Thursday, April 30, 2009

turning Buddhism into "Buddhism"

As I see it, someone is always bound to turn Buddhism into "Buddhism." It's just the way of the world. Suffering has that effect on people.

It's just Buddhism and it's serious.

But it's not that serious.


Today, I woke up scared. In that just-awakened state that maintains the undefended clarity of a dreaming sleep, it was as if some longtime assumptions were shattering or shattered and the remaining shards were somehow closing in, sucking from things the safety once provided, weakening what was once 'strong,' and stifling the moment in some mortal way. It was, and to a certain extent remains, frightening.

At the nearest point to sleep, there was a piece of a dream to remember. In the dream, Bruce, a guy I roomed with at the monastery I flunked out of, was lying on the floor in his robes and talking about Zen with a third unrecognized person off to my right. Bruce was a guy I knew as very strong in his determination in practice. If he was slightly dotty in my mind, still I knew him to be kind. Bruce once memorized the entire Diamond Sutra -- a thing that few if any monks in Japan had accomplished. The whole damned thing! Wow! Useful or useless, it was a hell of an effort.

Anyway, Bruce lay on the floor, saying something about Zen practice to the third person in the scene. He broke into a chant -- something we both knew in easy memory, maybe the Heart Sutra or maybe the Kanzeon ten-clause sutra ... easy stuff -- and part way through the chant, he lost his way. He had recited part of it, but then, with a mock-sheepish humor, segued into something akin to "yadda, yadda, yadda..." And as he said this, he looked up at me, knowing I would know he had forgotten ... and, with a challenging smile, he winked. He really had forgotten and, like it or lump it, wasn't that the way of things? the honest way? the way we had both, in our own ways, worked so hard on in the past? the way that, if it were any good, was bound to go poof?

It was all as easy as pie on the one hand. And, on the other, it was scary.

The proximate cause of waking up afraid, I imagine, is the fact that today I will sign the papers that will assure my retirement from the newspaper. That signature will seal my fate. And in a lousy economy with a family I would like to defend and support, the pay cut will mean a large shift in how things work ... how the house runs, how I run. My investigations into health care insurance and other issues connected to a 'life without work' have been exhausting and frustrating and somehow guiltifying ... how come I can't just keep going, keep on keepin' on, keep up the efforts that provided for myself and others ... it all seems simultaneously imperative (the newspaper is dying and I am tired) and somehow insane. How can I lay claim to control when there is so much evidence that I am not in control? What was once an easy, complain-about-it habit is now falling to bits and those bits surround and smother and mock me.

But another slightly-strange aspect of the situation is this: I am not afraid at all. It all feels appropriate and relieving in some sense, as if I had been carrying a suitcase and it had been heavy and now I got to put it down. So ... on the one hand is the whine-festival of fear and on the other is some relieving exhalation that whispers, "There. Isn't that better? Stick with the facts."

Yesterday, my older son took part in a track competition. For reasons that escape me, he throws the discus. If, he told me before the competition, he threw the discus 118 feet, he would be eligible to join a statewide competition. He really wanted to join that group -- that wider, more accomplished group -- and yet had never thrown 118 feet.

Yesterday, he did it. And as he came towards me after that accomplished throw, I congratulated him with an ironic, "Too bad, Angus." And he smiled. Like Bruce, he knew the meaning of a wink.

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

swine flu epidemic

Given the swine flu outbreak that has overtaken Mexico and been found in Germany and New Zealand among other places, the following admonition, received in email, is probably warranted:



it's OK ... not

I just tried to look up the title and author on Amazon and came up empty. Obviously my recollection of a small book review I heard on public radio last night is not all it could be. The title I recalled was something like "What Good is an Intellectual" by a fellow who writes widely and whose name sounded vaguely middle eastern ... and I can't remember that either...though I think it began with a 'C.' Nevertheless, the topic grabbed my attention.

The reviewer said that often the word "intellectual" carries with it the disdain of the word "ineffectual." She seemed unwilling to concede that the point was well-taken ... what else is an intellect that uses its capacities to elevate itself and its owner if not labored and "ineffectual," not to mention arrogant?

The writer, said the reviewer, parsed and extolled a variety of other writers -- Lionel Trilling and Matthew Arnold among others -- for their capacity to use the intellect as a means of moral suasion ... a way of acknowledging the kindnesses so vital to a humane life -- a life a little less barbaric than it might be.

It all reminded me of the Dalai Lama when he appeared here before an audience at Smith College. I watched some of it on TV and what he said was much the same: Use your brains not just for gain but for the easing of the suffering the world is so full of. Over and over he reiterated the point ... until finally I turned the TV off.

And that recollection made me think again of what I think is true: How many are willing to use the capacities they have (no need to strain for some other capacities) and follow those capacities to the source? Intellectual? OK. Deeply in love with money? OK. Entranced by high mountains and wide oceans? OK. A devotion to dog grooming? OK. Enfolded by art or family life? OK. Begin anywhere and it's OK.

But where stopping and nesting in what is merely OK may be the ordinary way, it really isn't so OK: Stopping and nesting in such things lacks peace of mind and peace in the heart and is always shadowed by the edginess of uncertainty. Peace of mind and peace in the heart require going the distance ... really looking into the delights and barbarities of which the OK is capable.

Having grown up with the depredations and distancings of which the intellect is capable, smarts and the people who indulge in them have always made me edgy. Too often there seemed to be an essential lack of kindness ... or that's how I saw it: Intricate self-indulgence under the guise of OK-ness. But it's not OK ... and not just because I say so. Kindness is not an imperative because a church or philosophy or some earthy-crunchy poobah says so. It is an imperative to an easy heart ... it is the natural conclusion to a determined investigation. It is like discovering that water is wet or that a hammer is the most effective tool for pounding a nail. No need to fake it.

When called to account or called into question, intellectuals can imagine that all they have to do is explain their ways in the humblest possible tones. They've got the savvy to look good, to explain, to parse and analyze. But there is no requirement to look stupid in order to get smart. The only requirement is to go the distance, just like anyone else ... if you love it, go the distance; don't stop; see things through for once: Where does all this come from and where does it go? Don't wuss out by answering my questions. Just gather up your patience and courage and answer your own.

Why? Because you will feel better and you will be a hell of a lot nicer to me. :)

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

help is on the way

I don't know how it is for anyone else, but one of the imperatives in my life is to help out where I can. To the extent that this inclination is neurotic in nature, still it may be -- but only may be -- a less harmful neurosis than many. Some people even make a profession out of it. Bah!

What surprises me sometimes is that those whom I have helped believe that I have helped them. Instead of finding out for themselves if the imagined help is actually helpful, they linger on the apparent source of that help. And if it's off the mark to imagine someone else might help, how much worse is it to imagine and nest in the idea that I am somehow a helper. Gawd!

I guess it's a koan for one and all. There is help, but who is helping and who is helped is often confused with the bedrock source of that help. A sense of cozy or inspiring helplessness is invariably the result.

It's all worth considering I think.

confused and unconfused

It was such a small thing for such a large delight:

Yesterday was filled with telephone calls and email and becoming more and more confused and freighted with the vagaries of what it means to retire. I got my first job when I was 15 in 1955 and, at first during summers and later as an all-day exercise, worked ever since. Now it is time to uncouple from or revise that habit structure, and the tendrils of the past create as much confusion now as they did satisfaction in that past.

I was on the phone and on the phone and on the phone. Each person was as helpful as he or she could be, but each clarity was attended by a concomitant uncertainty, a piling up of information that did not convene towards anything easy or sane. "The devil is in the details;" I was swamped with details; and it was devilish and tiring. Like a lot of other people, I do not have the balls for confusion or uncertainty: I want (et voila! -- the problem!) to make things easier, improved, better, unconfused.

After a while, I went outside, spread some granular fertilizer on the lawn and started up the weed wacker. It helped a little. What do weed wackers know from confusion and uncertainty and improvements?

But when I came back inside, the phone rang. Ooooh shit! -- not more confusion! But instead of additional devilish details, the female on the other end of the phone identified herself as a bookstore employee. Two years ago, I had left three books at the store on consignment. They had just sold out and the woman wanted to clear her ledger ... pay me my share.

The irony of selling three books in two years wasn't lost on me, but that, together with whatever small amount of money she planned to send, was not what interested me and made me somehow glad. What made my heart light was that someone might live up to a bargain they had made, however insignificant. How much easier it commonly is just to forget the small promises, to have bigger fish to fry, to let the 'little' stuff languish and be forgotten. Here, to my mind, was a responsible approach, one I could agree with and delight in. It was as if my view of the world were somehow vindicated and enhanced...but beyond that, isn't this the way things work better? Oh well, it just made me happy.

In a small bit of serendipity, I got a second call, this one from the company from which I have purchased incense in the past. No doubt their sales were feeling the effects of the current economic downturn and they were looking for more income, but I had been thinking off and on (but not very seriously ... I had bigger fish to fry) of calling up and ordering some more incense, so her call was welcome... it was as if she were helping me out. Thank you very much.

Thank you very much. What a good pointer.

Thank you for the uncertainties. Thank you for the responsible and irresponsible activities of this life. Thank you for helping. Thank you for withholding help.

Sometimes I can say thank you.

Sometimes not.

So it goes.

Monday, April 27, 2009

weaseling out of enjoyment

Nobody can sneak up on or out-think their own true understanding, but that doesn't mean it's for lack of trying ... trying to sneak up on an easy peace with one effort or another, one goodness or another, one philosophy or another, one wisdom or another ... tiptoe, tiptoe, tiptoe ... shape-shifting this way and that, weeping heart-felt, salty tears or laying claim to an auspicious discipline. But no one can out-think or outflank it and too often such efforts amount to weaseling out of what we claim to long for.

Some, on hearing they cannot outflank or lay claim to their heart's desire, imagine there must therefore be some god, some bright light, some 'ineffable' something or other. "True understanding," they may say. Or "Buddha nature." Or "emptiness." Or "God." But if everything (to use one bit of terminology) is already god, how in heaven's name could anyone sneak up on it? Wouldn't this be like standing in the bright sunshine, 'trying' to catch your shadow or begging to be saved from drowning before you fell off the ship?

None of this is meant as a lofty or distanced criticism. It's just an observation that may or may not be true.

Yesterday, a college student, Max, came to visit and do a homework assignment that seemed to focus on "Buddhism in daily life" or "engaged Buddhism" or something interview. Max and John and I sat on the deck in the sunshine, drank coffee, ate some breakfast sweets, and talked. I enjoy such conversations and probably talk too much, but in the end, I am never entirely sure of what I have said. I can't quite figure out what, if anything, my agenda is or was ... but I know, as surely as a kid on the playground knows, that I enjoy myself. It's sort of weird: I enjoy 'helping' and yet can't quite imagine what help I could possibly be...and I am a little afraid of saying that out loud for fear that someone will think it is an 'elevated' or 'better' or 'wiser' point of view.

All I can think of is a graffito I once saw on a construction-site wall:

"Man without God is like a fish without a bicycle."

Sunday, April 26, 2009

your concerns and mine

After a bone-tiring work week, there is more work to do this morning.

John and Jeff plan to help do small clean-up chores on the zendo, which could use the help, and maybe we can squeeze in some zazen before Jeff heads out to look at a house with his wife. Everything's starting an hour earlier to accommodate Jeff's schedule.

Then, a student from a nearby college wants to come and find out how "Buddhism" has changed anyone's life ... or something like that.

And the woodpile beckons from the driveway, asking to be stacked.

What a strange notion a "day of rest" is: Never mind "a day without work is a day without eating" ... it's just odd: If you can't rest all the time, when can you ever rest?

Did you ever think? -- No one can be as concerned with your concerns as you can. It's just not possible. And maybe it feels a bit lonely and forlorn. But still, no one can be as concerned as you can and if this is the case, the only question is, what do you plan to do about it? Good, bad, right, wrong, happy, sad, holy, unholy -- so what? The only question is what anyone might do.

Saturday, April 25, 2009

student/teacher sticky wicket

How do you help convince people to do what they want to do -- to do what is really best for them? The only answer I can come up with is ... you don't.

What made me think of this was a clip of some young Tibetan Buddhist rinpoche encouraging/chastising his audience. He was full of pep and a bit of scorn as he pointed out the self-centered approaches people could take towards their own versions of "Buddhism."

I didn't watch all of the clip and I could imagine being encouraged by it, but ... well, I guess it wasn't a style I liked much. The clip reminded me of Suzuki Roshi's writing that he would be patient with his students ... he would wait with the patience of an island that was inching up the California coast line. Outside of ego-tripping, Buddha-dripping, confused and self-serving approaches, what other choice is there?

Yesterday I had an email from an Internet friend who commented on the control-freak nature of a Zen teacher we had both studied with. Why, the note wondered, did this teacher attract so many people who seemed to be control freaks ... perhaps it was that the teacher himself was a control freak. It was a reasonable observation I thought ... and yet ....

Who, in their confusions and uncertainties, would not love to be led out of the wilderness? "Teach me!" "Guide me!" "Tell me the answer!" "Be my god!" These are not things to mock or disdain, though there are plenty of people, 'teachers' among them, who are willing to manipulate such longings to their own advantage. And even the best-intentioned instructors are bound to be bombarded with such requests. When people have questions, they long for answers. Suffering is no joke and just because someone pleads for help and longs for those answers in terms that will please them does not mean that the suffering is somehow to be disdained or manipulated. It is not enough to say, "the way out is to enter" and to expect the one who is suffering to hear. What is 'right' or 'true' is only as right or true as the 'disciple' makes it. But you can't say that either to someone wailing, "Tell me the answer!" or "Be my guru!"

It is in this realm, I think, that the instructors of this life are humbled. They too are nothing but students learning from their students. Like shrinks who need skill in the realm of transference, instructors need to nourish the skills that will allow them to be at ease with the blandishments and accolades that students can heap at their feet. Like all students, they sometimes fail and, as with the failures of any student, they are forced to recognize (if they are any good) their failures and pick themselves up ... be patient and determined and not just fall down in a pool of self-adoration or despair. It's tricky shit no matter who teaches and who is taught.

Who can help? Who can be helped? Where is the end of suffering? These are not just airy-fairy religious questions or holy-roller philosophy bullshit. Of course there is a gaming spirit that is necessary in spiritual endeavor: Pick your lie or set of lies and never give up until you find and actualize the truth. Beg and plead for answers and relief. Offer up answer after answer until you are blue in the face. These things are important when it comes to down-home suffering. But ....

I imagine we can all take a lesson from the Zen teacher Huang Po/Obaku who was once addressing his monks and said, "There is no such thing as a Zen teacher." For the purposes of this writing, perhaps we could say, "There is no such thing as any kind of teacher at all." But one of Huang Po's monks stood up boldly and said, "But master, how can you say such a thing when clearly you are standing in front of us and teaching us?" And Huang Po replied, "I said there was no such thing as a Zen teacher. I did not say there is no such thing as Zen."

Let us all exercise our patience and determination. Wailing and weeping and extolling Buddhism? OK. Gathering up students as numerous as autumn leaves? OK. Let us all help each other as much as we can -- be as kind to others and ourselves as we know how. OK. But let us exercise our own good determination as well ...

Never stop!

Don't be tricked or slowed by desolation or delight!

Return home laughing and victorious!

Have a cup of coffee.

Friday, April 24, 2009

the 'right' stuff

Perhaps because I read or hear so much language that skirts or makes-nice about its subject matter, I enjoyed this article that Frank passed along this morning. It's not an article for those who find offensive language offensive, but for my money, it has some zest ... and I like A-1 Sauce, whether or not the subject matter is cuss words. The article offers an approach to something I think is on-the-ground and true.

The article reminded me a bit of the old joke about the young sailor who enjoys a couple of days of shore leave, returns to the ship, and regales his buddies with his exploits. Every sentence he uses is laced with 'f'ing.' "I went to this f'ing bar, met this f'ing beautiful girl, bought her some f'ing drinks. Finally, she invited me back to her f'ing apartment." His buddies are all ears. "What happened next?" they want to know. "Why then," the sailor says simply, "we had sexual intercourse."

What is "right speech" if not getting through the notion of and attachment to "wrong speech?" In Buddhist practice -- which is to say in life -- "wrong speech" is what actually happens whereas "right speech" is what anyone might wish would happen.

Buddhists do their best to curb and revise gossip, cussing and other exercises that might be offensive or cruel. They seek out what is mild yet truthful, but at first "right speech" is little more than a reaction -- a cleverly revised version of "wrong speech." The harder they push "right speech," the harder "wrong speech" pushes back, longs for expression, and, in some instances, explodes from a fed-to-the-teeth-with-goodness mouth. It's about like any other precept, I imagine: A better approach may be sought, but a worse approach is what is.

When it comes to the 'right' stuff, I think it is better to begin with what is ... which is to say, often, the 'wrong' stuff. Human beings may have a wish list, but the realities of their lives cannot be denied. Buddhism is a reality-based show. It is full of pep and A-1 Sauce, or anyway I think so. The upshot, for anyone who can acknowledge and wish to revise the 'wrong' stuff, is to keep an eye on things. Just watch and watch and watch some more. There may be a desire to push the river with sutras and invocations and wise or holy encouragements, but there is no pushing the river: People are where they are in all honesty ... zesty, screwed-up, uncertain honesty -- honesty that doesn't recognize 'goodness' yardsticks but does recognize what is ineffective as regards its own happiness and peace.

Of course the recognition of what is ineffective is just the recognition that there must be something effective, some philosophy or religion or fortune cookie that will right the listing ship. So at first there is some effort, some period of sweat and strain, some exercise that will attempt to limit and constrain what cannot be limited and constrained. Try, try, try; push, push, push; work, work, work; learn, learn, learn; talk sweetly, talk sweetly, talk sweetly. And it's a good and understandable effort ... but in the end, not terribly effective. Deep within, there is a knowledge: You cannot push the river, and more, the river doesn't need pushing.

Limiting the unlimited is not possible, though lord knows we all may bust our britches trying.

Attention is enough.

Attention and enjoyment.

Separating wetness and water is not possible ... but you can certainly enjoy swimming. Things really are all right (delightful, refreshing) instead of just being all 'right.'

Thursday, April 23, 2009

useless advice

For some reason, I woke up thinking of my children, whom I love. I was thinking of advice I might give them if I were no longer around to give it. Not that I could expect them to take it, but just ... well, what would I say? And what came to mind was:

-- Be as smart as you can, but do not be unkind. Intelligence and ignorance are equally capable of cruelties and there will always be people who are smarter and dumber than you are. Intelligence sees many possibilities, ignorance sees few, but since possibilities are endless ... well, seeing possibilities is a good idea but relying on possibilities is another matter entirely. Do not be unkind, whether with yourself or others.

-- It is rare for anyone to reflect much on the life they choose to lead and yet without reflection that life will always be subject to the whim of others... their beliefs, longings, convictions or whatever all else. Because we are social animals, there is a longing to be included and loved. Simultaneously, there is a longing not to be ruled -- to be easy as a hawk resting on an updraft. Many, if not most, spend their lives being buffeted between the twin longings for security and freedom ... whining endlessly about their bruising fate or singing hosannahs to imagined joys, but never breaking free. It is the discipline of reflection that can put such matters to rest. But if you cannot set them aside, if you cannot manage some honest reflection, at least do not be unkind.

-- You may think that because I have liked Zen Buddhism I am therefore suggesting you follow that path too, that my way has somehow been the best way. But that is not how I feel at all. True, I think Zen practice is an excellent thing for those inclined, but the anguish and uncertainty that human beings feel is miles beyond the confines of any religion or philosophy or particular practice. I wish you what you wish, but since what you wish requires some effort, I suggest you reflect honestly and carefully within whatever confines you may choose. If you think religion is a crock of shit, well, OK. If you think philosophy is for pinheads, well, OK. Set aside what you find useless, identify what you find useful, and then, assuming you would like a little peace, do not fail to reflect with patience and courage. Do not imagine there are answers ... just reflect and see what happens.

-- Correct what needs correction. Repeat what is fruitful. You're doing fine. Never doubt it. Just reflect and do not be unkind....

I suppose I could go on writing, but since I do not believe advice is the kind of thing one person can transmit to another, I guess I'll have a cup of coffee now.

I love you.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

whispering in hard times

In perilous times, mediocrity and unkindness flourish. If true, and I think it is, this is nothing unusual ... any animal, however weak, will bear its claws and fangs when cornered: Better your blood be spilled than my own; better I survive on what little there is than you. Nothing unusual, but worth keeping an eye on.

After the Chinese invasion of Tibet, a Buddhist monk was asked what he feared most about the potentially-fatal situation. He replied, "I feared I might lose my compassion." Setting aside whether compassion is something anyone might lose or gain, his words have a meaning that anyone might understand. Understand and, within a perilous context, perhaps dismiss as being too airy-fairy by half... who cares about compassion when the bullets are flying in my direction? Get real!

And again ...

Dave, a friend of mine in New York, sent an email yesterday in which he described a bit of his current office setting. He works in the music industry and so, because music is a hardy plant even in hard times, the economic pressures being felt around the world are not as bad as they might be. Still, there was one woman, an accountant, who seemed to want to dip her oar into everyone's business. "She seems to think she's running the place," Dave wrote. And perhaps the bean counters have a point: Business is business and business wants money and the less money there is, the more strangled and strangling the approaches to business may become. Business wants money but it also needs to sell a product someone else might want to buy. If that product becomes too strangled, who will buy it?

And again ...

On the war-and-peace front, if too many people get killed in a war, will there be enough people to sustain and enjoy the peace?

In hard times, hearts harden. Perhaps this is an interesting social observation, but I am more interested in the hardening of your heart or mine.

In the movie, "Open Range," a pretty good western, there is a brief exchange between a frightened townsman and one of the protagonists who plans to confront the bad guys. "You could confront them," the protagonist says more or less. "You're men, aren't you?" And the townsman replies approximately, "I didn't bring my sons up just to be killed." To which the protagonist says evenly, "You may not know it, but there are things worse than dying."

Anyone might sympathize with the townsman who had two fine sons. And yet there is a whisper in all of us, I think, that knows what the protagonist is talking about as well. He is not addressing some elevated morality, something to which only heroic figures might aspire ... some church-going goodness or valor ... some god-laced bullshit. He is speaking as our whispers speak ... the plain truth.

There are things worse than dying and it behooves us all to discover those things, to heed our whispers. Not that we will not be afraid and confused and make any number of wrong turns. Not that our cruelties will be vanquished in the face of an imagined nobility. Not that we need to sign on to one religion or another.

Just listen to the whispers in your own heart and see if they do not find some peace in the activities that Shakyamuni Buddha (who cares who said it!) alluded to 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."

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

"finished with the eternal"

Since I must have asked, Jack, an ex-Jesuit shrink who helped me along in the past, once said without rancor, "I have finished with the eternal." At the time, I was hip-deep in Zen practice and found the line extraordinary ... intellectually delightful and personally somehow disquieting.

"I have finished with the eternal."

When, at a later date, I reported this line to Tom, a Zen monk with 30-plus years of Zen practice under his belt in Japan, he sent back an email asking, "Yes, but has the eternal finished with him?"

As much as I valued Tom's observations and was grateful for the efforts he had made on behalf of something I took seriously, I was more taken with what Jack said and what it might imply. I had known Jack personally and I loved him, so perhaps weighting my curiosities and bias towards him was to be expected. But beyond that, Jack's observation seemed to go to the heart of things, whether or not I loved him.

"I have finished with the eternal."

As the Anglican writer Charles Williams noted in the words of one of his fictional characters, "People believe what they want to believe." I believed Jack and as with any belief, I was stuck with the farm: If you believe it and take it seriously, then you are nagged by doubt ... so what are you going to do that actualizes what you believe; what experience will you find that lays your belief-doubts to rest; lolling around in belief is really not enough ... what will you do that addresses the matter squarely: "Put up or shut up!"

And the only answer I know is to enter the delightful hellfire that is called belief. It is not enough to call it hellfire any more than it is enough to lollygag around in some longed-for relief. It is only enough to enter and find your peace.

I have heard Buddhists say -- and no doubt have said myself: "Shakyamuni Buddha was enlightened." There is sometimes an assurance and perhaps even a smugness that infuses the line. But how in the wide world of sports could anyone say such a thing and be at peace? It might be a nice thing to say. It might excite some agreement from fellow Buddhists. There might be all sorts of echoes and reverberations in the heart. And it all might be very encouraging and apt. I wouldn't call it wrong -- "people believe what they want to believe" -- but I might wonder if it were at peace. I don't know ... you tell me.

"I have finished with the eternal."

I loved Jack and chose his line as a compelling pointer in my mind, one I would be pleased to roast in hell for. What truth it implied in Jack's life doesn't concern me so much. I would just like to be at ease with my own, toasty hellfires. So as I roast deliciously on this spit ....

Last night, it occurred to me to put together another book. And although I dislike borrowing others' words, the subtitle that popped into my head was, "That was Zen. This is now." Who knows if I will find the energy or will or money for it, but I would have to find a title first, I imagine. Maybe "Finished with the Eternal" would be good ... but that has a weighty, club-foot feel to it somehow.

It's a minor matter -- putting yourself out their for others to find ridiculous or helpful. Another line I like a lot is, "it can't be helped." Things happen or they don't. Jack is finished with the eternal or he isn't. Shakyamuni Buddha was enlightened or he wasn't. I will put a book together or I won't. It can't be helped. Isn't that enough?

Pick your poison, chew it carefully, swallow, digest, excrete ... and begin again.

Toasty, toasty, toasty.

Monday, April 20, 2009


Today is April 20 and April 20 was the birthday of my longtime friend Bill McKechnie. We met in the army, went to Berlin together and kept in touch thereafter. His dog tags were eerily close to my own. Mine read 14-779-240. His read 14-779-051. With a gazillion guys in the army, it seemed pretty odd.

Bill is dead now, but when April 20 rolls around, well, happy birthday, Bill! Bill always thought it was pretty funny when he and Joe and I would go out and get drunk and then ride back to the barracks in Joe's red MG convertible with me declaiming French poetry at the top of my bilge-y lungs ...

Heureux, qui comme Ulysse,
A fait un beau voyage
Et puis est retourne
Plein d'usage et de raison....

April 20 was Adolf Hitler's birthday as well. I never met the man, but I've heard plenty of stories about him. I don't know if he knew any French poetry, but somehow I doubt it: Hitler seemed to make a profession out of powerful ignorance: He loved Wagner, so somehow, in my own ignorance, French poetry seems unlikely.

Funny how birthdays come only once a year and yet, on reflection, draw closer and closer like some soft noose until ... it's 6:35 a.m.

Happy birthday!

Sunday, April 19, 2009


My sister Revan -- my favorite relative -- sent me a packet with several pages of family genealogy enclosed. Revan, who is actually my half-sister, has taken an interest in the family history and so I read through what she had sent.

There was my great-grandfather, Charles Fisher, bearded and sunken-cheeked and looking a bit as if someone had ordered him to sit very still ... something between an outlaw and a strict judge. There was his wife, Jessie McQueen Fisher, a bit tentative, with lace at her throat. Then the grandfather I never met, Herbert Herschel Fisher, a pleasant-faced man in a starched white collar and a straight tie ... moustachioed and not exuding the Presbyterian minister profession he followed. And his wife, Clara Augusta Fisher, a grandmother I had met in her later years ... a knock-out in her younger days with a high lace collar and hair swept up.

I read the brief synopsis Revan had sent -- a genealogical point-A-to-point-B linear tale that made me want to know the context. What made these people laugh, what foods did they like, what secrets did they consider secret, what favorite piece of clothing did they own, what made their hearts soar and what made them truly sad. But none of that was there. There were the pictures, clearly human and in some cases humane, and yet the blood and music were missing. It seemed somehow cruel to see those faces and have no more than the faces to reflect on.

And yet, had the context been more present, would I have known more?

When I was a reporter, I reveled at first at the opportunity to run around and unearth the truth of one situation or another -- to get beneath the surfaces of people's lives and transmit what lay there to others. But the further I got into reporting, the more apparent it became that there was no telling the truth even if I did manage to winkle it out. There were always facts that lay beyond the facts ... endlessly. And even if, by some chance, it had been possible to collect all the facts in a single, magical net, still there was the matter of words ... words that can help so much and still, inevitably, obscure. It was a wonderful lesson to learn first-hand, but I was definitely not happy about it. What was it that a good reporter did if the best s/he could do was a mere approximation ... it was too wimpy by half. If nothing could be known in its entirety, what was anyone to believe ... what did that say about beliefs ... of any kind? It didn't bother me so much that anyone else might believe the "facts." What bothered me was that I did when I had ample concrete proof that "facts" and "beliefs" constituted a slippery and unreliable slope at best.

Maybe that was part of the reason I got involved in spiritual adventures.

Not that that is any less a slippery slope. :)


I wonder if it's true that there comes a time when living with explanations is just too much. What would this life be like without the explanations? Lighter? Lonely? More realistic? Spooky?

The American country singer Willie Nelson was quoted on his 75th birthday as saying, "I have outlived my dick." As bon mots go, I like that one.

In what moment do we not outlive our own explanations?

But of course if it were true that there comes a time when explanations do not apply, when all their childish/adult-like antics cloy, that would simply be the truth, and...

Another explanation.

Saturday, April 18, 2009

baseball game

Against a wind-filled sky, above the my youngest son's baseball game yesterday, a single turkey buzzard floated from here to there, there to here. It was as if the bird were playing with the wind and the wind played back ... a couple of old friends so far beyond friendship that the word "friendship" did not apply.

The same wind whistled through the nearby trees that were budding but not yet dressed in their leaves-to-come. Literally whistled. The wind whistled through the trees. The trees whistled back ... another friendship on a sparkly day.

"I wouldn't mind this except for the wind," my daughter commented. "I hate the wind." And the wind messed with her hair as old friends will.

On the field, the wind raised up dust and the dust rose to meet the wind. The players didn't complain -- or not that I heard: They were too intent on the game to worry about old friends. They all had hats, so the wind could not ruffle their hair.

My son's team lost -- big time -- and the turkey buzzard had a box seat to it all, if s/he bothered to notice. Maybe that's the way it is with old friends -- true friends: Sometimes we are too busy to notice and really there is no need ... they are with us through and through.

Friday, April 17, 2009

things I don't know

-- With the dawn not yet quite obvious and a half moon hanging in the sky to the east-southeast, I sat on the porch this morning and wondered again how the birds knew to wake up and start making a racket. Why not earlier? Why not later? Every morning seems about the same -- 4:30-5 rolls around and their delicious clarities begin again. I doubt that the birds wonder about it, and bit by bit, I wonder less as well.

-- Where would spiritual life be without ego -- without that puffed-up or subtle sense that I am important? Important, but unsure? Sometimes I marvel at the self-centeredness of others. How selfish! How selfish I can be. And yet without that selfishness the whole mega-industry of spiritual life, whether within or without, would fall flat on its fanny. In a gadget-cluttered life, I guess it's another gadget, but I don't really know.

-- Imagine imagining that some other person or circumstance was "holy" or "enlightened." It's such a rich and humungous tale, rife with sorrow and delight, and yet ... what for?

-- I wonder if the difference between altruism and compassion is that compassion knows there is nothing to worry about.

-- The dawn has come now and the half-moon is gone. The birds, once insistent in the darkness, are silent in the light. They have done their best; they do their best. I imagine I should do the same. "It is enough," as Suzuki Roshi once observed, "to be alive."

Thursday, April 16, 2009

unpleasant flounderings

A note this morning asked why I no longer participated at the Internet bulletin board e-sangha. The question left me with the same slightly-floundering feeling I would get when someone would ask why I had quit the first formal Zen center I ever attended. The truth is I'm not really sure; the truth is I dislike simplistic answers; the truth is that I don't like anchovies; the truth is that it was just a choice. Now ... what is the truth?

I wrote back to the note-sender and said that too many nasty things were happening to many people who participated in e-sangha ... that the over-arching feel of the place had turned to one of policy-wonk Buddhism ... faultless administrative 'goodness' passing for goodness. Of all the insidious things in the world, what passes for goodness may be the worst. Since I have exercised the same failing, I feel I get to say that. The cries of the world are not some joke or boo-boo that the exalted can offer the 'right' answer to. But that's not the sort of observation you can offer to those in the throes of 'goodness.'

Last night, I got an email from a woman who had come to the zendo here. Not very often, but a few times before she moved away. She was dismayed, she said, because she found that as she continued her at-home practice, unpleasant realities had come calling. Was there some approach that would help her cope and not feel overwhelmed?

Naturally, she was not specific: People love to be secretive about their tender places ... as if there were some secret. I wrote back the best approaches I could think of while making it clear they were just the best approaches I could think of. I too have had secrets and tender wounds, so ... why wouldn't I say what I thought had helped? But will it help? I haven't got a clue. Which is more important? -- something called "Buddhism," some gift-wrapped package of advice that I have found helpful, or something that will actually help? Maybe "Buddhism" is just the ticket. Maybe a tin of anchovies would be better. It's the help that matters, not the goodness.

On the surface, I left the first Zen center I ever attended because I was tired of the teacher's sexual antics with his students -- the Fuck Follies, as some of us came to call them wryly. Zen Studies Society was a two-pronged entity comprised of a center in New York City, Sho Bo Ji, and a monastery in the Catskills, Dai Bosatsu Zendo. Eido Shimano headed up, and continues to head up, Zen Studies Society. He knew and taught the trappings, but even today, the occasional brochures I see from ZSS are rife with self-serving accolades. From my point of view, he never learned to give it away and as a result, all he taught was how to keep it... and many good people got hurt. But this is just my point of view, my choice. The line that comes to mind is, "If you find no equal or better in life, go alone./ Loneliness is preferable to the company of fools." I am not as content with my foolishness as others may be with theirs.

But honestly, I don't know. I know I don't like anchovies, so I don't eat them if I can help it. I know I like the goodness of which people are capable, but I dislike the dangers that 'goodness' can pose. I know I feel uncomfortable putting unpleasant matters on paper ... as if uncomfortable matters could somehow honestly be delineated or resolved with the written word... or pleasant matters either, for that matter.

Floundering: In order to flounder, there would have to be someone to flounder and some medium to flounder in, wouldn't there?

Poor, floundering sod. :)

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

The Four Noble Truths

The Four Noble Truths ... for the moment

the first time

Extraordinary how the extraordinary becomes ordinary.

Once upon a time, at a formal Zen center I attended, it occurred to me one day that I could recognize the people entering the long meditation hall even though I was facing the wall and could not see them. The way the feet hit the floor, the way the robes brushed against the legs and perhaps other hints I was unaware of -- all of them convened to tell me, "Oh, here comes Suzy" or "Peter is here tonight." The recognition struck me as pretty kool, pretty extraordinary. It was a small wow, fresh as a daisy. Brand new. A first.

As soon as I had savored that recognition, the freshness began to wear off. Recognizing people without ever seeing them plus a couple of bucks would get me a bus ride. What had been wow became par for the course. What had been fresh became, somehow, stale. What had been brand new became old hat.

And the mind went off in search of new and improved wow's, new brand-new's. Why? I think maybe it is because that sense of freshness was a delight. It had something real in it. It drew the attention and attention was somehow correct. Or perhaps the mind was just proud of itself in some needy way. Whatever the reason, the mind was off and running ... looking for frogs with two heads, or new shoes, or a party to beat all parties, or a situation that would lift the veil of staleness.

The first time is extraordinary and fresh and filled with wonder. The first time was a 'first' and therefore left this heart and mind without handholds or explanations. Things were open to a delighted stupefaction.

The first time is timeless and edgeless ... it's a first, after all.

And yet which time is not the first time?

Tuesday, April 14, 2009


The other day, my stepmother called to console me in the wake of having had my gall bladder taken out. I appreciated the call. Who couldn't use a little consolation from time to time?

But after a few minutes on the phone talking about what was, after all, a fact about which no one could do anything, I began to feel a sense of irritation. "Oooh, Adam," she crooned more than once, "I'm so sorry." And the more she said it, the more empathetic and sensitive and caring she announced herself to be, the more I felt as if I were being put in a position where I had to console her ... poor dear, she was just so sensitive. But truth to tell, I wasn't much in the mood for consoling anyone. I had my own aches and pains to cope with.

By contrast, Bill, my stepmother's live-with of about 40 years, dropped in unannounced yesterday. "How you doing?" he asked, acknowledging that my medical situation had made the family rounds. "On the mend. Not cured, but on the mend," I said. And I asked how he was faring. And we went on to talk about the wind that had blown the shed doors off at his house in the hills not far from here. And how hard it was to find people who cared much about excellence of accomplishment. And the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. And how other family members were doing.

Maybe it's a boy-girl thing, but I have met plenty of women who can express concern without begging for consolation.

I guess I just wasn't in the mood for it.

religion for adults

Religion also has its good points.

By "religion," I mean the organizations that offer direction and peace to those who lack direction and peace ... the steeples against the New England sky, the temples in Jerusalem, the minarets in Mecca, the gods and goddesses in India, the stupas in Nepal, etc. Everywhere, people have their difficulties and sorrows and longings and religion, at its best, points the way. Religion claims a home in the ineffable and encourages the 'effable.'

It is enough for many people to have the sorts of directions that religion encourages. Social order is maintained and people are happier when they are good. The fact that religion can tip over into manipulative authoritarianism ... well, it's a danger with endless examples, but still, "hope springs eternal." Just the idea of a peaceful and soothing something-or-other is an enormous relief to those who seek relief from the thickets of confusion and difficulty. "Thank God!" is sometimes more than an idle phrase.

And who would begrudge anyone a little relief? Not I.

But within the framework of religion, there are sometimes a few who will step back from their relief and wonder, in one form or another, "Who is this very god of very gods?" What is the foundation to which religion points and about which it can speak and on which it bases its encouragements? Seriously, personally ... who is this god? Don't read me a book ... tell me the truth.

And it is in such questions from the few that religion meets its greatest test. Many recoil in horror or fear, papering over those horrors and fears with circular reasonings that lead back to the established fold: "No one can know god," they may say. Or, "We know god through his works." Or, "Come back to the temple and be comforted."

No one can know god. But if no one can know god, how will religion respond to those who want to know god? How will the good shepherd show love for his children? Well, love sacrifices everything ... even religion.

Worse than the blood-lettings of the Crusades is the frequent unwillingness or inability of religion to love its adherents -- adherents who include the few who demand an answer that goes beyond a warming relief or a comforting social order.

And this is the juncture at which childish religions stand in contrast to the adults. Adults do not fear the questions and quests their children embark on. They support and point. Adults may not know the answers, but they do not fear or rebuff the questions. After all, they love their children.

And would die for them.

Monday, April 13, 2009


A little higgledy-piggledy:

-- My older son wears size 14 shoes. Is it any wonder I live from paycheck to paycheck?

-- My Zen teacher, Kyudo Nakagawa Roshi, once told me that if he had not gotten into the monk business, he would have liked to own a noodle parlor: Easy work, high profit margin, and offering people nourishment they actually needed. I'm not sure what my version of Kyudo's noodle parlor might be ... something more companionable, I think.

-- Funny how we rely on the unreliable to seek out the reliable. Ethics, morals, experiences of all kinds ... all have potential redeeming value in a social sense and yet all reside in the past while we ourselves live in the present. The present is its own thing -- sui generis -- and offers no real handholds: Anything could happen, any circumstance could arise. Sometimes we meet such a wide-open plain skilfully. Sometimes we screw the pooch.

But whatever we do, we often rely on what we learned from the past (which was once present and wide open as the sky). We imagine we know the past, when the present makes it perfectly clear that what we remember is just a fragment of the truth or perhaps "figment" is a better word. The past is boxed in morals and ethics and certainties that inform the present ... and yet the present laughs up its sleeve. If the past were really all that informative, there would never have been another war and none of us would ever have made the same mistake twice.

The past cannot be grasped or relived or relied on and yet, when coping in the present, it's what we've got, somehow. So we have laws that rely on past experience ... laws and rules and policies that have social consequences. But the present makes it abundantly clear that rules were made to be ignored, broken and revised. If we break the rules as a rule, that is just another rule to be broken, ignored or revised. If we don't break the rules as a rule, that is just another rule to be broken, ignored or revised.

And through it all, the present titters behind a politely-raised hand. "Past? Present?" it seems to ask. "Relax ... and don't be ridiculous."

Sunday, April 12, 2009


Stolen from the Internet and most emanating from more (and less) refined times:

-- There are two ways of disliking poetry; one way is to dislike it, the other is to read Pope.
Oscar Wilde on Alexander Pope

-- That's not writing; That's typing.
Truman Capote on Jack Kerouac

-- [A book by Henry James] is like a church lit but without a congregation to distract you, with every light and line focused on the high altar. And on the altar, very reverently placed, intensely there, is a dead kitten, an eggshell, a bit of string.
H. G. Wells on Henry James

-- She looked like Lady Chatterley above the waist and the gamekeeper below.
Cyril Connolly on Vita Sackville-West

--He would not hlow his nose without moralising on the conditions in the handkerchief industry.
Cyril Connolly on George Orwell

-- I'm sure the poor woman meant well, but I wish she'd stick to recreating the glory that was Greece and not muck about with dear old modern homos.
Noel Coward on Mary Renault, known for her historical fiction about Ancient Greece

-- The stupid person's idea of the clever person.
Elizabeth Bowen in the Spectator (1936) on Aldous Huxley

-- She runs the gamut of emotions from A to B.
Dorothy Parker, speaking of Katharine Hepburn

-- "He has all the virtues I dislike and none of the vices I admire."
Winston Churchill

-- "He uses statistics as a drunken man uses lamp-posts...for support rather than illumination."
Andrew Lang (1844-1912)

-- "In order to avoid being called a flirt, she always yielded easily."
Charles, Count Talleyrand

-- "He inherited some good instincts from his Quaker forebears, but by diligent hard work, he overcame them."
James Reston (about Richard Nixon)

-- "There's nothing wrong with you that reincarnation won't cure."
Jack E. Leonard

don't begrudge others

Around here, it's a beautiful Easter Sunday morning. Cloudless blue sky, sunshine, cool-but-not-cold temperatures. It would be a nice morning for zazen, but the various post-op bullet holes in my abdomen make zazen seem unwise. So John, who called yesterday to say he would come irrespective of company, will have to pick up the slack this morning and sit for both of us, so to speak.

Easter. I suppose I could weave a tale about that. Resurrection. Transmogrification. Joy in the wake of sorrow. Magical doings. Churches full of beautiful flowers.

This morning I read on a Buddhist chat board the questions of a fellow who was bound and determined to understand the set-up on a Theravadin altar ... how it was composed, what it might display. He seemed pretty serious about it. There is probably a tale there as well, but just now I can't seem to find it.

All I can think of is ... don't begrudge others their hopes and dreams and philosophies and religions. Agree, disagree -- that's OK -- but don't begrudge them.

Aren't we all like dogs chained in the backyard -- dogs that rush out to play or attack only to find themselves held back at the end of their chains, choked uncomfortably by hopes and dreams and beliefs and philosophies? It may be an uncomfortable metaphor, but isn't it true ... brought up short of the goal by the very invitations to that goal?

I kind of wish the Dalai Lama hadn't said it (people have a tendency to think that if the Dalai Lama said something, it is somehow extra-true instead of being just true) but I certainly do agree: "Everybody wants to be happy." Fools, sages, anyone at all. Isn't it just true?

Let's not begrudge others who are not one whit's different from ourselves. To begrudge them is just to shorten our own chains. Nobody wants to be brought up short. Everyone wants to be happy.

Enjoy the chains as long as necessary.

And then ....

Well, it's a beautiful Easter morning here. I hope it is the same where you are.

Saturday, April 11, 2009

questions and answers

When I was a kid, I used to wonder if there were some unifying force, some universal solvent, some joker that fit with every other card. Some ... something. It didn't have to be a 'good' something or a 'bad' something ... I just wondered if there were such a something.

I would listen when people said "love" or "God" or "enlightenment" or "freedom" or whatever other answer they claimed to have. But their answers were never quite satisfactory in my mind. Yes, the answers sounded good, but they always seemed to peter out when I tried to rely on them.

What, if anything, was it that connected the dots, that was always at home, that was true in each time or circumstance? I worked up a number of pretty elaborate approaches to the question, but somehow the question never got answered.

Then I took up 'religion.' Not that 'religion' held out much promise, but it did seem to address the questions I found interesting or compelling. So I went ass-over-appetite into 'religion.'

And, looking back, I would say that the ass-over-appetite was the important part -- the willingness to really look into things ... things like 'religion,' perhaps ... or perhaps horseshoes or mountain climbing or singing or raising kids or whatever 'something' draws the attention. It really doesn't matter. What matters is the consent and the firmness of purpose.

I guess it just crossed my mind this morning that what once formed a question in my mind no longer did ... and that struck me as odd. Not that I felt smug about having discovered some 'answer.' I guess I'm just less worried about questions and answers.

monetary policy

New Post – Edit Posts – Settings – Layout – Monetize

That's what it says as I enter this cyberspace.


▸ verb: give legal value to or establish as the legal tender of a country ("They monetized the lira")

Clearly this Internet dictionary has not caught up with the 21st century. What once might have been "capitalize" (as in "capitalize on your abilities") is now "monetize," a word more likely to get the attention of someone who wants the money and probably doesn't know a lot of English.

For a moment when I read that invitation this morning, I thought about what sorts of ads might be placed on this blog. The blog is pretty narrow in scope, so well-shaped women with perfect teeth or some happy-hour of boozing or an improved motor oil ... I couldn't see it. Sex, which fits with just about anything, would probably be good: Religion and sex make good companions -- especially in the USA where there is a largely prurient view of sex and religion has a tendency to tch-tch over it. Maybe Millie's Escort Service or something equally titillating would do the trick (so to speak).

The problem with all of this idle chatter is that I don't much care for extras. Yes, I would love to get money for what I do anyway (I haven't yet gotten over writing), but, if I were a drinker, I would prefer my whiskey "neat" -- unadulterated by water or soda or Millie's blandishments. It's a failing, I sometimes think: If you want to talk about the issue, let's address the issue. The ordinary way is more often, let's talk about the issue in a way that will improve my status, reassure my ego, or some other side light. Solemnity is preferred over seriousness.

Anyway, the fins on the car don't get my attention as much as the car itself. But if everyone else is ballyhooing the fins, maybe I shouldn't be so stubborn. But my own narrow and narrowing way is to wonder: Wouldn't anyone like to take just one thing seriously in this life ... just get to the bottom of one thing without the solemnities? Tell the truth, whatever that truth might be? Lay off the secrecies?
Address the issue and not be deterred or sidetracked? Just one?

Well, I suppose this is a pretty dumb topic, although I have to admit that a couple of porn-parlor ads on a spiritually-oriented blog appeals to my naughty, giggly streak ... a sequined seraphim.

And what is writing if not fins on the car?

I guess I'll think about 'monetizing' matters ... but not much.

Friday, April 10, 2009

magnetic stuff

Lots of post-operative pain during the night -- enough so that I will call the doc today and ask him to crank up the meds that really didn't quite do the job.

Interesting how pain -- physical, mental, no difference -- has a way of blowing apart cozy and convenient assumptions. It's like wearing a white shirt to an Italian restaurant: You may think you're well-dressed and have things all together, but spaghetti sauce has a mind of its own: Spaghetti sauce is in love with white shirts in the same way that tornadoes seem to be in love with Oklahoma trailer parks.

But I am so fuzzy today that maybe it's not worth speculating about.

Thursday, April 9, 2009


After attending my older son's track meet under grey skies, the two of us were talking about newspapers. He has a current events class in high school and wondered how I rated our local newspaper since there wasn't much national or international news in it. I said I thought it did what it did pretty well: Fewer and fewer newspapers are willing to report the kind of news that would really inform or help anyone, but knowing what's going on superficially in town and nearby is probably worth something.

My son's question made me think that an educated and maybe wise person is the one who is in some way aware of the things s/he doesn't know. Unfortunately, for my money, too many educated people are aware only of the pleasures to be found in what they do know.

I once asked the science-fiction, science-fact writer Isaac Asimov what he thought the greatest single scientific unknown was. It took him less than the blink of an eye to respond, "the mind."

Honesty and a little humility are better tools than self-importance and position. Honesty and a little humility may not make as much money or excite as much applause, but they work better in the long run....

Today I am off to the hospital to have my gall bladder taken out. With luck, it will be a day trip in which I go in in about an hour and come home at noon or shortly thereafter. I think I will ask the doctor to tell me one thing he likes. I don't know him very well and knowing just one small thing someone likes -- Oreo cookies, family, genuflection from the great unwashed, bike riding, hockey, a polished car, detective novels, hiking, poker, keeping secrets, etc. -- creates, if not trust, at least humanity. Of course if he were to comply, there would be endless things I would still not know, but it would be pleasant to know something.

Not reliable, but pleasant.

Wednesday, April 8, 2009



Why is it that anyone who distrusts or is angry with or tries to manipulate the world still expects the world to trust and love and not manipulate them?

A strange bargain.

happy birthday!

As I heard the tale, when Gautama Siddhartha was born, he took seven steps in each of the cardinal directions and then,
raising his right index finger to heaven and pointing his left index finger at the earth, proclaimed, "Above the heavens and below the earth, I alone am the world-honored one."

By some reckonings, today is the Buddha's birthday. The few ceremonies I have been to that honored that birth were always relatively light-hearted -- a time for celebration and smiles. And there would be the chance to pour a ladle's worth of water over a statue depicting the finger-pointing. It had a care-free feel to it.

"Above the heavens and below the earth, I alone am the world-honored one." What a nervy statement, whether the tale were myth or truth! Outsiders might rightly see it as pretty arrogant ... sort of an extension of a puffed up expert's approach to life: No one can outflank me! Ballsy, confident, self-assured, proud, challenging, and perhaps magnetic.

But for those more curious ... well, how could anyone make peace with such a statement? How could anyone state such a thing and not feel somehow fraudulent and frightened? Those too frightened or uncertain may resort to worship and belief: It's OK for Buddha to say it because he was Buddha, but I could never say such a thing and be at ease. It would be too dangerous, too potentially self-serving, too contrary to the Buddhism I have learned to love and emulate.

And yet I think everyone needs to find their peace in it: "Above the heavens and below the earth, I alone am the world-honored one."

Gently but firmly then, recognizing the charlatans who are all too apparent, doesn't everyone have a birthday? And more than a birthday on a particular day, isn't every moment a rebirth, a re-birthday, fresh and smiling? And you don't have to do a single thing about it ... it just happens, moment after moment. There is nothing that needs to be added or praised. It's easy as a pile of salt.

The Hindus use the metaphor of a broken piece of incense ... each piece is it. Break the world-honored one into a hundred thousand pieces and still, nothing is broken and nothing is lost. Each piece is it. Each moment is the world-honored one. You don't need to believe it or praise it any more than you would bother to believe or praise a pile of salt. You just need to know what is obvious. Just go about your business and, so to speak, smell good.

Happy birthday!

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

trapped by gratitude

Even today, I can be consumed by gratitude. True, I don't cry as much as once for the gifts I can imagine came from my teacher or from the Buddhist teachers of the past, but sometimes it can still be pretty overwhelming.

And the fact is that I delight in being overwhelmed. I am convinced by my tears. Tears and a swelling of the heart ... it is very convincing. No way would I set such things aside! Raw emotion ... this is true, true, true! Everything else can just piss up a rope! This swelling, tear-stained, grateful moment ... yes! I am dissolved in gratitude and then ....

I find no place to turn.

How can I possibly express my gratitude? Money? Incense? Building a temple? Wearing robes? Offering some full-throated bow? Having sensed this wide-open, luscious gratitude, what course can I take? What thanks can I offer that could possibly be adequate? What could be adequate when nothing is adequate?

Like some love-struck teenager confiding in a friend, I am reduced to heart-felt gibberish: "I love Susie! No, you don't understand -- I really love Susie! No! Listen! I really, really, really love Susie!"

The only course I can see is this: Give up the notion of teachers and teachings. Give up the notion of no-teachers and no-teachings. Set aside notions of giver and receiver. Set aside all thought of some gift.

Don't be tricked.

Enjoy yourself.

Monday, April 6, 2009

a lack of faith

Chewing my cud once more about my mother's observation that sins of commission were more informative in the long run than sins of omission, it occurred to me than sins of omission were in fact sins of commission.

Of course the word "sin" would probably be better translated as "acts" since "sin" tends to throw the matter into a Christian snarl of barbed wire ... a world of naughty and nice, a world that might somehow be improved by some god or other cosmic force, a world in which "Daddy will fix it" or worse, "Only Daddy knows how to fix it."

Still, "sins of omission" and "sins of commission" do have a certain ring to them. Since what is referred to doesn't always feel so good and since what doesn't feel good arouses the desire to feel better ... well, a little wishful thinking is pretty ordinary.

Yesterday, in the zendo, I caught myself wishing. My ignorance seemed to have come around, as ignorance always does, and bitten me on the ass. My omissions struck me as frustrating and sad.

Jeff said he had been reading the Heart Sutra and wondered who it was, if there was no one to experience it, who experienced understanding or enlightenment. It was a perfectly reasonable question, but its very reasonableness created the barrier to an answer. Nevertheless, because he asked, I found myself wishing I knew more about the Heart Sutra and other Buddhist texts and treatises. I wanted to be able to talk within the context of the Heart Sutra or Buddhism or something intellectually recognizable. I wanted some smarts -- not necessarily because those smarts were true, but rather in order to enter the place where Jeff had entered. But the fact was that I lacked those smarts. It felt like an act of omission and I was somehow sad about it. When speaking to a Frenchman, it is kinder to speak French.

Who wouldn't praise the recognition of a question like Jeff's? It really is a very good question. So I praised it. But when it came to giving a decent answer, I was thrown back on my own reserves and those reserves seemed devoid of "Buddhist" study. I felt like an auto mechanic who had somehow forgotten the names for things that made the car run even though he had some idea of how to make the car run.

I suppose all of this is pretty wispy stuff, and those who have studied hard and know the page numbers will whisper, "See -- I told you so," but the fact is that my ignorance, while saddening in one sense, was revelatory in another: I was content to be dumb, to be limited, to have committed a sin of omission. Even if I couldn't answer from within a "Buddhist" context, still I knew someone probably could. It was enough to be as dumb as I was... as dumb as anyone else might or might not be.

Who can be smart about a kiss or a laugh? The Heart Sutra? I doubt it, however good the pointers. I answered Jeff's question as best I could, but did that improve the kiss or laugh he was asking about? No eyes, no ears, no nose, no tongue, no body, no mind. No help and no lack of help. No answer and no answer missing.



Sometimes my lack of faith comes around and bites me on the ass. "Help?" Piffle! But getting bitten on the ass is not so bad. I will wait for you to kiss me and, with luck, will laugh.

Omission? Commission?

Don't be ridiculous, Adam!

Sunday, April 5, 2009



▸ noun: the act of plagiarizing; taking someone's words or ideas as if they were your own
▸ noun: a piece of writing that has been copied from someone else and is presented as being your own work

In the world of publishing, plagiarism is taken pretty seriously. And who has not met someone who mouths the words of others in order to raise their own standing or appearance or satisfactions -- all saddle and no horse, so to speak?

But which of us has not relied on others in order to further our own understanding? Children mimic their parents as a means of 'growing up.' Adults do it as a means of upholding religious or business institutions. Friends do it as a means of remaining friends.

So sometimes what might be called plagiarism has good aspects and sometimes it is nothing but a revolting ploy. Imitation may be the sincerest form of flattery, but flattery is a vacant and unsatisfying way of life.

Two things interest me about plagiarism: 1. You have to believe or imagine there is something to steal and someone to steal it from and, 2. In the practice of Buddhism, there is the usual mimicry of childhood -- belief, hope, repetition -- but the emphasis is on the positive aspect of plagiarism ... finding out in experience the truth of what was borrowed or stolen or flattered in the first place.

In the long ago and far away, there was a vocabulary-building course that advertised with the words, "Use a word ten times in a day and it is yours."

Stealing is a good thing as long as nothing is stolen.

Saturday, April 4, 2009

beyond the limits

Last week, I watched bits and pieces of a mountain-climbing documentary called, "Disaster on K2." Thirty climbers attempted to reach the summit of the second highest mountain in the world. Eleven survived. And someone filmed a lot of it.

One of the climbers observed, approximately, that people need to test their limits if they want to feel most alive. To break the boundaries. To challenge themselves. To succeed where success was dubious. To stop being nagged and at last, from some deep well, go "ahhhhh!"

Beyond the limits.

How exciting Ernest Hemingway seemed to find his various death-defying hunting expeditions in Africa. His adventures made him feel alive. I wonder if that was part of why he committed suicide.

Once anyone has gone beyond the limits, it seems to me that what they have largely accomplished is to set new limits. The habit of limitation is just too strong.

Maybe the more courageous and frightening course is to live within the limits -- to find a fresh richness within the same-ol' same-ol'. This may be more challenging than climbing even the highest mountain or shooting even the wildest beast... to discover the ahhh within the bleah. But is even this enough?

Who does not regret the things they have done?

Who does not regret the things they have left undone?

Who is not lonely and pining for a requited smile?

Last night I read a story on the news wires about sheep-shearing in America. The wool market is depressed (people wear more synthetic clothing) and in addition, it is harder and harder for sheep farmers to find the (largely) men who know how to shear sheep. Farmers have to line up for shearing services. There are fewer than 200 shearers in the United States, one farmer guessed. No one wants to learn the trade. It's hard work and it's seasonal and, well, where's the adventure in that? Most of America's sheep-shearers come from New Zealand and Australia, with a few from Ireland as well.

The top gun sheep-shearer sheared 721 sheep in nine hours. Talk about climbing K2!

I love it when people do things I've never heard of or even thought to do. I am curious ... even about what I perceive as the incuriosities of others. I too am sorry for the things I have done and sorry for the things I have left undone. I too like to think I have gone beyond the limits or been hobbled within them. But...

I am encouraged by my Zen teacher's response when I asked him how things differed from the beginning of his meditation practice to the moment when I asked how things differed. He said that in the beginning there were all sorts of physical and mental pains (all sorts of regrets and hopes and limits) and now ... well now ...

"It's laughing all the time."

How could anyone limit or be limited by laughter?

Friday, April 3, 2009

nice and nasty people

I was chatting with my daughter last night about her plan to visit a friend in Australia this summer. "People there are wicked nice," she said. And she told me about Americans she had heard of who went for a visit and never came back. And then she said, "I don't like people who are too nice."

The whole conversation was a bit too speculative and broad-brush for me, but it was fun to natter along. And it made me think ....

Kind people and unkind people suffer from the same difficulty. Both can imagine there is someone else on whom to work their will. And both can become wounded and enraged when the world does not see things their way. Kind people seek out (and are resentful when they don't get) thanks and agreement. Unkind people seek out acknowledgment and accolades for their powers.

As a social compromise, kindness in the form of altruism is the less unpleasant course. But that doesn't change the problem. And when has compromise ever eased or accorded with the uncompromised and uncompromising liveliness of this life? Social compromise is nice -- there are even institutions that make a profession of it -- but the question remains, is it true?

Is it true that there is someone or something else on which kindness might be lavished?

Is it true that there is someone or something else on which unkindness might be heaped?

Is it true that there is a peaceful satisfaction in either approach?

The only way I can figure that anyone might find a peaceful resolution to such questions is to investigate their own choices. Is it enough to be unkind or kind? Is applause or lack of applause enough?

Investigate ... assuming anyone has the luck or nerve: Be as kind as you like, but don't get tricked. Be -- if you must -- as unkind as you insist on being, but don't get tricked. Look into things. Don't be half-baked about it.

Once upon a time, when I read a lot of books, I realized at some point that I enjoyed novels whose equation might be stated as, "Good plus bad equals good." Willa Cather and Leo Tolstoy come to mind, but there were plenty of others whose words convinced me as well.

There is some way, I imagine, that kind and unkind, once investigated, lead to the same place. Others may call it "kind," but it is just kind... and there's no need to read a book about it.

Thursday, April 2, 2009

old age and dreams

I wonder if the elderly find dreams more inviting and credible because, after enough times around the block, dreams provide the only place that acknowledges, without fear or favor, the bedrock youth the elderly cannot escape. Whether wondrous or horrific, here is a place that is fresh ... and in which to be indubitably refreshed.

I wonder.

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

koan du jour

In some confused way, I prefer specificity to philosophy. If someone says to me, "I was walking down the street when I stepped in dog shit," I can understand and I imagine others can too. But when they segue into some philosophy or religion (which may be very good indeed) that points out the overarching meanings and interconnectedness and wonder of stepping in dog shit, my mental eyes glaze over.

I guess I like specificity in tale-telling because, as they say, 'the devil is in the details." The specificity of tales is user-friendly. Both of us, after all, have stepped in dog shit at one time or another.

But philosophy and religion speak of the conclusions drawn from specificities. They are, when they are not being used for self-important purposes, a kind of overarching shorthand. They offer the listener a mold within which to fit his or her particular dog-shit experience. But the danger lies in relying on the mold at the expense of the dog shit, of forgetting the particulars that made the generalizations or conclusions possible, of camouflaging experience.

I prefer the particulars of experience and yet, as time goes by, I have less and less energy for them. However compelling, particulars are endless, whether in my own or anyone else's life. Getting up a head of steam -- writing or thinking about them -- is tiring and I find myself, as here, looking for the shorthand.

And when I find it ... my eyes glaze over. :)

It's a pretty good koan, I guess.