lap that stuff up the way a dog licks a plate covered in beef gravy is no excuse in my book. Those who concoct such words have a hundred tasty and delightfully-eerie excuses, but beef gravy laced with ground glass is still fatal.

I too have lapped up such shit. I too have served such shit.

And what have I learned?

Shame is the tasty result for me.

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

all in

Who knows ... it may all be over one way or the other by now, but yesterday I received a note from Claire, Hugh Greenaway's daughter, telling me about pending action in the wake of a massive stroke my internet friend had on May 23 in the UK. Hugh and Claire are something like five or six hours ahead of me in time, so I don't know if the matter is resolved or not:

Just to let u know my dad has to have an emergency operation on his neck artery 2moro. They have decided now that it's too risky to not do it as there's a high chance at the minute of him having another stroke which would be massive or even kill him. Unfortunately the operation can actually cause a stroke to happen so we are all really worried obviously but the chance of him having one as he is is higher than him having I've during the op so they have decided they have no option but to take that risk. He has been transferred tonight so will let you know what happens 2moro.

A risk if you act.

A risk if you don't act.

And quite conceivably is may be the last risk ever taken ... the risk di tutti risks. Nothing fancy about it. All-in as they say in poker. Nothing held back. One shot, dead or alive.

Funny how the most complex things are like this: In the end, it's simply a matter of in or out, act or don't act. And it's not just true in woeful, saddening circumstances. It's true as well where gaiety and smiles and laughter are in force.

However much I may wish my friend well, however much I may love him, however much I may wring my hands in horror or sorrow ... still ... this moment is always this moment and it's in or out. And there is something within that knows this and is at ease. No escape is just no escape so there is no need any longer to try to escape, to maintain control, to revise in accordance with something else.

Where "life and death" are the issue, there is a tendency to pay greater attention. We may wriggle and squirm and issue consoling words or try to manipulate things to some 'spiritual' advantage. There is importance.

But isn't the same importance, the same inescapable importance, in force when it comes to kissing a friend, giving a gift, laughing out loud or sunbathing on a beach? I think it is and I also think that our practice is to get our heads and hearts straight about things: I am responsible ... act or don't act, still this moment is only this moment.

And there is joy in it.

Monday, June 7, 2010

cool day, crabby mind

Yesterday's oppressive heat has turned, after some purgative storms, to a crisp and cool morning. It makes life seem somehow easier. Not that much easier, but easier.

Once upon a time there was an elderly woman in whose obituary I read some words that become increasingly sane as time passes. "If," she was quoted as saying, "you wake up after the age of 65 without any aches or pains, you will know you are dead."

Aches and pains are par for the course and yet now and then waking up with aches and pains -- however reasonable -- brings on a fit of explosive and unreasonable crabbiness. Recollecting times without aches and pains brings on a foot-stomping crankiness. Somehow THIS isn't right; I've done enough of THIS ... let's get back to normal!

And accompanying the physical, there is a mental crabbiness and confusion. Where are all those wants and plans that once shaped the day ahead? They seem to have lost their force and yet wanting is such an old and familiar friend, there seems to be a hole in the fabric. I can say what I don't want -- that's the nature of crabbiness -- but finding something that I actually do want seems to have become incredibly elusive. I want things MY way, but what the hell does that mean? Where are the new wants that might fulfill the promise of wanting stuff? Things seem to be dripping out of control even as the understanding that control is a figment of the imagination gains sway.

Yesterday, Eric came to find out about Buddhism in the zendo. We went through the postures and etiquette and sat a little and walked a little and later he told me he was going through a rough patch with his wife.

His words made me think of a turning wheel ... that his search and his difficulties were really as common as salt, though of course not to him. And in the same way, my difficulties are common as salt ... but not to me. Around and around it goes. Nothing new or relieving or unusual ... although a while back I was interested in an exterminator's tale of raising worms, a thing about which I knew little or nothing. Some of the old interest raised its head ... the right kind of worms, where you bought them, how much they cost, what kind of mark-up anyone might expect when selling them, what they ate, the good they could do ... now THAT was interesting whereas aches and pains and loss of control and blog-writing and Buddhism and doing things for others was pretty much like flat, crabby-making beer.

A little breakfast, common as salt, will probably set things right.

Sunday, June 6, 2010


It was thick and hot in the auditorium where my older son was graduated from high school yesterday. No air conditioning. No fans. The heat of hundreds of people was only vaguely mitigated by open windows and open exit doors. It was the kind of oppressiveness that might have done Louisiana proud.

In preparation for the ritual that was already filling the house with vague uncertainties and confusions, I went out to the zendo and dug out a fan that had been given to me a lot of years ago. I love fans -- they are incredibly efficient in a world that promises efficiency and seldom delivers.

This fan is adorned with a reproduction of a Torei Enji (1721-1792) enso and calligraphy.
The calligraphy, I was told, quotes the words of Gautama Buddha when, as a newborn, he took seven steps in each of the cardinal directions and then, raising his right index finger to the heavens and pointing his left index finger to the earth, proclaimed, "Above the heavens and below the earth, I alone am the world-honored one."

Leaving aside the miraculous or miraculously-annoying sentiment expressed, the fan worked well in an auditorium filled with over-heated people who wanted to take part in a ritual that marked end's and beginning's and all the other stuff that speakers at graduations can drone on about. Even though those speeches always contain and element of truth, still they never contain the truth that you could see fleetingly etched on one parental face or another ... mine too. What's-going-on-here, those faces seem to ask with a kind of incredulity. I knew this was coming, but now that it has arrived, how the hell did it get here ... it's so... it's so ... it's so uncertain. What happens next? I was so accustomed to my son's shambling presence and now, like any other parent accustomed to the quirks and wonders of a child who has grown tall ... well ... hunh?????

There was some nice a cappella singing and several sprightly talks and then the diplomas were passed out and at last we could go outside where, if it was not exactly cooler, at least there was more room in which to be hot.

Everyone smiled.

One of the nice things about Buddhism, I sometimes think, is not that it is better or more profound or wiser than other takes on life, but that it is there to catch you and point you in the right direction when things get serious ... when the smiles and gossip and memories seem to run up against a brick wall like change or sorrow or something that is somehow more compelling and important. It's like a good mom ... someone who will catch you and put you on your feet and kiss things better and then send you on your way ... until the next, inevitable, time, the next inevitable graduation. It doesn't work to ignore a mom like Buddhism and it doesn't work to cling ... but it's nice to have something or someone with some common sense and caring to point out how your sails might be re-set.

Saturday, June 5, 2010

believe it!

To my right along the peace picket line that was sweltering this morning, a grey-haired man with a guitar was talking to a white-haired woman who was clearly a pretty good friend. And I caught a snippet of conversation:

He: How can he say he does not believe in God. Saying you don't believe in God is like a fish saying it does not believe in water.

She: Nods with an appreciative smile.

It was a cozy little exchange -- friendly, agreeable.

But later, after the man with the guitar had moved on to an appointment and as I was about to head home for lunch, I couldn't stop myself from commenting to the white-haired woman: "You might tell your friend to consider: A fish that does not believe in water is precisely the same as a fish that DOES believe in water."

Belief -- so inviting, so convincing, so agreeable. And yet what is it that belief and disbelief accomplish beyond all doubt? Belief and disbelief separate one thing from the next. From the get-go, separation is the DNA of belief/disbelief.

And is separation the sort of peace that is A. True or B. Most healing?

I know, I know ... it's not something to point out ... it's too contrary to what anyone might just know to be true.

One day I'll learn to hold my tongue.

your're out!

A flood of public support has descended on the major league umpire who made a bad call and cost a pitcher a coveted "perfect game," a feat that has been achieved only 20 times in major league history according to Wikipedia.

A perfect game is a game in which a pitcher pitches a victory that lasts a minimum of nine innings and in which no opposing player reaches base.

On Wednesday, umpire Jim Joyce cost Detroit Tigers pitcher Armando Galarraga his "perfect game" when Joyce mistakenly called a runner safe at first base ... and later admitted he had been wrong.

According to an Associated Press story:

Replays later showed he missed the call, and Joyce admitted he blew it.

He was devastated, and apologized to Galarraga in person and hugged him after the Tigers' 3-0 win. Galarraga was also supportive, saying he respected Joyce for apologizing and admitting his mistake.

Support for the umpire who goofed came from as far away as the White House, where admitting mistakes is not often viewed favorably.

All of this may be very heart-warming, even to people like me who are only mildly interested in baseball. To die-hard fans for whom baseball may be something shy of God Almighty, it is nothing short of miraculous.

Miraculous on the one hand and yet when you think about it, why should it be miraculous that a man should recognize there are things that are more important than his status ... as for example, his honesty? Am I wrong to sense a far-reaching relief -- almost to tears -- that someone in the public eye should take the responsibility for what I think everyone knows in their heart is the right thing to do ... to put ego aside and, just this once, tell the truth?

What does it say about any of us that we should feel this out-pouring of affection? Doesn't it suggest we -- whether in the public eye or not -- have been on a mistaken course ... covering up, spinning the facts, trying to look good, putting the best (instead of the true-est) face on things?

Clean and clear is just plain better for the heart. Evasion has a sloppy, somewhat cloying feel to it, like bubblegum stuck to the sole of the shoe on a hot day ... tendrils trailing behind, sticky, heavy and yet lacking much weight, annoying and keeping laughter at bay.

I guess we've all done it, but perhaps we can take a lesson from a major league umpire or from our own hearts. There is a difference between being a good person and bringing evidence to bear that we are good people.

The difference lies in the laughter.

Friday, June 4, 2010


I once heard on the radio that in China the newspapers favored students who had done well academically and that less attention was paid to athletic prowess. My local newspaper -- which survives for the moment -- is filled with athletic achievements by local kids: Not "Johnny got an A in chemistry," but "Suzy scored a goal in the third period."

Generally, I feel that, starting anywhere, a person is capable of going anywhere...that wisdom can grow even between the cracks in sidewalk cement. But the privilege of education is likely to give more bang for the buck...make more likely the understanding of possibilities. The fact that some smart people are dumber than golf tees doesn't erase the thought.

I guess my older son's graduating from high school tomorrow brings this to mind. I guess I hope that whatever he has learned will serve him well and keep him safe. But since there are no guarantees, I guess I'd better take a look at my hopes.

Thursday, June 3, 2010

"In the beginning was the Word..."

"In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God." John 1:1.

I don't want to start a Christian kerfuffle -- the lines just crossed my mind tonight and I wondered about them ... wondered whether they spread more light than darkness, more clarity than confusion, more lightness of being than befuddlement.

Without explaining those words, do they make much sense? I mean do they really make sense? I don't know and I do pray to God that no biblically-inclined text-ologist will explain it to me. Though I wouldn't mind hearing from someone with some experience.

I will say this for the words: If I were a writer in a Chinese fortune cookie factory and I came up with those words, I bet I'd get a raise. Either that, or fired. :)

your life in days

A friend sent this to me in email -- totally useless information which still has a certain in-your-face poignancy:

How many days old are you?

It does make you wonder -- what the hell was I doing all that time?

nothing to be done

A note from Hughie's daughter Claire informed me today:

Basically both the arteries in his neck are blocked up by over 70%. This is probably what caused the clot so obviously they want to do something to make sure it doesn't happen again. They have agreed to operate but they said he's too poorly at the minute. He's ok but seems very fed up.

Fed up and frustrating -- that describes a lot of things that happen in life. There is nothing that can be done. No words can salve. No hymns can assuage. Where there is no "better," there simply is no better. And yet, of course, we may wish things were better -- for ourselves, for those we love, and, when we're feeling expansive, for positively everyone.

And still there is nothing that can be done. It's hard. It's true. And it's an opportunity. Living a life dedicated to something else, some better way, some Elysian Fields that have been or will be.

Still, there is nothing to be done.

And this goes not just for the 'bad' stuff, the old age, illness and death. It is also true for the 'good' stuff -- the stuff we might love or delight in.

I just think we all short-change ourselves and our lives when we decline the invitation to enter and survey the fact that there is nothing to be done. The twitterings of anguish and delight are human enough ... and yet where there is nothing to be done, is twittering a solution?

second-hand stuff

I read this morning on a BBC internet bulletin board:

Doubt means that you have not yet finished thinking. That the subject matter is ‘a work in progress’.

Lately there is the habit of looking elsewhere for something to consider, something to munch, something to expatiate about ... find someone else's wisdom or conviction and then chew on that. It's a bit like picking gum off the bottom of the cafeteria table -- seeking flavor in something second-hand that is then sanded and refinished to a lustrous sheen, something re-chewed into a revised 'importance.'

Second-hand stuff is interesting, I guess, but it's still second-hand. When I want to consider the first-hand, I find the grey sky and the cardinal's song more inviting these days. Second-hand, perhaps, and yet somehow closer to the mark. Old chewing gum has a way of tiring the jaws...not to mention the germs. :)

What isn't second-hand? Doubting something else. Rechewing something else. Elevating or dismissing something else. And all the while, before picking that old stuff off the bottom of the nearest cafeteria table, there is something which lacks all doubt and certainty, is easier than re-chewing, has more flavor.

Where the cardinal sings, the universe is at ease. Where a sneeze explodes, all need for flavor or doubt is erased ... or perhaps just explains without explanation what requires no explanation. Breath comes and breath goes. Wily and wise explications rise up and fall away. And those muttering "this moment" are forced to stop trying.

What a relief.

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

critical thinking

A lot of years ago, when I worked at a book publisher called Doubleday, I had a co-worker named Susan who came from England. Susan was about four times as smart as any six other people I knew. She would also admit, when drunk, that she wanted to be the first female prime minister of England ... a post I thought she could fill with ease before Margaret Thatcher took those laurels for herself.

Susan and I went out for dinner one night and as we were chatting, she said that one of the problems with American education was that students were not versed in the art of debate -- a skill that was taught in English universities.

"Adam," she said as we both downed what was probably one too many drinks, "I could sit here right now and prove to you that a chocolate milkshake was vanilla. And you'd believe it." Her announcement came as part of a conversation that was simultaneously light-hearted and serious and, since I didn't especially want to feel any dumber than I already did in her presence, I asked her sincerely, not to do so. She was decent enough to comply and it was a perfectly pleasant dinner.

Why is it that critical thinking or critical argumentation gets such a bad name. I think it must be because the people who are called critical thinkers are too often intellectual or emotional half-pints -- strutting their stuff as a means of elevating their status but offering little light to or love for the issue at hand.

I miss people who either love the issue at hand or, boldly and baldly, state their prejudice as regards that issue ... without any hope or fear that others would agree with them. "It's just how I feel," they seem to be saying between the lines. "It's just what I think." And you get the sense that they are keeping a critical eye on their own feelings and thoughts and not trying to become the metaphorical prime minister of England.

Critical thinking ... oh well, "It could be worse," as Mel Brooks observed, "it could be raining."

"Nothing east of Suez"

It may have been something of an overstatement even when it was published, which was in the early 1960's, but I once read a book (name forgotten) about the religious convictions of the West and how they viewed the East. It was a fairly scholarly book, closely written and not just some aerated panegyric for western approaches.

In the midst of which came a quick overview of the book's general thesis:

"Nothing east of Suez."

What a lot of changes.

How few things change.

Plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose

numero uno

Israel is in hot water after raiding, in international waters, a flotilla of ships bringing aid to the Gaza Strip, a place full of Palestinians over whom Israel has exercised a choking grip. About ten people were killed Monday in the raid and there has been much condemnation from the rest of the world...a condemnation that, I suspect, will soon be forgotten by Israel and its allies even as it is remembered and festers among those most affected.

I once heard the argument made that one of the reasons Adolf Hitler singled out the Jews for extermination during World War II was that -- aside from finding a convenient whipping boy -- Hitler saw a challenge to his own vision of Aryan superiority. The Jews, after all, called themselves "the chosen" and there was no way there could be two bests-of-the-best: There is only one best. Ergo "die Endlösung," the "final solution," from Hitler's point of view.

I wonder how many nations or groups around the world have looked at themselves as the best, as the preferred among all peoples. Was it the Cheyenne, the Hopis, the Navajo (among American Indians) who referred to themselves as "the people?" Maybe all of them, I honestly don't remember. And you can see the social cohesiveness that such an approach might foster.

And yet life has a way of being more diverse and more interesting than the social cohesiveness it can encompass. If I am a "Zen Buddhist," isn't it to be hoped that at some point I will step back or reflect and see that that's not quite the whole story? If I do not step back from the cohesiveness of my clan, how can it be possible that I too will not become party to some Endlösung, some little or large massacre, whether of Jews or Palestinians or Germans or ... well pick your group or philosophy that isn't as best-of-the-best as you are ... or I am?

prom night

Everyone's teeth were white, the boys all seemed to have rented their patent-leather shoes in the same place, and it was almost impossible to get a candid photo since everyone was in a glistening mode.

Last night was prom night for my older son and his classmates. Parents and students snapped photos and called out to each other and posed and swirled in eddies of one configuration and then another. The bonhomie was both enjoyable and had a quality of mixed messages ... a ritual to mark the almost-end of high school, the attendant pride of accomplishment and the edgy just-below-the-surface question, "If this is the end, what's next?"

Parents wondered how their children had ever gotten so big, so ... ummm... adult-looking. Some had the half-proud, half-stunned look ... as if in recognition of (was it?) Beatle John Lennon's observation that "life is what happens while you were busy making other plans." All the students had such seamless, assured faces -- the kinds of faces parents recognized as once having been their own.

And after the pictures and the swirling in the gymnasium that became the gathering place of choice after rain made a nearby park impractical, the students loaded into buses and limousines and were off to dinner and dancing while the parents headed for home and their own dreams of past and future.

Tuesday, June 1, 2010


Memorial Day Weekend -- the weekend during which people remember and honor those who sacrificed in war -- is now a thing of the past. I will take down the flag today and the TV may be less full of war movies.

But yesterday, there was one war movie after another on several TV channels. Some were better than others, some more grisly than others, some more flag-waving patriotic than others, some filled with more cardboard characters than others.

It made me wonder: Does any veteran, anyone who has actually gone in harm's way, watch this shit? I watched some, but I have never been shot at, never been bombed, never lost a near and dear friend, never been scared out of my wits in inexplicable circumstances, never been soul-seared beyond sorrow, never gone numb by necessity to the whatever humanity I possessed, never begged within for something -- anything -- that would get me out of here, never been forced to look within and be appalled, never....

Do veterans watch this shit?

I can imagine longing to have memory serve the truth, but after enough frustration, enough half-baked, technicolor stories ... why try? Why lie? To share the memories that count is impossible. And the same can probably be said for any memory, though of course it may not be socially de rigueur to say so.

Do veterans -- the people with experience -- relive or find relief in the silver screen or the 500-page novel or the television with its ads?

I once sat across a grey, Formica-topped kitchen table from a vet and asked him questions in my role as a reporter. At first, the questions were easy -- name, birth, brothers, sisters, education, etc. But when the questions took him back to his time in Vietnam, it got harder and harder and finally ... he broke down and cried the tears of a man who remembered all too well.

And I, the reporter and movie-goer and TV-watcher and American voter ... was profoundly ashamed.

the commander

The front page of the newspaper announces the weather for the day: "Unsettled" was the word chosen for the little box that added references to sun, clouds and perhaps a thunder storm. "Unsettled." I guess in one sense, readers would understand "unsettled" -- it would contrast with days when there was nothing but sun or rain or snow. And yet in another sense it was ridiculous ... is there a time when the weather is actually settled somehow, when it won't, as in the past, change into some other configuration?

In Buddhism, there was a line that seemed appropriate to me: "If you want to know about Buddhism, watch the clouds." It's probably too simple and too open and too direct a line ... so there are weather forecasts and holy books to encourage and explain what it means to "watch the clouds" or what it means when something is "unsettled."

In a war novel I read once, a general is told by a subordinate that he cannot take a particular action, that it would be against regulations. And the general explodes with an icy fury, saying, approximately, "Regulations are for the guidance of the commander. I command this unit ... which is a hell of a lot different from shuffling papers."

What effort in life does not have its rules and regs -- its directions and imperatives; its exercises and learning curves? Math, psychology, love, buying and selling stocks, NASCAR driving, carpentry, religion, origami ... the list is endless. Learning takes practice and practice is based on the suggestions and observations and rules set down by those who practiced before you. Only a fool does not learn the rules, the skill sets of a chosen line of endeavor. No need to make things more difficult than they have to be.

But a lifetime dependent on regulations is not the same as a living and skillful commander. It is stale and fearful and bound. So at some point -- and the point is simply the point anyone chooses -- the rules become a guidance for a commander and are no longer the touchstones of a life. Leave the rules too soon ... and screw up. Never leave at all ... and screw up. It's a command decision, one made only by commanders, not by paper pushers.

And who, in the end, is not the commander?