Saturday, December 31, 2011

the middle way

Suppose you got in a car whose driver did nothing but look in the rear-view mirror as s/he drove.

It would probably make you nervous ... and with good reason.

Suppose you got in a car whose driver did nothing but look at the road ahead.

It would probably make you nervous ... and with good reason: The rear-view mirror provides a measure of safety.

Suppose you got in a car whose driver consulted the road ahead and glanced from time to time into the rear-view mirror.

You might recognize that there was no such thing as absolute safety, but the odds of reaching your destination would certainly improve.

Drive safely. :)

Happy New Year

About 25 minutes south of here, there is a sign along the interstate highway: "Welcome to Connecticut." In a 70-mph flash, traffic moves from one state to another. The weeds and maples that grow along the roadside are the same as in Massachusetts. The farmlands at a distance hardly seem to change. The road is as black and smooth before the sign as after it. Something notable has happened ... and it's hardly notable at all. Same ol' same ol'.

This year, Samoa was the first in the world to cheer in the New Year. New Zealand was not far behind. It's already 2012 in those places while laggards in my neck of the woods wait for celebrations later tonight ... stuck in the ancient history of 2011. "Welcome to Connecticut."

Some are pretty upset that the Mayans (not) and others predict the end of the world in 2012. The world is busy ending all the time. Massachusetts becomes Connecticut -- welcome!

To hope and reflect -- both seem to be part of the human tapestry. Hope for the future. Reflect on the past. These are not 'bad' things, but with too much emphasis, too much reliance, they become things that really do screw the pooch. Where past and future fill the heart and mind, the present often goes begging and as Beatle John Lennon once observed, "Life is what happens to you while you're busy making other plans."

Is there any moment that does not carry with it the sign that says, "Welcome to Connecticut?" Where anyone has been is important. Where anyone is going is important. But could such things ever be more important than where anyone actually is? And without getting a handle on what is, could what was or will be have any consequential usefulness? "Was," "will be" ... who makes this shit up?

Welcome to Connecticut.

Happy New Year!

making the world go 'round

Politicians, mafia members and others disposed to self-assured zealousness may be obvious examples, but I think there are wider applications as well ... people who claim suavely to know what makes the world go 'round without taking responsibility for making the world go 'round.

It's a bad habit, I think ... or anyway one worth keeping an eye on.

Friday, December 30, 2011

whore house reprieve

What???!!! No more whore houses in the Maldives -- a luxury destination where rooms for the well-heeled can run $12,000 a night?! What is the world coming to ... not to mention the loss of tourist income?

Luckily, the ban on 'spas,' which was instigated by an opposition Islamist party, is widely expected to be revoked. There's just too much money to be made. (As an associative query in this matter, when does a "whore house" turn into a "spa?" Is there some Jesuitical forum that can sift and separate and lay down a ruling?)

Anyway, I don't know about you, but I am breathing a sigh of relief. Standards, after all, must be upheld, and what more reputable standard is there than m-o-n-e-y?  Religious conviction seldom makes much money ... unless, of course, it is turned into a whore house... or should I say, "spa?" :)

stubbornness and determination

Here it is, almost 1030, and I haven't gotten in my daily writing fix. Before I could get off on some choice thoughts about "stubbornness" and "determination," I got a phone call from a woman who I always think of as my sister and we gabbed as brothers and sisters do ... a long, easy-going, sometimes profane, sometimes serious, sometimes silly conversation that was miles more interesting than my ruminations.

And now, returning to "stubbornness" and "determination," I can only vaguely remember what it was that enticed me before the laughter and gabbing. Vaguely, but still....

I think it's a decision everyone makes alone, the distinctions and similarities between stubbornness and determination. Stubbornness is a quality that can carry a good meaning or a disapproving one. But it seems reasonable to say everyone is stubborn about something. Maybe a belief, maybe a religion, maybe a taste or leaning or activity.

I am quite stubborn about disliking anchovies, for example. I cannot imagine anyone's liking them because I do not. And likewise, I cannot imagine not-liking chocolate. On more amorphous grounds, maybe there is a taste or distaste for money or enlightenment or a group of people or some generalization about friends or enemies or the French.

Stubbornness ... I want things my way. My way is the right way. My way or the highway. Maybe the stubbornness is just in my mind and I don't lay it off on others. Maybe my stubbornness is something I am willing to shove down others' throats ... my god is the right god and your god is the wrong one.

But it interests me to notice in my stubbornness about god, to use one example: Is the god about whom I can be so stubborn stubborn or not? How much of a god could a stubborn god be? It sounds like a two-bit god to me ... but that's just my stubbornness.

Determination, when distinguished from stubbornness, doesn't strike me as having a down side. Determination is what anyone conjures up when seeking to accomplish something. Determination is getting up after falling down...and then keep on getting up after repeatedly falling down. Determination is needed where inexperience currently rules. Right, wrong or indifferent, effort requires determination.

Well, this is all a bit wussy, a bit too airy-fairy for my taste. The thing that interested me about "stubbornness" and "determination" is the facet that seems to link the two and make them indistinguishable: Ego. No matter how they are distinguished, no matter how they are elevated or parsed or praised or criticized ... still, without ego, without a sense of self, neither achieves liftoff. Ego-tripping R Us -- that's what crossed my mind. Stubborn or determined ... no ego, no liftoff.

And since the ego is a dubious customer at best, perhaps anyone might like to consider (for their own purposes) whether liftoff was actually necessary in the first place. Whether Ku Klux Klan member or determined Buddhist aspirant ... practice makes perfect, but perfect makes perfect as well.

As Shunryu Suzuki once put it more or less, "There are things to-do and there are things not-to-do -- that's all." Figuring out which is which may require effort, may require stubbornness, may require determination, but in the end or before the beginning, there are things to-do and things not-to-do.

Perfect makes perfect.

Thursday, December 29, 2011

get over practice

Everything takes practice -- the repetition and failure that assures a relative success.

Same in meditation practice. Over and over again ... and a lot of what is sometimes called 'good' meditation and 'bad' meditation.

One of the tricks of the trade, I think, is to get over "practice."

Look it over -- at the same time anyone is 'practicing,' s/he really is practicing ... so there's no need to practice. It's like being at home and wishing fervently you could go home.

It's kind of funny.

And sometimes it's enough to make you weep.


Am I wrong or is it true that the word "perfect" carries with it some unfortunate baggage ... to wit, that it means 'the end' in some sense. The perfect race, the perfect game, the perfect ... well, pick a "perfect." The perfect is the apex, the apogee, the top beyond which there is not top, the complete, the woo-hoo among all woo-hoo's.

In the 1998 movie "The Mask of Zorro," the now-aging champion of the people, Zorro, trains a young replacement. The young man has spirit but no discipline. Bit by patient bit, the older man trains him. Swordsmanship, athletics, manners ... patiently. And at one point, after the young man has negotiated a series of irregularly-placed ropes -- swinging from one to the next with ease and dexterity -- the old man comments mildly, "That was perfect. Do it again."

Does "perfect" ever end?

Is there really a 'z' at the end of the alphabet?

Does it ever begin?

Is there really an 'a' at the beginning?

I doubt it.

But that doesn't mean there is no perfection.

the cheetahs of sleep

Sleep is a great equalizer. It's unbounded and bounding energies are the same for young and old. Fleet of foot and knowing as an owl, young and old find freedom in the dreams that come as sleep's companion.

But waking up is an entirely different matter. The young awake without burden. It may be something the gripe about -- another work day! another set of responsibilities! -- but the easy energies flow through the blood.

Old people, who knew the same unbounded and bounding energies in sleep, wake up differently. First it is time to put on the pain suit. A 92-year-old woman who was lecturing a senior-citizen audience once said, approximately, "If, after the age of 65, you wake up in the morning without any aches and pains, you will know you are dead." So, first things first -- first you put on the pain suit. Then, perhaps simultaneously, there is the recognition that being awake means being tired. The unbounded and bounding energies of sleep -- the cheetah swiftness that young and old share in sleep -- is not to be.

None of this is anything worth whining about. It's just a fact and whining requires an energy that is both ill-directed and pointless. Old people may long for their cheetahs of sleep -- and may grow crabby when they can't find and harness them -- but at this stage, the cheetahs are sleeping. The mindless optimisms of younger people -- "c'mon ... exercise is good" or "things'll get better" -- ring false and, more, annoying. The pain suit and the fatigue have lessons of their own: Blue sky is blue. Take your cheerful, nourishing bullshit elsewhere ... I'm too old for that sort of self-serving arrogance.

The pain suit and fatigue ... is it any wonder that someone would seek out the cheetahs of sleep -- a long and boundless sleep?

common sense

Everyone's got their own version of what constitutes common sense and I'm no different. If you want to pound a nail, you don't reach for a pair of pliers. D'oh -- common sense. But then there are the more tenuous and arguable versions of common sense, a couple of which crossed my bow this morning.

-- In Lima, Peru, 92 couples tied the nuptial knot at a mass wedding. Each ponied up about $10 in order to make things 'legal.' One of the stories I always wanted to see done -- and never did -- when I worked at a newspaper was a series of short-take appreciations by people who had been married for a number of years: Was the financial outlay worth it? If they were looking at that sort of financial outlay today, would they put their money elsewhere? Is the meaningful nature of an expensive wedding really all that meaningful? The wedding industry would say yes, of course, as would those ensorcelled by religious imagination ... but, if left to their own, common-sensical devices, what would those who have walked the walk say? Profound or dumber than a box or rocks?

-- A new report finds that American school children, particularly in poor neighborhoods, don't get enough time for unstructured play and as a result miss out on important developmental advantages. In hard times, when schools are being pressed to meet better educational standards, recess and play time has been cut back if not eliminated and so school children who may be poor are made the poorer. The 'enrichment' of an education comes around and bites itself on the ass. Good-hearted educators may wring their hands in good-hearted despair ... but it's the way of the world just now. How's that for stupid in a world dedicated to smarts?

pancakes for breakfast

I promised my younger son pancakes for breakfast before his track meet today at the other end of the state. I got up at five and delivered ... pancakes and a tall glass of orange juice. But as I cooked them, I realized that I really wasn't very good at making pancakes -- they were irregularly browned and a couple of the edges positively singed. They weren't inedible, but they were ... well ... mediocre.

How do you screw up pancakes, for heaven's sake?! It seems as unlikely as screwing up a wet dream.

I suppose it's like anything else: What looks simple and delicious is simply delicious right up to the moment anyone actually tries to do it. Religion, pancakes ... same shit, different day.

Pancakes could learn a thing or two from wet dreams.

Religion too, come to that.

Wednesday, December 28, 2011


"Materialism" is defined by an online dictionary this way:
-- the belief that money and possessions are the most important aspects of human existence
-- the philosophical belief that only the physical world that people experience directly exists
The latter definition precedes the former historically, if I am not mistaken. It is/was a philosophical reference rather than a social observation. The latter-day, free-wheeling use of the word in order to indicate "acquisitiveness" is a fairly new and considerably sloppier usage.

Reading a Buddhist discussion elsewhere made me think that this might be worth reiterating. Language is a sloppy enough vehicle without adding to that sloppiness.

Elvis: Alive, well and attacking lawnmowers

A crocodile that was cranky enough to have eaten two former girlfriends, took exception recently to a lawnmower. Elvis grabbed the machine, lost a couple of teeth in the process, and dragged his prize underwater, where he kept guard on it for over an hour.

Australian handlers were able to retrieve the lawnmower, which was damaged beyond repair, by luring Elvis away with some kangaroo meat.

Who says the King is dead?

"The Undertaking"

Everything is always speaking the truth, I suppose, but the fact of the matter is that I am not always willing or capable of hearing it. More often than not words like 'the truth" have a sort of etched unkindness about them, standing at a perfected distance, beckoning and imperious and underscoring a loneliness and longing that seems never to be requited.

And then sometimes the truth comes calling and only a jackass or a church would call it the truth. When the truth comes calling in this way, it is as if all the doors and windows are flung open in the first truly warm spring day ... cozy-cool breezes play about the ankles like some purring cat and you remember what it is like to be at home and at peace. Priests and poets and moneychangers alike are swept out of this wondrous temple and at last, as always, you belong to who you are. But it's just the truth ... and to say so is to impede its easy ways.

I have known such times at AA meetings and Zen sesshins and in strangely unimportant times, but the times were not often enough and sometimes I wonder why. When everything is always speaking the truth, why do I hover and retreat and not throw open the doors and windows ... and be at home? Were the experiences of the past just flukes or flights of fancy? I doubt my own heart and knowing ... until, out of the blue, I am confronted once more with the eternal springtime and my doors and windows are thrown open without ever lifting a finger. No, I was not crazy. Yes, there is a home and it is here and I write about it in full knowledge that writing about it is, in one sense, to slam the windows and doors shut, to retreat from what delights me most.

As usual, I came late to the party last night. The Public Television program Frontline rebroadcast what I had not seen in October when it first aired -- "The Undertaking," a program roughly based on a book by Thomas Lynch, a Michigan "undertaker and poet." The framework of the show gave Lynch room to roam as he reflected on the ways in which people approached death. It led the viewer through the steps -- the very practical and particular steps -- of dying and death. It was gentle and direct and, I suppose, an invitation into a world that everyone knows and no one talks about ... and in failing to talk, raises the imagination to frightening heights and depths with churches and other talismans to make sense of what needs no sense made of it.

I suppose Lynch was interesting, but he was not the one who bathed me in my own home, who threw open my doors and windows. There are many aspects of the program -- embalming, dressing the body, viewing, incineration, burial, how people viewed the death of loved ones or their own  ... all very quiet within Lynch's sometimes poetic overlay.

But the people who took me home were a young man and his wife as they tended to their 2-3-year-old son who had a mounting group of diseases that spelled inevitable death. A handsome couple who cradled the boy as his eyes darted here and there, who laid him in his crib, who suffered his seizures (not shown) and walked without any relief in sight towards the writing on the wall. The woman did much of the talking, but the husband's presence and willingness to be present also spoke. And, to put it in language that falls miles short of the truth, it was they who blessed me, who showed me that opening my doors and windows was nothing special. It was just life.

There was tragedy written on the woman's face. She did not weep the facile tears of some politician caught in an extra-marital affair. She barely wept at all. But you knew the grief because ... because, what the hell, you're human too. And you knew the courage because ... because, what the hell, you're human too. And you knew the inescapability because ... because, what the hell, life is not something any of us can escape. The doors and windows were open because ... because, what the hell, the doors and windows were never closed. It was heart-breaking and yet, in that broken heart -- the heart that beats in your chest and mine -- it was the place of something that surpasses anything called "the truth." It was life ... and, even in sorrow, it soared and was no longer lonely.

When the woman told of the boy's last moments, how he lay in his crib as she watched him and breathed his last breaths, it was truly powerful. She was stuck in a box canyon of facts. Fact, she loved her son. Fact, he breathed one last breath and was gone. Fact ... all she could do was say, "Go."

To wish others what they wish and to wish it completely ("Go") ... it made me want to cry and simultaneously there was no need for tears. This woman made me glad to be alive, to be a part of the same universe she inhabited, to be in the presence of someone who said, "yes you can" and to know without doubt that of course I could. She let me know that I was at home at last ... as always ... and that being at home, with the spring breezes curling delightfully around the feet, is just being at home in the place no one could ever leave.

It blew my socks off and, simultaneously, did nothing of the sort.

Watch The Undertaking on PBS. See more from FRONTLINE.

PS. The video is about 55 minutes long and has a skip point, but I believe
it's all there, for those interested in watching.

Tuesday, December 27, 2011


Even thinking about asking for help gives me the collywobbles. I just don't like doing it. Perhaps it's as simple as pride, but generally I like to do things myself, on my ticket, with my responsibility, and with a willingness to suffer my own regrets. "If you want things done right, do them yourself." Bah!

The proximate situation is like others that have preceded it: Having a dream, enjoying the dream, and then running into unanticipated difficulty when putting the dream into action. It's a familiar scenario, but that doesn't make it any less annoying.

The dream was conceived perhaps a month ago -- to transfer a book entitled "Remembering Soen Nakagawa Roshi" onto the Internet. The book itself was conceived and created by Estelle Gerard and consists of a series of recollections/appreciations of this Zen teacher by people who knew him or had some contact with him. The book was created in 2008 on what might have been Soen's 100th birthday. After publication, a copy was sent to Ryutaku-ji, a Japanese monastery of which Soen was abbot, and other copies were distributed to those who had contributed. The audience was limited. By putting it on the Internet, I thought the audience might be enlarged and people interested in Zen practice might have an added resource in their investigative efforts. The book is not critical and may in fact lean towards too much polite applause, but ... well, it is just one way of looking at things.

Anyway, I had the dream and it seemed to feel right. So I asked for Estelle's opinion and assistance. I needed the addresses of contributors in order to get their permission to re-use on the Internet what had been used in the book. Estelle came through, I sent out requests for permission and they have been dribbling in. So far, so good. A friend has agreed to scan in those parts of the book for which permissions are given. He'll do the heavy lifting ... a pretty nice gift.

But my own ignorance began to show up when I was forced to realize that someone is going to have to pay in order to assure that once it reaches the Internet, the book will remain available in years to come. Five years, maybe, or ten ... or longer. The price seems to be about $80 per year. Not an exorbitant amount, but an amount that, if I were to pay it, would put a dent in my Social Security lifestyle. I simply cannot afford, with age taking its toll and a family that needs watching over and a mortgage that needs to be paid, to be spending money on what is not bedrock crucial... a book, for example.

So at some point, I will have to ask around and see if anyone is willing to pay the freight...and keep paying it as the years pass. And the thought that nags is, if I am not willing to pay, on what presumption do I base a request to others who may likewise be strapped in hard times? I know that when times get hard, there are always those with disposable income to spare, but that does not assuage my doubts. I dislike asking or begging someone to do what I am not willing to do.

At some point, I suppose, I will "get over yourself" and make the request, but in the meantime the whole thing puts a serious crimp in my airy-fairy dreaming. Funny how I find little or nothing disquieting about asking Estelle for help (and gratitude for the open-handed response) and I find nothing disquieting about my friend's willingness to cobble the Internet version together (and gratitude for the open-handed effort), and yet cringe when asking for money.


Get over yourself, Adam.

religious coercion

In the world of "pigs would fly," a world of wistful wishing that stands a snowball's chance in hell of becoming a reality, I wish childishly that all spiritual persuasions, of whatever stripe, would be known as liars and pimps whenever and wherever they brought coercion or salesmanship to bear.

The excuse those persuasions use is, perhaps, that "people can make up their own minds" or "since we are right, we have an excuse for telling others how wrong they are." The excuses may be well-intended enough, but the lack of faith in their ruler-god or ruling propositions makes hypocrites and whores of the people who espouse them.

They are like the unnamed U.S. Army major who was quoted as saying of the village of Bien Tre during the Vietnam war: "We had to destroy the village in order to save it."

People using such approaches are apostate on their own terms and richly deserve to be called out and shunned. And it is not just organizations that deserve to be ostracized ... individuals who find themselves proclaiming 'the one true path' to themselves need to know that they have taken a wrong turn. It's a common enough mistake, but just because it's common doesn't make it any less a mistake.

Mistakes R Us is another way to describe spiritual endeavor. But the emphasis is on seeing and correcting errors, not enshrining them.

What brought all this to mind was the story of a little girl, Naama Margolese, 8, who has lately been forced to endure the taunts of ultra-orthodox Jews on her way to school. The tale has shocked Israel ... but I doubt if it has shocked them enough to call out the fundamental error of the-firstest-with-the-bestest attitude anyone might fall prey to.

To reflect and to pay attention is important in spiritual endeavor. To correct errors is important. To lay your shit off on anyone else, whether eight years old or 98 years old, is contrary to the god you worship and is therefore, from the get-go, apostasy and hypocrisy ... on its own terms.

Gautama put his finger on something important when he was alleged 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."

Only heathens "destroy the village in order to save it." It is a vile pursuit for anyone engaged in what is sometimes praised as a "spiritual endeavor." Whether without or within ... vile and deserving of correction.

The U.S. President Harry S. Truman once chided his fellow politicians: "If you can't stand the heat, get out of the kitchen." If those inclined towards what is sometimes called religion cannot exhibit the faith their religion demands, then perhaps they would be better off taking up a less demanding sport ... something like knitting.

And is any of this likely to happen?

Maybe when pigs fly.

Monday, December 26, 2011

back to the vinyl future

Only the Brits would have the wit and chutzpa to do it -- offer a daylong program of purely vinyl music. On New Year's Day, it'll be years-past production standards. I've heard, but don't know, that vinyl records offer a more pure sort of music than CD's ... something like that. But the Brits will do what the forever-money-conscious Yanks probably won't... something fun and vaguely zany.

Now if the Brits would just do something about their 'royalty' ....

Christmas leftovers

Christmas came and went. The garbage man came by this morning and picked up the overstuffed garbage bags to prove that presents were opened and there was new stuff to add to old lives.

And then, after a good dinner yesterday, my wife got a call: Her mother, who is in her late 80's, had gone to the hospital. Mary has congestive heart failure and was short of breath as a Christmas present. Today my wife left for New Jersey to be with her mother.

Christmas presents: I got to do some zazen and my daughter and her fiance gave me a present that made me laugh: A small propane grill used at tailgate parties prior to sporting events. "We won it," my daughter explained. If there was ever a guy who is NOT an outdoor grill aficionado, I am it. What a hoot. Maybe I too will be able to give it to someone else.

Christmas leftovers. I get a grill. The garbage man has work. And Mary gets to go to the hospital.

the cop-out

This morning in email, a friend suggested with the straightforwardness that good friends can employ, that an argument I had made to him in the spiritual-endeavor realm was a "cop-out." It really is nice to have good friends.

What a deliciously-direct and sometimes stinging word "cop-out" can be. An Internet dictionary defines "cop-out" as
  1. A failure to fulfill a commitment or responsibility or to face a difficulty squarely.
  2. A person who fails to fulfill a commitment or responsibility.
  3. An excuse for inaction or evasion.
 Two currents of thought cropped up in the midst of this noodling: 1. Perhaps the whole of spiritual endeavor -- or life if you prefer -- boils down to relaxing in the realization that cop-outs are simply the lay of the land. 2. That the single most compelling cop-out is this "I."

Cop-outs require the implicit assertion that there is, somewhere, firmer and more credible ground. They require a belief or attachment to what is alleged to be more substance and less style, more horse and less saddle. But perhaps the question goes begging ... is this cop-out or the criticism of it any closer to the truth? Moreover, is the implicit rebuke more useful or more unnecessarily confusing?

Naturally, I will continue, within and without, to try not to be a cop-out, a feather merchant, a lazy blowhard. But I will investigate whether that appreciation really makes much sense. Is life as a cop-out really that bad? More important, is it really escapable?

It's probably a stupid train of thought (I can hear the moral-relativist-critic yowls), but it's probably not the last stupid thought I'll ever have.

"I" am a cop-out.

Read 'em and weep.

look it up in the dictionary

It used to irritate the piss out of me when, as a kid, I would ask one adult or another how to spell a particular word and the adult -- among them, my father -- would say, "look it up in the dictionary." How the hell was I supposed to look it up in the dictionary when I didn't know how to spell it in the first place?! What the adults meant, of course, was that by trial and error I would find the correct spelling eventually ... but in the meantime, there was that utterly unresponsive response: "Look it up in the dictionary."

This morning, for some reason, I woke up with the word "verdigris." I thought vaguely that it was a color, but I wasn't entirely sure and ... I wasn't sure how to spell it. I tried looking it up on the Internet, but was ultimately so frustrated with the endless permutations that I pulled the old dictionary my father gave me when I was about in the second grade off the shelf. Its yellowed pages, filled with tightly-woven and thorough definitions, coughed up the word almost immediately. "A green or greenish-blue poisonous pigment or drug etc....."

"Verdigris" is not a word I really have any need for, but there was a slight sorrow that I no longer have the company of those who might know what the word meant and how it was spelled ... and could hand over their wisdom without effort or concern in the same way they might tell me where I had left my glasses or car keys. There are those who clutch and cling to vocabulary as a sign of power or adornment, but it is also possible to simply enjoy it as one might enjoy riding a bike without making much out of it. I miss the company of those who enjoy such a thing. Knowing or not knowing the meaning and spelling is not so important. But the appreciation of it ... well, I miss that.

And, in the realm of age, it can irritate the piss out of me still that I have to "look it up in the dictionary." I would prefer that someone else just tell me, that I didn't have to break a sweat or make an effort.

Plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose.

Sunday, December 25, 2011

the back story

In two different contexts, a couple of emails this morning asked for or centered on the "back story" of things. What was the back story on a sassy -- or perhaps impertinent -- raksu I showed off? What was the back story on making some effort to get a book, "Remembering Soen Nakagawa Roshi," on the Internet.

The "back story," the inspiration, the context that might flesh out some present-moment experience or activity ... what was it?

Asking for the back story or the cause of which something is somehow the effect makes some sense. Things don't just arise without any connection or 'reason.' But sometimes there is an implication that if the back story were told, a more reliable truth would emerge ... a truth that spoke more clearly than the story that was told without the back story. World War II was a fact, but its back story could reasonably be traced back to World War I. The back story of the automobile might touch base with the steam engine, the industrial revolution and the desire to produce more while working less.

The trouble is, of course, that every back story has its own back story. The fact that I get the secret skinny on some political maneuver throws that maneuver into a very different light ... but is that really the whole story? Of course it isn't. The story, and its attendant back stories, doesn't stop or come to a conclusion. It is the mind that stops when it is content or runs out of energy or finds a point at which its bias is pleasantly nourished.

What is the back story on the clothes I am wearing, the grey Christmas skies, the nip in the zendo when doing zazen this morning, the house in which I am currently warmed?

I'm not suggesting that anyone dissolve into a pool or moral relativism ... the kind of everything-is-everything-else smarm or the Chinese-fortune-cookie everything-is-interconnected bon mot. But I do think that a little humility -- a perhaps a bit of effort -- might be warranted when getting the story, the back story or any other sort of story. Past 'connects' to present ... and the back story on that one is, the past is present ... except that the back story of that is that what's past is past ... etc. etc.

Just noodling.

Santa, etc.

A fellow was talking on the radio yesterday about his interest in the fact that when children are little, many are encouraged to believe Santa Claus is real. Sooner or later they outgrow the belief ... only to teach their children that Santa is real. It was a curious matter, the fellow said. He couldn't quite get his mind around it. He wasn't being suave and sophisticated in his curiosity ... not some upscale psychologist or academic pretending to have some last-word explanation. He was just talking what sounded like human-speak.

And it was curious -- at least to me.

To believe, to outgrow belief, and then to re-instill a worn-out or discredited belief . Or, more generally, to outgrow one belief and then replace it with another after having found that the first belief didn't quite square up with reality.

If you did this often enough -- or simply looked back on things once believed and subsequently disbelieved -- wouldn't it suggest that the format of belief was worthy of investigation? Not necessarily up-scale criticism or disdain or I'm-immune sarcasm -- just investigation? Personal investigation of personal activity?

My own take is that belief invariably relies on the past and the fact is that we all live in the present. This apparent dichotomy leads to uncertainty and discontent.

I've made this observation too often in the past to regurgitate it all over again in the present. I guess people will either consent to take a look or learn to live happily ever after with Santa.


For the giving and receiving ...

                                      THANK YOU VERY MUCH!

Saturday, December 24, 2011

on the peace picket line


                        On the peace picket line with Bill in Northampton, Mass., today, wearing the raksu that was made  beautifully to specification ... and was purely hated by the friend who made it.

words for 2011

"Kizuna," a Japanese word suggesting connections between people, has been voted the top kanji (pictorial script) to describe the year 2011.

The runner-up was "wawazai," meaning "disaster."

Connections and disaster ... somehow the differences are less compelling than the similarities.

rag time

I don't know that I have it straight in my mind, but nevertheless the story/myth is stuck there on some mental 3x5 card. True or untrue doesn't matter much ... I just find it tasty and in some sense useful:

After the Buddha (meaning Gautama, the one most frequently credited with being the founder of something called Buddhism) 'attained enlightenment,' he got up from under the Bo tree where he was sitting, had a bit to eat, and then fashioned himself some clothing -- a robe made of 28 rags he found here and there. Having cobbled the rags together, he went about his business and taught others one thing and another for 40-plus years. What he taught is of interest to some. But this morning, I'm interested in the rags.

In "A League of their Own," a 1992 fictionalized movie about the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League that sprang up during World War II when many of the male players were fighting the war, there are dribs and drabs of interesting stuff. It's an OK movie. And at one point in that movie, the central male character chastises the central female character who is complaining about how demanding -- personally demanding -- the sport is. The central male character snaps,  "Of course it's hard! If it wasn't hard, then everyone would do it."

I am content these days to take my spiritual encouragements from B movies. The rags work well enough for me. They slip in without all the sturm und drang of reading spiritual texts whose arabesques and story lines are often solemn, repetitive, and 'important.'

Spiritual practice is hard. Of course it's hard. If it wasn't hard, then everyone would do it. And in one sense not everyone does it ... run around in their minds espousing and repeating and trying to live up to one bit of wisdom or virtue or another. And on top of all that, there's a meditation practice, perhaps ... that really can kick the stuffing out of anyone. It's hard and not everyone does it ... in one sense. And in the sense that not-everyone-does-it, there is factionalism and friction and posturing and sometimes bloodshed.

"If it wasn't hard, then everyone would do it" ... it's just one of the rags I've cobbled together to cover and warm this body.

And associatively, that line brings to mind another fortune-cookie bit of encouragement: "Your life is so difficult that it has never been tried before." That refrigerator magnet of a saying is simultaneously warming and pedal-to-the-metal daunting. Warming in the sense that perhaps I can afford to be a little less hard on myself, a little less surprised at what a doofus I can be. But daunting because it posits a responsibility that throws praise and blame and relying on others in the trash basket. This life is utterly sui generis ... never been tried before, never will be, cannot be compared ... and here I am in the middle of it all, searching for a few rags to cobble together, something to keep me warm, something to cover the 'unmentionables,' something to make me pleasing to myself or others.

When I was a kid in the 1940's, there would be a variety of street vendors who passed by the apartment building I lived in. The most riveting, from a kid's eye view, was the organ grinder who would stand outside on the sidewalk, accompanied by a monkey dressed up like a bellhop. He would play his instrument and the monkey would dance around and people would throw pennies out their windows to him.  I always secretly tried to bean the organ grinder himself with my donations, but it was harder than you'd think. But there were other street vendors as well: A man offering to sharpen knives, an ice truck for those who still had literal ice boxes and, finally, a collector of rags. What he ever did with those rags I had and have no idea, but I do know he came around, offering to take the snips and bits and worn-out cloth collecting unused in people's closets. What was unused by one was mysteriously useful to another, I guess.

And the Buddha had no trouble finding bits and snippets to create the 28-piece robe in my mind. Everyone wants to be warmed and protected and to some extent defined. Me too. I gather up rags from movies or holy texts or Chinese fortune cookies. Effortlessly, I stitch them together and from within them I greet my friends and enemies. "Good morning," I say, without ever a thought to my effortlessly stitched robe. And they greet me in return from within a compilation of silk brocade and old socks and worn dish rags. 

It's hard sometimes ... just plain hard. But if it wasn't hard, everyone would do it -- live this utterly singular life. In one sense we are alone and sometimes struggling because it is so damned hard. Spiritual practice is hard. But even when it is not 'spiritual practice,' still it is hard. Or, if you prefer, easy. Hard and easy ... same difference, same rags, same laughter, same tears. Each of us rises from beneath the Bo tree every moment and seeks out the rags of circumstance and cobbles them together. It's hard work -- forever cobbling together bits and pieces ... endlessly reaching into the ether for some new bit of protection or warmth or connectedness or wisdom or ... well, reaching for 'me.'

In a sense, not everyone does what is hard. But in a more important sense, I think, everyone does it. There is an endless supply of rags -- enough to dress all of us -- and we reach out and reach in moment by moment. It's hard and everyone does it. Whether 'everyone' is convinced by or attached to what s/he cobbles together is a personal choice. Sometimes wondrous raiments are truly convincing. Sometimes the cold wind blows up our skirts. Everyone ... everyone ... everyone ............. always.

But for my purposes, there is a good teaching in movies and refrigerator magnets and Buddha's 40-plus years of dress-up. It's not the rags that cover the 'unmentionables' or the much-beloved, but rather the essence that expresses itself in action. Gautama was a teacher. That's nice. Tom Hanks is an actor. That's nice. Movies and holy texts provide rags aplenty. That's nice. Old, young, tall, short, woman, man, joyful, grieving ... these rags are no joke. They are not some airy-fairy theory. They are real and close.

But are they really "different?"

If everyone does or doesn't do it, who is "everyone" and what is "it?" 

The rags of circumstance are available to everyone, all the time. It's the action -- the uses to which those rags are put -- that counts.

Rags to riches ... who's kidding whom?

Friday, December 23, 2011

the perfect Christmas laugh

If you need an honest laugh during the holiday season, here it is.

Christmas spending

On the TV, there was a segment last night about consumer spending in this Christmas season. High-end items like Ferraris and entire libraries at Nieman Marcus were flying off the shelves. And then there were the ugly-but-labeled women's hand bags and ludicrous, hooker-inspired shoes ... v-e-r-y expensive and selling like hot cakes.

At the other end of the spectrum, dollar stores -- the places that advertise every item for 99 cents -- were enjoying a serious up-tick in business. Those who had once shopped between these two extremes were clogging the aisles in a push to save what little money was left.

Businesses that catered to a 'middle class' crowd were losing business because, of course, the 'middle class' is declining into a relative poverty. Middling businesses are losing their economic viability. The 'nobility' of the present (not terribly noble, but pretty damned rich) needed more and one way to get more is to create more 'serfs.'

In Saudi Arabia, I once heard, the oil wealth of that nation went partly into assuring that everyone got housing and education and medical care and even a car. The nobility seemed to recognize that when people were taken care of, extreme wealth would be bolstered and assured. No one who feels secure goes out and destabilizes the status quo.

Sometimes you have to wonder how the very rich can be so very stupid.


In my life, I have known a lot of words. My mother was a good writer and my father was a college professor who taught Shakespeare and loved James Joyce. Words, words, words. Meanings and explanations. Ways of connecting with others. Keeping loneliness at bay.

Words were apt or luscious or just one way to assert understanding or control of the vast panorama of circumstances that came and went, came and went.

A new word might enter the mind like a balloon seller at the zoo, a man with a large tank of helium who, for a price, would send the gas hissing into rubberized orbs of yellow or green or blue or red or purple and hand the result to a wide-eyed child. Mom would create a noose in the string and tie it to the child's wrist to make sure this soaring delight did not escape into the blue sky above.

But if by chance the balloon survived an afternoon visit to the zoo and made it home, it might float for a day or two and bounce along the living room ceiling until, invariably the gas snuck out and the wonder and magic disappeared. Mom might pick up the flaccid bit of color on the floor and pass it on to the nearest waste basket. The color did not fade, but the wide-eyed magic just wasn't there any more.

And these days, the color remains but the magical part seems to escape.

For example, I like the word "compassion." It is colorful and touches some part of what wants to be touched within ... some softness, some agreement, some part of me that seeks loving companionship. "Compassion." It's real enough and, simultaneously, there are plenty of people who use it because they are not capable of more honest words ... and besides, they want to make money. So ... it is both magical and, simultaneously, it is a huckster's paradise.

An Internet dictionary says of "compassion:"

-- the humane quality of understanding the suffering of others and wanting to do something about it
-- a deep awareness of and sympathy for another's suffering
In other times -- perhaps when the mom within tied this magical balloon to my mental wrist -- I too was willing to ascribe "compassion" to others. Jesus was compassionate. Buddha was compassionate. The Dalai Lama was compassionate. And a variety of other people, near and far, were likewise compassionate as they stepped into my consciousness. The colorful magic lay in a kind of ueber-altruism. This was something to aspire to and to be somehow lacking. A persuasive goal. The magic threw into relief my own capacities for self-centeredness and unkindness. Compassion was out there while I remained -- without magic or delight -- in here. My eyes grew wide with wonder at the magic of others and I did my best to look magical myself ... to do good deeds, to help others, to restrain my impish greed.

It was good as far as it went, but, with the passage of time, it never seemed to go far enough. My good deeds never spelled out whatever it was I was after ... the magic, perhaps. Others might rant and rave and wax dutifully solemn about how compassion -- that social kindness to others -- was the one true way, but ... there was always a 'but' in my mind, a doubt and a sense of lacking: If all I wanted to do was to be a Boy Scout or a Christian, well, there were easier ways to seek out the magic. Altruism requires an "other" and there was something fishy about that.

Something fishy. Something not quite honest or whole. Something intellectual and emotional. Something nice enough but not really quite nice enough because ... because ... because ... because the magic was missing. The easy flow of delight that raises a colorful balloon. The woo-hoo and ain't-that-neat of things.

These days I think that the most compassionate thing anyone can do is to be themselves. Plain as salt. Just be yourself. Of course it may take a bit of effort to discover who 'yourself' might actually be, but if we're willing to pay the balloon man, how is paying a bit of effort out of line? Take responsibility. Correct errors as they arise. And be yourself.

What other choice is there? You're pretty magical after all. Why waste time talking about "compassion" and "magic?"

A line that once popped into my head comes back for a visit: "If you're so serious, why aren't you laughing?"

See the laughter unleashed ... floating away into the blue, blue sky ...

Magic comes and magic goes.

Just like everyone.

Thursday, December 22, 2011

doing the atheists proud

Every once in a while there comes along a rant that is, dare I say it, intelligent. This reassures me in a world of rants that ranting is not just heart-felt bullshit, but actually can strike a reasonable and reasoning chord.


apostasy in the Sistine Chapel

It always make me laugh, Michelangelo's wondrous painting of God creating Adam in the Sistine Chapel at the Vatican. It's a beautiful rendering of the biblical story of God infusing life into the 'first man.' It's enough to take your breath away.

And yet I cannot help but notice, as others have before me, that the figure representing God ... has a belly button. I find it hard to imagine that others in the Vatican, that seat of religiosity, did not notice that one small apostasy of their faith. There's simply no getting out of it: If God has a belly button, then He was born of some mother ... there was some being before the God who is beginningless.

I imagine that this observation has been made and papered over among Vatican scholars, but how can anyone escape the flat-footed truth: That which has a belly button relies on something or someone else. This is just true ... but I can't imagine that it is a truth whose implications sit well among Christians.

And there it is, staring devout Christians right in the face.

In some of the pictures Google coughs up when asked for "God, Adam, Sistine Chapel," Adam's genitalia are air-brushed out. But I can't find a single image that air-brushes God's belly-button out.

good news

I am not very good at pandering to the very compelling need to hear that there is good news in the offing ... gold at the end of some rainbow of effort. In spiritual life, the good news bears abound, catering to the human longing for intellectual or emotional peace. It's understandable, but the fact is, I'm no good at it. I may love you, but I am unwilling/unable to make nice.

Yes, dear friends, you will go to heaven when you die -- don't doubt it for a minute!

Yes, dear friends, there is a boundless joy to be found if you'll practice one thing or another ... and put a little money in the plate along the way.

Yes, dear friends, there is enlightenment, compassion, clarity, peace beyond compare, 77 virgins, a god who loves you beyond measure, a composed and serene outlook ... come see!

But the good news is better than this hug-festival of good news. The good news is that there is neither good news nor bad news. There is just this news and getting your knickers in a twist about it is not necessary. Possible? Sure. Necessary? Not on your best or worst day. The bad news, in ordinary terms, is that everyone figures this out and actualizes it at his or her own pace, if at all; you are responsible ... read 'em and weep.

And if you believe me (or anyone else), you are worse off than I imagine.

"don't stick beans up your nose"

The old sage who was your mother and mine always advised, "Don't stick beans up your nose."

Naturally, everyone sticks beans up his nose one way or another. Personally, socially -- no different.

In Iraq, a wave of coordinated bombings in Baghdad today are seen as an expression of sectarian violence -- the very sectarian violence that analysts predicted nine years ago, before the American invasion, if there were not some comprehensive, post-invasion strategy and plan. Today's bombings left scores dead. The Americans departed last week.

I guess individuals can count themselves as fortunate when, after sticking beans up their noses, they resolve not to do that again. Nations seem less willing to listen to sage advice.

"what the fuck does that have to do with anything?!"

I was talking with a friend on the phone. We were both of a certain age and both capable of allowing the other to segue into personal and sometimes upsetting thought trains ... just expressing aloud what seemed to be circling in the mind like some pesky mosquito at 3 a.m.

"Sometimes I think I am no longer a Buddhist," my friend said. "I mean ... what the fuck does that have to do with anything?!"

Since both of us had spent some time -- some pretty intensive time -- in practicing Zen Buddhism, the pesky mosquito was something of a surprise, something of an irritation ... like a driver who discovers that he has used up a lot of time heading East when he wanted to get to the West. And yet too, the direction was not without its uses: It was just that the whole "Buddhist" schtick, while possible and sometimes helpful, wasn't the point of Buddhism at all.

Such recognitions seem to balance precariously on a fulcrum between past and present. Once upon a time, I had a particular understanding of myself that allowed me to say, "I am a Buddhist" without any shame and perhaps with a bit of assurance. But the present -- that pesky mosquito -- would not shut up ... be a "Buddhist" or "don't be a Buddhist," was there really any difference? Does a "Buddhist" pound nails at a construction site or help a friend or take a leak first thing in the morning? Of course not. But the speculation or recognition was vaguely irritating and a bit frightening: What the hell did I waste all those years for if, at the end of the day, calling myself a Buddhist or elevating something called Buddhism just disappeared in a puff of smoke. It felt lonely, perhaps, declining the insistence on being a "Buddhist" ... or not. Being a "Buddhist" gave me a sense of place and purpose and definition ... now what? A sense of social structure and belonging and importance evaporated as gently and firmly as woodsmoke rising from a camp fire. What if I were not a "Buddhist" or a "mother" or a "father" or a "writer" or a "car mechanic" or ... or any of the other things I may or may not have "been" in the past? How would I fit? How would I be recognizable and accepted and warmed at the social hearth?

It's a pesky mosquito and my friend expressed it nicely -- "what the fuck has that got to do with anything?"

But it occurred to me that the vague sense of loss and fear might be just a hangover from old habits. What if this was precisely what years of Buddhism or motherhood or fatherhood or fixing cars taught and, in some sense, hoped you would learn? If you want to be a Buddhist, go ahead. If you want to be an atheist, go ahead. You can be anything you choose ... go ahead. It's like opening the sock drawer ... pick a color, any color. No big deal. You're as free as a zero to choose any number at all, to join up, and thereby bring meaning and explanation and importance to bear. Buddhist? Sure. Not Buddhist? Sure. Mother, father, tall or short, old or young, happy or sad ...? Sure. If you make a mistake, fix it as best you may. What works, works. What doesn't, doesn't.

But in the end, "what the fuck has that got to do with anything?" Zero has no meaning or explanation and yet its importance cannot be overstated. Growing anxious or irritated or fearful that old habits should drift gently towards the sky ... well, it's an old habit and "what the fuck does that have to do with anything?"

The pesky mosquito buzzes in the darkness. He has his rounds to do and his blood to suck. He's a mosquito ... what did you expect? He doesn't mind if it's Buddhist blood. He doesn't mind if it's not Buddhist blood.

Smack him if you can. It's important to get a little sleep at 3 a.m.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

view from the left

A selection of quotes about conservatives and Republicans.

Merry Christmas!



teachers and students

In spiritual life, for my money, students who see teachers as teachers are perhaps more forgivable than teachers who see students as students.

Roughly speaking, students are stupid and teachers are smart.

A stupid person is wont to look up. But how smart could a smart person be if the best s/he could do was to look down?

A little at a time, I think it is best to acknowledge in action the fact that there are no teachers or students.

There is just this teaching. Nothing sexy or holy.

Just this teaching, simple as salt.


Yesterday, I went into a store that specialized in chocolate.

Talk about dying and going to heaven!

Shelf after shelf, row after row, box after box incorporating what any self-respecting addict might crave.

It wasn't cheap. These were hand-made chocolates using what I hope was an honest, no-fillers chocolate.

I wanted to buy small Christmas presents and I did. Only later did it occur to me that the gorging on Christmas presents at this time of year really is improved in my mind when the gift that is given has a built-in disappearing mechanism. The chocolates will be eaten. The flowers will wilt away.

A present that self-destructs, so to speak, is a much-improved gift in my mind.

civil discourse

Just a thought:

"Civil discourse" is generally described as a respectful interchange between two or more people who may not agree on much.

But I think that into that descriptive mix might be added the willingness and capacity of engaged individuals to examine -- really examine -- their own point of view... really ask themselves, "Who died and left me in charge?"


Yesterday, in the mid-morning, over our neighborhood, a police helicopter circled with a kind of languorous insistence.


I called across the street to my neighbor, Joe, asking him facetiously if he had robbed a bank. No, he replied, but the police were looking for a fellow who had fled on foot and was supposed to be in our neighborhood. The 26-year-old man took off when authorities attempted to serve him with a warrant on charges of  kidnapping, assault to rape, witness intimidation, violation of an abuse prevention order and threatening to commit a crime according to today's newspaper account. He was later apprehended in a neighboring community. But in the meantime, my neighborhood seemed to fill with the hunt for a latter-day Osama bin Laden.

Looking through the news wires today, I realized that I no longer have the energy for articles premised on what 'may' or 'might' or 'could' happen. The Republican tussles to become the 2012 presidential contender are a case in point. Setting aside the vacuous jeering that each pretender levels at his or her opponents, each talks about what 'may' happen or 'might' happen or 'could' happen when s/he becomes president. None of them has the nerve to take a principled stand -- that might alienate a block of potential voters -- so there is just a river of well-groomed and sincere eyewash. May, might, could ....

How much of any conversation or speculation or social hand-wringing is premised in this way -- may, might, could? It's good to plan ahead, of course, but when expectation-laced planning rolls over or replaces fact like some self-important tsunami ... well, how useful is that? Maybe it's pretty useful, but when reading the news, I try to skip it: Too much energy for too little verifiable return.

True, I don't mind a bit of imagining, as for example imagining what it must be like to live in North Korea, where, according to a defector on the TV last night, those who failed to publicly weep in the wake of the weekend death of strongman Kim Jong Il could be setting themselves up for the accusation that they were not patriotic enough ... and if they were not patriotic enough, they must, ipso facto, be a danger to the dictatorial state and if they were a danger to the state, the best place for them might be behind bars. The same country that starved its people and created nuclear weapons the U.S. and others never tire of speculating about ... that same country insists on emotional conformity? Stupidity and intelligence ... two peas in a single pod.

And then there's the matter of "God" -- a matter serious enough to inspire at least three comic novels. I guess "God" is like "sex" -- just say the word and you will always gather a crowd and assure an income stream. I find it interesting that, in hard times, someone would still be bothering about "God," even in a humorous way. "God" is a luxury item in anyone's life and with unemployment hovering around nine percent, these are not luxury times. I guess times are not yet hard enough to dispel the may-might-could sort of hope. Believers or atheists -- same thing ... money for groceries.

Today, I will try to spend five minutes without relying on may-might-could. Who knows, perhaps it could become a habit. :)

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

blue collar blues, white collar unsullied

Here is a pretty well written (if long) article about the new format of blue collar life: Part-time labor with no security for whom the corporation denies responsibility ... 'plausible deniability,' just like the White House and the Mafia.


Perhaps the best that can evolve from impatience is a better capacity for patience.

I say this as a nudge/hope/wish for myself. I really am quite impatient, but the situations I get impatient about don't mind a bit: They just go about their bit-by-bit changes irrespective of my fulminating, foot-stamping get-the-lead-out's.

I once asked the principal of my daughter's then grade school how she, the principal, put up with all the parent-teacher meetings she was forced to attend...the meetings at which every parent knew how to improve school operations and attitudes and where each opinion took scads of time to enunciate ... sincere, heart-felt, liberal, conservative ... blah, blah, blah. How did the principal sit through it all over and over and over again?

"It's easy," the principal told me. "I let them talk until they're worn out and then I tell them what we're going to do."

How I wish I were that grown-up. When someone coo's or clucks, "It's a process, Adam," I can stop my mental gob for a little while and then my impatience gets the better of me: "Just make your mind up, for Christ's sake!"

The proximate cause of this thought process is, perhaps, the attempt to get a small book, "Remembering Soen Nakagawa Roshi," onto the Internet. I wrote to the contributors asking for their permission to reproduce on the Internet what they had already granted permission for in the book. Perhaps a dozen of the 40 contributors replied quickly -- go ahead. But as time passes since the request went out, it seems to be apparent that some have doubts ... or don't read their email ... or have some other reason for not responding. And my impatient nature rear's its head ... get off your ass! It is in no way reasonable or adult -- who knows what reasons anyone might have for not responding? -- but my own efforts and goals are all I can think about.

What a putz. And yet the situation made me realize that I have never been very good about efforts that rely on others -- the democracy of action. I can talk a good 'democracy' game, but where the rubber hits the road ... well, growl and gripe! Why can't others see things my way?! And that line of thought seemed to offer some underpinning for why many of the things I have done in life were not team efforts: If you want things done right, do it yourself ... I tried to adhere to that rule. Unsuccessfully, of course. I may be skeptical -- if not downright scornful -- of team efforts (the agreement factor makes my teeth itch), but sometimes a team is what is required.

Ah well, it's probably too late for me. The kindly grandmother with the understanding smile simply is not a part of my arsenal.

But maybe if I mention it, others can take a lesson from a jackass.

Monday, December 19, 2011


A friend called this morning to express his sorrow that a monk friend of his had died last night at 10:00.

What shall or can any of us do about death?

Sad? Yes.

Frightened? Perhaps.

Confused? Maybe.

Death, whatever the reaction, leaves us all sputtering and incoherent, waiting for the balm of time to put the matter on some remembered-but-no-longer-red-hot back burner. Life flows from birth to death in quite empirical ways -- ways apparent all around us -- and yet when it comes to death, there is some demand, as imperative as a burr stuck on a hairy cat, that things stop. Death puts a period on some sentence even as the sentence refuses to come to an end. The chorus rises up, "No! No! No!" And there are religions that take in a good deal of money based on that left-behind sorrow.

No one can be happy when they are sad. So if sad it is, then sad it is.

The Zen teacher Joshu Sasaki once wrote an article in which he suggested to his readers that they find a better word than "death." Death of the kind that stops life in its tracks is too imaginative, too unrealistic. And out of his world, Sasaki brought up the word used when a monk died -- "senge," ... to change the place from which the Dharma/truth is spoken. Sasaki was not off on some heavenly riff -- "poor Sam ... well he's in a better place now." Rather, as I understood him, he was suggesting that it would be useful and more realistic to get on board with life ... life that is so chock-a-block with birth and death and birth and death and birth and death ... the sentence without the period.

In the face of what is called death, belief is useless ... there is just too much evidence of how full of shit belief can be. But there is the option of paying close and caring attention to what is right in front of any of our noses. How are things now ... and now ... and now ... and now?

Is there an escape from the sorrow that can attend on a death? I doubt it ... so why bother trying to escape? But the same question might be asked of death itself -- if there is no escape, why bother trying to escape or make nice or spin some secondary tale?

Some are fans of meditating on death. Generally I'm not. I don't like pushing things in people's faces when their faces are not already there. If you scare someone, do they loosen up or tighten up? I'd guess they tighten up and who ever learned anything useful when draped in defensive clothing? Better, I think, is just to go along as always ... and pay attention to the way things actually work in this sentence without the period. Dandelions, love affair, business deals, bike riding, laughter, tears ... and on and on and on and on.

Things take care of themselves. That includes life. That includes birth. That includes death. You don't have to try to make them something that, for the moment, they are not.

Just pay attention and be gentle and be firm. Keep on keepin' on and eventually you will become a part of the flow that you were always a part of. Putting periods one this sentence is a fool's errand. We're all fools, but I see no reason to be foolish about it. Pay attention. Be gentle but firm.

Maybe it'll work. Maybe not.

It's just a suggestion.

longing for the ridiculous

Among the small jets of wistful, wishful recollection that pop up now and then, there is this: I miss the ridiculous.

Or perhaps I mean that I miss the friendships that include the capacity to segue now and then into a world of impish and quirky observation ... so pleasing in the smiles nourished in meaninglessness ... a place to bask without hope of solution or improvement or explanation. Silliness that makes fools of us all.

-- If you drove your car at the speed of light and turned on the headlights, would they work?
-- Instead of talking to your plants, if you yelled at them, would they still grow, only to be troubled and insecure?
-- What's another word for synonym?
-- Why do feet smell and noses run?
-- If a mute swears, does his mother wash his hands with soap?
-- Whose cruel idea was it for the word "lisp" to have an "S" in it?

Looking such things up on the Internet makes me realize more fully that it's not just the words ... it's the minds inclined to occasional, unpredictable and gob-stopping turns that I miss. Ridiculousness is like a little raspberry jam on what otherwise is too often Wonder Bread.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

trickle-down Zen

I was talking idly with a friend today about the privileged status both of us speculated lay at the foundation of Zen practice in America when it occurred to me that, if true (and I have no particular leaning about the truth of falsehood of the speculation), then perhaps there is a possibility that there will be a trickle-down effect ... down to those who are less materially and educationally privileged.

It's a snotty, vaguely Republican, approach -- imagining that because you were born on third base, you therefore must have hit a triple or that wealth accumulated at the top will somehow trickle down -- but maybe there is something in it.

And maybe what saves Zen from the depredations that can attend on trickle-down theories in a social realm (economics, politics, etc.) is suffering. Suffering is a reality check that no amount of privilege can paper over. True, the privileged expositors -- the good-news shills -- can twist and turn matters to their own uses (warm, cozy, boundless wonder, ineffable light, blah, blah, blah ... make your check out to ____), but the dis-ease of honest-go-goodness life cannot be assuaged with bank checks or smooth talking.  True, there will always be the true believers, those content with a cozy hug or a compelling belief system.

But suffering will always get someone's attention -- the kind of attention that Zen practice speaks to.

So maybe it's OK just to let the privileged lead the charge and ice the cake when it comes to p.r.

Not everyone is a sissy.

Suffering, uncertainty, unsatisfactoriness ...

Who knows, maybe even the privileged will take note and get to work.

New Year's prayer

Received in email:

Dear God,
My Prayer for 2012 is for
A Fat Bank Account & a Thin Body.
Please Don't Mix These up Like You Did Last Year.


success and failure

On Thursday last, my younger son, Ives, 18, got into a car accident. He was driving two of his friends back to the high school along rain-slicked roads when a 70-odd-year-old man overruled a stop sign and pulled out of a side street to the right. Ives hit the brakes, swerved to the right in an attempt to miss the car, but was not entirely successful. His left front and the man's left rear crunched together. No one was significantly hurt (speeds were in the 25-30 mph range), though one boy riding with Ives had a concussion and Ives is due for a concussion examination tomorrow. The man driving the other car allegedly tried to pin the accident on "kids," but it was he who blew the responsibilities of the stop sign. As catastrophes went, this was minor stuff.

But of course two cars smacking together was not the end of it. Worse than the insurance forms I spent time gathering and having Ives fill out, there was the emotional impact -- the shattering in an instant of all sorts of assumptions ... I know what I am doing; I am safe; I am in control; I will never die ... echo, echo, echo, echo.

When I first heard about the matter, my mental stomach lurched. I too had assumptions: That my child was safe; that he was in no danger; that he was a pretty good driver; that going to and from school was no big deal and I could put my attention elsewhere. As a parent, I would pretty much rather that anything untoward would happen to me rather than my child. If someone's got to feel the pain, let it be me, not him. It's a bit of parental vanity, but it's inescapable ... at least for me.

For Ives, of course, it was a rude awakening. In a split second, a cocoon of axioms was blown away. In a split second, confidence turned to uncertainty, comfort turned to discomfort, ability turned to inability ... and there wasn't a damned thing he could do about it ... much less whine that there wasn't a damned thing he could do about it. Whining comes later. This is 'now.' This is a life-changing experience ... just like any other 'now' except that this 'now' is a 'now' that gets my attention.

Funny how when assessing such an accident event and finding a wider application, there is a sage nodding of the head ... yes indeed, the best laid plans of mice and men do sometimes go awry. Based on experiences little and large, there is a willingness to see that things can be outside any human control ... and the result is assumed to be unpleasant. But there is no similar nodding and assent when things do not go awry. When things do not go awry, well, I can pat myself on the back for my assumptions and axioms. I deserve this ... it's nothing special. No reason to pay it too much mind. It's inconsequential, if not boring.

Bad news receives attention. Good news only proves me right. Bad news leaves me edgy. Good news confirms my earlier confidence and assumptions.

Well, no one was significantly hurt in the accident and the white-light of uncertainty will fade to a whisper as time passes. But I suspect that the edginess and uncertainty of a white-light moment lingers outside our closed doors until we consent to open them freely.

Was it ever any different? How could it possibly be the same?

In Zen, I have heard the saying, "Understanding is knowing to get out of the way of an on-coming bus. Practice is for the bus you didn't see coming." Practice is important: How in the wide-wide world of sports could anyone ever actually see the 'now' bus coming? There are causes, sure. But who could possibly do more than offer a guesstimate about the effect? Wouldn't anything more than a guesstimate be sheer arrogance? So ... plan all you like. No point in being an idjit. But find a way to be at ease with what are blithely labeled "the effects."

Uncertainty and edginess are uncomfortable.

Find the grounded-in-reality comfort zone.

success and failure

Which is more useful, which is less ...

To be confirmed or comforted by your successes or to be confirmed or comforted by your defeats? Defeats can be haunting and adhesive, but are successes any different?

I don't know the answers, but I suspect they lie in the arena of confirmation and comfort.

Saturday, December 17, 2011

the pope within

An Associated Press story notes that the Roman Catholic pope, Benedict XVI, 85, seems to be flagging.

Back at home, however, it seems the daily grind of being pope - the audiences with visiting heads of state, the weekly public catechism lessons, the sessions with visiting bishops - has taken its toll. A spark is gone. He doesn't elaborate off-the-cuff much anymore, and some days he just seems wiped out.
Does anyone doubt that the time will come when all matters, large and small, will be set aside, left behind, and no longer so compelling?

My question is, why wait for 'then' when there is 'now'?

A friend once reported to me that my Zen teacher, Kyudo Nakagawa Roshi, had stopped attending the early-morning chanting at the Japanese monastery he headed up, Ryutaku-ji. Morning chanting is a staple of many monastic settings -- a brick in the wall of ritual and practice. It is important. And for one of the top dogs to bow out or decline or set aside is ... well, upsetting in some small way: My tireless hero needs a nap. He is tired. And the edifice in my mind is somehow diminished: I don't want him to offer proof positive that even tireless heroes get tired, get old, get less interested in encouraging the efforts of those less tutored ... by which I mean, "me."

Two things at least seem to be at play: 1. Someone who has devoted the better part of a lifetime to a particular course of action seems to grow tired of his own enthusiasms, to be more willing to let those enthusiasms fend for themselves, and even to consider other, less glowing enthusiasms ... like taking a nap or even doing today what might have been called naughty yesterday. What was savory has become burdensome and, well, nap time! 2. Those who follow in the wake of a tireless hero -- or anyway a wise expositor -- are left staring in the mirror: Who will be the grown-up when the grown-ups decline to fill that role? I love to follow such an august presence, but when that presence no longer leads, I am left with the mirror ... and an eek ... moi?! the leader?! Moi?! the august one?!

Everyone's got a pope within -- or anyway that's my guess. There is a voice or chorus that prioritizes this life, that points and encourages, that distinguishes and dissects, that prescribes actions and imposes penance, that lolls at ease on the pillows of bias and judgment. The course is revised now and again, but the pope points the way. The pope is full of pep and importance. I like chocolate and disdain anchovies ... the pope has spoken and what he says is true.

But such truths are wearisome after a bit. Benedict is getting old. Is there some reason he should not become tired of the nostrums of yore? There is physically old, which is demonstrable, and there is mentally old ... just recognizing that there is no energy left for what was once filled with pep. Put briefly, we grow out of what once we grew into with gusto. Denial is hardly an antidote. Isn't all this just what actually happens? Is there a reason to take on some new gusto or return to the stale bread of past gusto? Why? Does being alive require anyone's gusto?

I don't know who spoke the words, but the old Zen teacher Ta Hui once credited an "ancient worthy" as saying,

Having some attainment is the jackal's yelp.
Having no attainment is the lion's roar.
I imagine that Benedict may be edging up on his lion.

I imagine he is setting an example all of us will follow ... like it or not.

the most important thing

What is 'the most important thing?'

Where the question is asked, the laundry list begins. Everyone's willing to play, I imagine. Love, laughter, health, wealth, shade, sunshine, intelligence, stupidity, wisdom, kindness... the list goes on and on and on and on. You make yours and I make mine. The most important thing is....

What is 'the least important thing?'

Where the question is asked, the laundry list begins. Everyone's willing to play, I imagine. A single, rusted hub cap, a flintless lighter, used match sticks, broken shoe laces, hair on the barber's floor, stale peas ... the list goes on and on and on and on. You make yours and I make mine. The least important thing is ....

Of course any serious laundry list has a way of coming around and joining its mirror image: What is most important can be least important; what is least important can be most important.

It depends on circumstances what is most or least important. A pair of pliers can be desperately important in a plumbing job or utterly irrelevant when eating spaghetti.

And who gives a shit about any of this? Few, I imagine. It's not all that serious since 'everyone does it' and if 'everyone does it,' at least I have some company and it's not so lonely where I live. But I think there is a price to pay for ignoring the matter. The price is uncertainty ... a little niggling nag: If yesterday's 'most important thing' is not today's, then what is it that is most important ... or least important either? Without some sort of reply, the most important things cannot claim to be most important ... or least either.

OK. So circumstances dictate what is most or least important. And if that is the case, then am I not a whimsical fairy tale? If 'I' am the most important thing -- and the chances are that I am -- then how does that square up with the circumstances that come and go and dictate the importance or lack of importance of anything? And how do the circumstances that come and go, rise and fall, assert and fall silent, dovetail with my notion that 'I' am the most important thing?

The quick-witted may hunker down with adroit responses: "Everything is most important" or "everything is least important" but it's just savvy eyewash. The uncertainty remains because wanting to be in control, to be most important, to appear humble and wise just plain doesn't square up with what comes and goes and comes again. It is unsatisfactory to imagine myself as nothing less than the boy-toy of whimsy and change: I am more important than that, whatever humble bullshit I may bring to bear.

This issue is all mental chewing gum from one point of view -- good stuff for philosophers or addicts of religion. But I think it is an issue to address at some point. Uncertainty is discomforting. If it weren't discomforting, who in his right mind would make up most and least important things? Is there anyone who doesn't yearn for the comfort of certainty, yearn for peace, yearn for a steady-state happiness?

My guess is that it is a good idea to hold the issue gently in the mind's palm. As one might hold a small, purring kitten in the palm, so too this world of most and least deserves an attention that goes beyond a desire to be right or wrong. Just hold it in the palm and look things over with a firm attention. Don't try to escape, don't try to improve ... just look things over. Let most and least important have their say, but decline the invitation to agree. Just look things over.

And enjoy their purr.