Sunday, May 31, 2009

'formal' koans

In response to a comment I made on his blog, a friend sent along a koan from the Mumonkan: "Wuzu asked, "Shakyamuni and Maitreya are servants of another. Tell me, who is that other?" The koan was, as my friend said, apropos of the small communication we were having.

And it made me think how poorly-informed I am about Zen collections and pointers. The downside of my ignorance is that I am missing handy tools. The upside is that I can be delighted when those tools are laid out before's sort of like an adult playing peek-a-boo with a very small child who is endlessly surprised, even by endless repetition. Peeeeeek-a-boo!

It's too late for me now to return and ingest the information of a direction that I have spent quite a lot of time on. "Too late" means, as much as anything, that I am simply too lazy to hang in my memory banks the vast Zen teachings that can delight me when they are presented. I have loved Zen practice, but what is love if not the willingness to be surprised?

When I started out on spiritual adventures, I had an interest in Hinduism -- specifically Vedanta. I read up a storm ... tons and tons of books and scriptures and I knew so many long words and interconnecting reflections that I am surprised my head didn't pop. But that's how things begin, isn't it -- studying up on what is so alluring, finding hand-holds and satisfactions and, somehow, control of the matter?

But I was fortunate in all this study, all these books and longings and delights: One day, I had a serious epiphany when I realized I didn't know squat and that, although I didn't know the injunction then, it wasn't so important to do as the master did, the important part was to know what the master knew... and knew from experience, not just from the library. The epiphany consisted of the question ... how the hell do you DO that?

Anyway, by the time I switched gears and got into Zen and its emphases on zazen or seated meditation, I was pretty much read-out. Yes, I read some books in the same way I had read up on Vedanta, but I read with less verve, less assurance, less conviction. I wasn't anti-intellectual, but I was wary of my own intellectual confections. A part of me said, "Let someone else read those books." I had enough on my plate dealing with my knock-knees and the fact that they burned like fire when I crossed my legs over an extended period of time.

And that wariness of my intellectual confections extended to formal koan study. Somehow I felt that if I started down that road, given my wily abilities, I was entirely likely to go off the track. Yes, some teacher presented me with the koan "Mu" and yes I strained like a stevedore and yes, there were some bright moments attested to by those in 'teaching' roles, but ...

I think it was and probably remains enough for me that life writes or proposes the koans. It's not that I dislike or disdain the role that formal koans can play. I trust those old guys and their efforts to point out the quickest way home. It's just not something that really enveloped my heart. Life -- with all its love and surprises and goddamned fiery knees -- was enough for me.

But now, so many years later, I can delight and be warmed by the wonders of the formal koans that conform so exactly to whatever surprises have surprised or continue to surprise me. It's like finding out that "ou est mon chien" in French is the same as saying "where is my dog?" in English. I'm not trying to say I can or could waltz through a course in formal koans. I'd never make it. And I'm not trying to say that "life writes enough koans -- why screw around?" is the best or only or even a very good approach. I am saying that it's nice to meet friends ... loving friends ... you know, the kind of friends who surprise you and make you laugh.

"Wuzu asked, "Shakyamuni and Maitreya are servants of another. Tell me, who is that other?" How neat is that?!

It's no neat-er than a dandelion, but dandelions are pretty neat too.

Maybe one day I will be educated to the wonderful formal teachings of the teachings I have stumbled along behind. But I doubt if it will be in this lifetime.

But there's nothing saying I can't be delighted, right? :)

"Chacun a son gout" is the same as saying "to each his own" or "taste is taste."

Maybe I am entirely wrong about all this, but I've been wrong before. Being wrong is not so bad.

Saturday, May 30, 2009

horror heaped on horror

Within the nourishing efforts and soft goose down of spiritual life, I always wonder where anyone will honestly place what is horrifying and full of tears. Can such things be avoided, embraced, abandoned, explained, criticized, escaped, blessed ... where will anyone honestly place them? Who but a liar can find goose down on a bed of nails?

RIYADH, Saudi Arabia (AP) – Saudi authorities beheaded and crucified a man convicted of brutally slaying an 11-year-old boy and his father, the Interior Ministry announced.
According to the statement issued by the ministry Friday (5/29/09), shop owner Ahmed al-Anzi molested the boy and then strangled him with a length of rope. He then stabbed the boy’s father to death when the man came looking for his son.
He hid both the bodies in his shop, the statement said, adding that al-Anzi threatened police with a knife when they came to arrest him.
Al-Anzi had previously been convicted of sodomy and owning pornographic films, a crime in conservative Saudi Arabia.
Crucifying the headless body in a public place is a way to set an example, according to the kingdom’s strict interpretation of Islam. Normally those convicted of rape, murder and drug trafficking in Saudi Arabia are just beheaded.
London-based rights group Amnesty International criticized al-Anzi’s execution and crucifixion.
“It is horrific that beheading and crucifixions still happen,” said Hassiba Hadj Sahraoui of Amnesty International in a statement Friday.
“King Abdullah should show true leadership and commute all death sentences if Saudi Arabia is to have any role to play as a global leader or member of the G20,” said Sahraoui.
According to an Associated Press count, Friday’s execution brought the number to 35 beheading this year in the kingdom. In 2008, 102 people were beheaded.


legacy of Buddhism

Today, after 39 years in the newspaper business, Mike Hull will retire. A diffident Brit, Mike is not the sort of person to wave himself in others' face. As I have come to know him, Mike likes conservative Catholicism, World War II history, right-wing politics, John Wayne movies and a host of other things, no doubt, that I know nothing about. He dislikes doctors and thinks others put far too much emphasis on matters of health. But none of this inclines him to put himself forward and insist. He doesn't need to be right. He still wears a tie to the office every day except Saturday, when the glass-office mavens are not around, and he is courteous to everyone.

Mike is a decent man.

Today is Mike Hull's last day and last night he said to me, "It'll be strange not coming in here." For Mike, that was quite a statement -- laden with meanings that another might take some pains to detail.

Imagine: 39 years, eight hours a day for every work week, and now, well now ... now what? What a change, moving from a realm of longtime doing to the mixture of relief (the office really is vile) and uncertainty of not-doing. In thirty-nine years of doing, the habits anyone might assure themselves they had under control would gain a grip and somehow assert their control, moistening the soul as a misty day might ... slowly, thoroughly, quietly: As you grip, so you are gripped ... something like that.

No slick assessment can slough off the actualities. There are superficial habits, yes, but the superficiality is also living and profound...perhaps pleasing, perhaps disturbing in their grip ... a grip that falls away without any effort whatsoever. Mike is retiring from the newspaper: Now what? Mike is retiring from Mike: Now what?

It's the same for everyone, I reckon, but I do think that those who have a Buddhist practice (even a superficial one, perhaps), are luckier than most. Its superficialities of robe and text and incense and intense practice are, to those inclined, as 'serious' as 39 years on the job. But simultaneously, those superficialities are serious and moistening and living ... and answer sweetly (not intellectually or emotionally) when asked the question, "Now what?"

Like anything else, a Buddhism habit must retire and yet what was once Buddhism has the capacity to leave in its wake decent men and women like Mike.

As compared with others, it's not a bad legacy.

Friday, May 29, 2009


Once upon a time, when I was a reporter, there was a local story about a young woman who climbed two, low fences and put her hand through the bars of a polar bear's cage at the zoo. She seemed to have some vision of the oneness of nature.

The polar bear promptly bit down on her arm and a police officer felt compelled to shoot the bear in the head in order to free the woman. The bear let go, the woman went to the hospital, and the bear subsequently lost an eye, but did not die, on account of the shooting.

Letters to the newspaper squarely sympathized with the bear and castigated the young woman for an idiocy that led to the harming of this incarcerated white behemoth. Put in simple language, reader sentiment seemed to be, "What a jackass!" I don't remember if there was any follow-up story detailing the woman's sanity or lack thereof.

A loving heart, whether sane or insane, meets the raw realities.

To my mind, both things are important. It's not enough to criticize or stand at a distance from a loving heart and it is not enough to ignore the raw realities.

I think, but don't know, that everyone has an "awwwwww" factor within. Or perhaps "awe" would be another way to put it. Something -- some circumstance or sight or sound or thought process -- just calls out to us and the doors of the heart open up. Why? However reluctantly (I'm dubious about the Hallmark, oozy-goozy overlays that can occur), I think it is because an open heart is what is most convincing and, more, because it is what is most true.

The diffident and smart and controlled (the raw-reality folk) may cringe at the ecstasies of evangelicals or dervishes or young lovers, but their keen-eyed abilities are never quite as convincing as their sensible arguments suggest. Whispering at the edges of their wisdoms -- which may be quite good -- is the question they secretly long to answer: "Where's the joy?" And when the diffident and smart and controlled do in fact find some circumstance that opens their heart's doors, they can be blown away ... crumbled and crumpled where they stand, delighted and defeated simultaneously.

Whether an open heart meets some countering raw reality or a controlled existence finds some convincing "awww" or "awe," I think there is potential ... for both wisdom and idiocy.

Let's face it -- an open heart feels so damned good. It is just plain so convincing. Holding on just seems to make sense ... wouldn't I always like to feel like this, open and relaxed as salt? If one's good, two's better ... hold on tight!

But holding on, building a controlling world view around an open heart, is not the way of an open heart. It is not the way any more than a diffident, controlled approach can ease this life.

Once upon a time, I saw a statue outside a soaring church in Mallorca. It was a large bronze statue of a broad-shouldered, big-breasted peasant woman who was holding a baby in the crook of her left arm. Her left breast was exposed as if offering to feed the child, but instead of suckling, the baby was just resting comfortably with its head underneath and propping up that breast. The woman was not looking at the baby. The baby was not looking at its mother. Both seemed at ease and natural and content with circumstances. Uncompromised and uncompromising love. The statue struck me as both true and very affecting. It broke me open in some way. To this day, I remember that statue with fondness and wish I had a picture of it.



No doubt others have had other, very different, moments when something just hit the spot ... and the doors of the heart opened. Very convincing. Very delightful. And possibly a little scary, as if opening those doors somehow made mincemeat of the diffidence and control that had gone before.

There are people and institutions in this life that cling to and try to format such openings, openings that exist only in a past that cannot be relived. "The oneness of nature" they may say. "We are not separate," they may say. They do their best, perhaps, to put edges and walls around what, in those actual circumstances, had no edges, no boundaries, no limits. They are inspired and do their best to bottle or box or sell to the masses some "vision" of that inspiration.



And the doors open.

Remaining mired in the past, however delightful, is likely to result in very painful wounds ... an arm ripped open by some perfectly ordinary, "jackass" circumstances, for example. But there is no reason we cannot consult with our "awwww" and "awe" as a point of investigation. What opened this heart? Or, more clearly perhaps, who opened this heart or imagined it was closed or limited in the first place? What is missing now that was not missing then? If you claim to have the answer, how much of an answer could that be?

A dollar in the collection plate will never produce an answer.

But investigation works wonders, I'd say.

Thursday, May 28, 2009

shadows at sundown

Is there anything which, having captured a person's intense interest and dedication, doesn't lose its force over time? Baseball, success, marriage, religion, war, automobiles, skydiving, philosophizing, movie stars, tricycles, chocolate ... anything at all? What was once of utmost concern ... what happens to the concern?

I guess being interested in something boils down to being interested in "me." If the thing or circumstances in which anyone was interested had some intrinsic or overarching interestingness, then everyone would be interested in it ... and clearly not everyone is interested in the same things.

And while there may be a seemingly endless interest in "me" one way or another, still, to the extent that anyone might offer some dedication to the matter, that concern would not just shapeshift and be asserted in some newly-minted form, it would tend to dissolve ... leaving nothing... and yet not a void and vacant "nothing" but a "nothing" that was somehow informed.

The other night, I was watching a TV show about mathematics. The people involved were using the word "fractal," so the mathematically-inclined probably know what the show was about. But I did not. I kept on watching it because I was fascinated by the fact that I simply didn't get it. I felt as if I were sitting among a bunch of perfectly friendly Uighurs who were chatting about something in their own tongue and, although I was welcome, I had no clue as to the meaning or concern of their discourse. These mathematicians were clearly people like me, using language as I too used it, but ... I simply couldn't understand. And I kept watching the show because I purely loved the idea that there could be something on TV -- or elsewhere -- that I just plain didn't understand. It wasn't that I felt some insistence to understand ... it was just delightful, somehow, that I didn't. These were dedicated, hard-working people, so I took them seriously. I was interested, but what I was interested in was my own ignorance -- my own "me."

When I told this experience to a woman in the office who had majored in physics, she offered to lend me a book that was pretty clear and down-to-earth about things like fractals. I declined the offer. I don't really want to know about fractals. I'm not interested enough. I'm more interested in ignorance -- the kind of ignorance that leads to dedication and effort and then slips away like shadows at sundown. Fractals may be a good entry point just as baseball, success, marriage, religion, war, automobiles, skydiving, philosophizing, or movie stars might be.

I am interested.

I am interested enough to want to find out.

I offer up dedication and effort.

I find out.

I see what I have found out wisping gently away and leaving ... a nothing that is still something.

I am still here, but Adam has left the building. It cannot be called happy or sad. When it's happy or sad, Adam has not yet left the building. He is still dedicated and concerned. There's nothing wrong with it (as if there were some elevated other way to be), it's just something to notice. But the question might be asked -- gently and gently as a mother might whisper her child to sleep -- what building is this?

Well, hell ... what started out as a simple observation has devolved into something airy-fairy or (ick!) something "profound." Basically I am interested in the fact that our wondrous and well-woven expertises, whatever they may be, have a way of drifting upward like camp fire smoke...thinner and thinner, wispier and wispier until ... until... until.... Perhaps there is a habit of filling the 'emptiness' with yet another expertise and another and another under the umbrella explanation that "it's human." And of course it is human. There is no virtue in stupidity any more than there is virtue in expertise.

But it's interesting to watch, don't you think? Sitting around the camp fire with a bunch of Uighurs. Everyone is warm. Everyone is friendly. Everyone is someone who is no one who is someone. Anyone can laugh, right? And the laughter, like wood smoke, rises to meet the heavens ... which laugh right back.

Talk about expertise!


Wednesday, May 27, 2009


As when a blizzard strikes New York, changed circumstances in the newspaper office seem to have nourished a changed populace. There is a warmth and kinship for some, as if, like New York, "we're all in this mess together." More smiles. More concern one for the next.

But one man's delight is another man's disaster and the same circumstances have also brought out an invigorated bitterness at the cruel fates that have visited this disaster on 'me.'

Specifically, the impending departure of a number of staff members, me among them, means that what had been too much work will now become even more work for those who will remain as the newspaper dwindles like a sunset ... it is almost night, but not quite yet. What was the light and vigor of news-gathering is remembered in that dimming light, but now it is the dimming, not the vigor, that is in play.

Last night, Mike, a taciturn Brit who sits across from me and like me is inclined to work when there is copy editing to do, came by my desk and the two of us had a nice chat about the fact that he had caught a story in which a World War II vet had asked a class of Yeshiva students how many had heard of World War II. Not one person raised a hand -- a fact that both Mike and I found astounding and dubious. But since the reporter who did the story knows how to write English and, more, knows how to think, the two of us also tended to credit the scenario.

And from that point forward, Mike, who will leave the office on Saturday, and I, who will leave at the end of June, just let things ramble like a couple of old hens. It was not something we would have done in the office in the past ... not because we weren't capable of doing it, but because both of us were geared towards work and getting it done. Now, as both of us prepared to leave a profession we had once loved, the changed circumstances meant our work was no longer necessary: The blizzard had struck and we were thrown back on whatever kindness and decency we possessed. The imperative of work and the willingness to take it seriously were hissing away like a slow leak in a tire. We might feel sad or confused, but we could also extend a simple humanity to each other. It was quite pleasant ... and in a strange way, more sensible by half.

But later in the evening, I asked Barry, a guy with whom I share duties on the wire desk, if he were going on vacation. My schedule showed that I had the wire job for the rest of the week, whereas in the past, he was the usual wire editor and I would fill in for two days when he was off. An intense bitterness clouded his face as he told me that no, he was not going on vacation: He was scheduled to learn "more important things" -- meaning that he would receive training that would allow him, in future, to do the work of another man who is scheduled to leave. It was not work Barry wanted to learn. The implications were that the job he had done for so long and had found meaning in could be sacrificed to a less-satisfying and 'dumber' layout job in the sports department. He was pissed and confused as the blizzard's impact was felt. Barry will stay on after others leave ... and the implications are not pleasant.

Bit by bit, the handholds of the past lose their assuredness. Bit by bit, the city streets fill with a soft, insistent white. Bit by bit the simple truths assert themselves and the contrived and well-woven imaginings evaporate. A smile, a bit of nattering, a yowling sense of loss ... it's not as if any of this had ever been missing or as if there could be some well-coiffed effort to make the truths 'more' true ... snow is just snow, after all.

I will miss 'me' ... but not that much.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009


The one-time sports writer, Red Smith, was once quoted as saying, "There's nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and open a vein."

I think, but don't know, that he was talking about good writing -- not just the kind of writing that defends and elevates the writer by bamboozling readers into one kind of agreement or another. Opening a vein is intimate and undefended. It is, in one sense, life-threatening and somewhat confusing: There is a longing to share (and not just convince) in a medium that defies sharing.

No one can tell the truth in words because words stand at a remove from the truth.They are secondary and fruitless. Anyone who can't help writing knows this and yet has no other recourse. I suppose the same is true for thinking, whether profound or superficial, holy or inane ... always at a distance, always defended against death, always feeling the gap between what is written or spoken or thought and the heart's desire to be enfolded by and at ease with the truth.

Poor writers, the ones who cannot find the vein, remain convinced of their convictions and seek out agreement with those convictions. Good writers know they are liars and just do their best to lie well. Writers, like anyone else, need to find the truth within their own lies. It's a bloody business ... drip, drip, drip. But what is the alternative: If the best anyone can do is to believe their own lies, well, how sad is that?

A long time ago, as a reporter, I too was a believer. No veins showing. Convinced of the mission and comforted by the convenience of standing at a distance. How kool was that: Telling tales of the ways in which others bled; finding ways to assert my truth by using the experience and thoughts of others; relying, whether in praise or blame, on some 'other' veins?

But I was lucky, I think. There were events and circumstances that rose up that pierced my heart and suddenly my veins were apparent and my craft could not reach or confine or even describe very well the piercing of this heart. The facts were before me and I was incapable of reporting the facts ... not incapable in the sense that I couldn't string words together, but incapable of truly transmitting what I claimed to transmit. Relying on someone else, elevating my pose and position according to someone else's words or thoughts or deeds ... it all became vacant and foolish ... and my beliefs collapsed in a heap at my feet.

There was, for example, the welfare mother I interviewed once. What was the hardest thing about being on welfare, I asked. And she replied that one of the hardest things was when Christmas rolled around and she was reminded by the TV over and over again of all the toys she could not buy for her kids.

Her tone and delivery were not sad. It was if she had suffered too many sorrows to be tricked by sadness any longer. She just told the truth -- opened a vein and bled. And in so doing, opened my vein. And my question became ... how could I stop this bleeding ... mine, hers, anyone's?

And the truth was, that as a writer, I couldn't. There was just no capturing life in the second-hand implements called words or thoughts or philosophies. I was defeated ... and dripping.

It was, of course, a good defeat, one I was and remain grateful to have met. Imagine going through life believing your own lies, your own second-hand implements. What a pity. But that didn't make things any easier at the time: My heart was torn out and there was no place to hide. Some part of me was distressed and yowling: My certainties were wrong ... big time.

But that welfare mom had another lesson for me: It was not enough to be tricked by sadness and then just wallow in the wailing. It was only enough to acknowledge the lies and be at ease among them. Not be tricked by them, not imagine they were the truth (even if they were), and certainly not waste time trying to convince anyone of anything.

Everyone bleeds, after all. A baby, as the Bible notes, is born between piss and shit. Piss and shit often suggest revulsion, but how can anyone be revolted by life when life itself is not revolted?

It's just something worthy of practice, I think. Piss, shit, blood, veins, lies and laughter.

Surely it's not something else, is it?

Monday, May 25, 2009

Shunryu Suzuki Roshi

James Ishmael Ford posted this clip of Shunryu Suzuki Roshi on his blog and I thought I'd boost it from him and post it here.

My own image of Suzuki Roshi was pretty much formed by the wonderful picture on the back of "Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind" combined with whatever fill colors I might have taken from "Crooked Cucumber." But it was a static image, one filled with my own stories of the kind of person this still picture might represent.

It's lovely to have my preconceptions revised by the film clip. Funny that I really didn't care much what he was talking about in the clip ... just watching his face and movement was enough for me.

I'm generally wary of the willingness to elevate one's own stock by cozying up to others with a higher profile, but ... well ... just enjoy the clip.

skipping stones

Did you ever skip stones on a lake when you were a kid? It always seemed so magical to me that you could throw something that would sink like a rock under other conditions and yet now could defy the obvious and bounce, bounce, bounce. Eventually, of course, the nature of things would take its course, but for the moment ... it was like defying the gods and a delightful pastime.

Maybe spiritual adventures begin a little like that -- full of awestruck delight, Skipping along the surfaces of things. Filled with wonder at this thought or that emotion, this bit of learning or that surprise, this hope or that belief, this heart-felt devotion or that piercing recognition. Skipping, skipping, skipping ... how kool is that?! And the answer is, pretty damned kool.

But the wondrous part is, after all that wonderful bounce-bounce-bounce, all that energetic skip-skip-skip, things settle down and what was always meant to sink like a rock sinks like a rock. Of course some people spend their lives skipping along the surface, using vast energies to avoid allowing the ordinary to take its course. But for those who can enjoy the initial wonders and then find that there is no other recourse but to sink like a rock, well, how wonderful is that?

I guess I'm just muttering to myself here. Sometimes the skip-skip-skipping leaves me cranky and ill-disposed. But without that initial energy, that woo-hoo and wonder, how could anyone reach an understanding that sinks below the surface ... and at last gets to the bottom of things without any special effort at all?

keep it short

At a time when fewer and fewer read and more and more seek out what is short, I find myself writing longer and longer.

OK ... short and sweet.

Everything happens at once. Always.

Is that short enough?

Is that better? :)

climbing the greasy pole

This morning I was reading an Internet post by a fellow who had recently returned from a retreat. His tradition is not exactly like Zen practice, but the fundamentals are the same, so I read most of it and thought it was a nice thing to do, posting a travelogue of reflections ... outsiders may wonder what, exactly, anyone does at a retreat, so reading some words can inspire some confidence ... or perhaps just less doubt.

The whole thing made me remember Zen retreats I had been to. I was never any good at them, but one aspect that stood out for me was this: For two or seven days, a group of people would get together, erect their spines, pay attention as best they might and ... remain largely silent. It had quite an effect, as anyone who has been to such a thing can attest. In that silence there was some something-or-other that seemed to take root or express itself.

But it was the silent aspect that crossed my recollecting mind this morning: Seven days of (give or take) silence and at the end of that time, there might be a little farewell tea.

And after seven days of silence, the tea room would be positively packed with conversation...conversation I enjoyed as much as anyone else. But it was strange to think: What the hell would anyone who had just finished seven days in silence have to talk about? There was something silly about it and yet serious as well ... I've got nothing to talk about, really, and still I can talk the hind leg off a dog.

During such farewell teas, some, of course, would not join the conversations. Thin-lipped and persevering, they seemed to want to hold on tight to the wisdoms and depths of silence, as if the silences they recalled might somehow save them from the world of the monkey mind they had come to the retreat to address. They refused to be swayed by tea room chatter. The 'teacher' of that time was among such thin-lipped postulants. He seemed to want to 'set and example:' Just because the retreat and its disciplines was over didn't mean the retreat and its disciplines was over. And there were others who emulated his example.

Not me. I chattered and rolled around verbally like a puppy on the living room carpet. Woo-hoo! But I noticed the contrast of the talkative tea with the seven days just past and had my doubts about my own chitter-chatter delight. A part of me wanted to be kool and thin-lipped and 'determined' as well. It never worked, but that didn't mean I didn't wish I were somehow better, more serene, more contained, more erect, more constant, more vigilant, more ... well, improved somehow. I had come to the retreat with some wispy or perhaps very specific notion of improvement and here I was going home still wishing for some improvement. Three- or four-hundred bucks down the drain and, after seven days, I had gotten precisely nowhere.

Improvements. I guess they're like the rueful male observation about women: "Can't live with 'em; can't live without 'em."

It hadn't really sunk in at the time what seems obvious now: It's not the profundities of silence nor the shallowness of so-called monkey mind that matter so much. Bliss comes and bliss goes. Confusion comes and confusion goes. What matters is the knee-jerk willingness to grasp and hold and believe and box the wonders and horrors of either. If someone were 'holy,' of what possible use would that be? If someone were 'damned,' the same question needs to be asked.

In words, we sometimes lay emphasis on the word "sometimes." Sometimes silent. Sometimes chattering. Sometimes blissfully clear. Sometimes confused and unclear. Sometimes ... well, just sometimes.

But talk is just talk and anyone can say "sometimes." It is the grasping and rebellious and emotionally-convinced heart that needs unraveling and pacifying. And no one can pacify this heart with talk ... or silence either. It's your heart, after all, and if the invocation of "sometimes" is to have any meaning and bring any peace, it has to be in your heart ... you know, the messy, improvement-oriented, tender and tough, happy and sad, horny and satisfied, wide and narrow, thin-lipped-with-discipline and chattering-like-a-jaybird heart that is your very own life.

Can you improve what can't be improved?

Maybe it's like trying to climb a greased pole. There may be a wonderful prize to the man or woman who can do it, but no one can climb a greased pole.

Our imagined prizes always lead to defeat.

Maybe when we learn to set aside the notion of improvement, things can improve a bit.

Sometimes I think so.

Sunday, May 24, 2009

don't blame anybody

Former South Korean President Roh Moo-hyun,62, jumped off a cliff and killed himself Saturday, May 23, 2009. A rags-to-riches politician who had counted himself immune to South Korea's ordinary political corruptions, Roh had recently been under investigation for taking $6 million in bribes, a charge he denied. But the investigation was said to have weighed on him. Whether he did or didn't do what he was under investigation for, he left a note on his computer:

"What's left for me for the rest of my life is just to be a burden to others. Don't be too sad. Aren't life and death both part of nature? Don't feel sorry. Don't blame anybody. It's destiny."

Despite the hand-wringing that death can evince and despite the top-lofty anger or confusion that suicide can provoke, still I find something graceful and straight-forward in Roh's words.

Don't be too sad.

Don't feel sorry.

Don't blame anybody.

Aren't these a pretty good recipe for a whole and responsible life?

I am not suggesting anyone should aspire to a whole and responsible life by jumping off the nearest 100-foot cliff, but I am reminded of my teacher's teacher's words when he said at one sesshin or Zen Buddhist retreat, "you have to die on your cushion."

Soen Roshi's words struck me as a hell of a challenge at the time and perhaps still do. But somehow, because that challenge is just a fact in anyone's life, I think anyone might want to address it ... to find a place in which things are at last straightforward. No more explanations or excuses: What is this? It's not that bad, is it? Moment after moment:

Don't be too sad.

Don't feel sorry.

Don't blame anybody.

Never mind "destiny." Never mind meanings and answers. Never mind imagining there is some control to exercise or something to be controlled. Just once, just for this one nanosecond:

Don't blame anybody.


Saturday, May 23, 2009

right and wrong

Did you ever notice how right you are when you discover or acknowledge you have said or done or thought something wrong?

But it never seems to work the same way in reverse -- realizing how wrong you were when you said or did or thought something right.

Maybe that's one of the nice things about Buddhism:

Buddhism doesn't concern itself with right and wrong.

for sure

Funny but touching: Those who take up a spiritual practice do so, I guess, because they are uncertain in one way or another. Death, disease, drugs, divorce, delight and other circumstances that do not begin with 'D' all contain the seeds of that uncertainty -- an uncertainty that sometimes whispers and sometimes screams. Anyway, it in the realm of uncertainty that spiritual practice finds meaning and promise and hope and belief.

So people take up a spiritual practice.

And yet the very spiritual practice anyone might take up as a means of addressing uncertainty ... what does its invitation consist of, assuming it's any good? Isn't it to examine and perhaps puncture the balloons of certainty that prop up our lives?

So in the search for some credible certainty -- a certainty that seems to be promised by spiritual practice; a certainty that will address previous uncertainties -- we seek out what provides even more uncertainty. We examine with care the "for sure" fabric and struts and mortar ... and the more we examine, the less "for sure" things become.

Uncertainty heaped on uncertainty.

Perhaps it is like the old metaphor of the man with a thorn in his thumb who uses a second thorn to help him get the first one out. But metaphors don't do much good when anguish comes calling. Uncertainty is not a game for the faint of heart.

It is not a game for the faint of heart and yet there are plenty of people and institutions that prey on the faint of heart. Truth to tell, it makes me want to puke ... those who offer up a 'lasting' certainty of creed or belief or hope without assisting those in need to understand that whatever is "for sure" relies on what is not at all for sure.

Hope and belief are beginner's steps and, given the habits of your past or mine, are necessary ones. But to suggest that there is an abiding certainty to be found in heaven or hell or god or demons ... this is preying on those in need and it is obscene. Churches and temples and texts and traditions, if they are to be worth a damn, need to kick their children out the door... how else can their children ever be nourished and at ease?

Anyway, those who are not at all sure set out in search of what is for sure...and discover what is not for sure. It takes some courage. It takes some patience. It takes some doubt. And I for one will always honor that effort, no matter how faltering.

PS. I skim what I have written and am disgusted that it seems so wispy, so theoretical, so (yuck!) theological. I can only hope that any reader will realize that uncertainty in the heart is not at all theoretical; that the conundrums of this human life are not some stupid theory; that the longings of this body and mind are not open to holy, self-help platitudes or wily descriptions.

Two arms, two legs, a banged thumb and an uncertain heart are honest things. And without honesty, spiritual practice is just another uncertain crock of shit.

And that, I would say, is "for sure!" :)

Friday, May 22, 2009

a good detective story

When I was 16 or so, I took an interest in the question, "Who wrote Shakespeare?" My father taught Shakespeare and in school I was taught to hate Shakespeare -- the instructors kept implying and saying Shakespeare was 'great art' as if something else weren't 'great art.' But the question of who wrote Shakespeare had nothing to do with any sort of art ... it was just a detective story and detective stories were fun.

For anyone wise enough not to care about or even be aware of such a question, the issue of "who wrote Shakespeare" excited (and probably still does) a lot of attention within its own bubble. There were books and theories and proofs and anagrams and cryptograms and ciphers and claims and counterclaims. It was all as endless as a bunch of drunk guys at a bar discussing the merits and intricacies of baseball ... but at least at the bar, the beer and the camaraderie were good.

But no one, least of all me, seemed to ask, "Who gives a shit?" or "If you knew the answer, what would you know and what earthly use would it be?" Isn't Shakespeare Shakespeare whether his name is "Shakespeare" or "Bubba?" But none of that stopped me from enjoying a good detective story.

Maybe the theory and practice of Buddhism is a little like that:

Nothing saying you can't enjoy a good detective story.

Thursday, May 21, 2009


It is a time of economic difficulty around the world. Suddenly, the word "poverty" is not just something that belongs to someone else. It is close. Our friends are losing their jobs. Our household budgets are seeing revisions. Our charity checks are rethought. Our vacations are revised. Poverty is as close as a hungry beast: If it has not bitten us yet, still, its hot breath and digestive intentions are everywhere.

On the radio just now, I heard a woman in the midst of a discussion about the financial plight of California. People are tired, she said. They are worn out listening to radio and TV programs that dredge up yet another facet of the economic downturn, yet another sage analyst looking back at mistakes we might not have made ... as if explanations and news might somehow ease the fatigue, offer up answers, and put a smile back on our faces. People were worn out ... and sick of it ... and feeling, like it or not, "You cope with it. I've got my own problems."

Our generosities, however we may have imagined them, are under siege.

After the Chinese invasion of Tibet, a monk was asked what he most feared with the coming of the Chinese. "I was afraid," he replied, "that I might lose my compassion."

As if compassion were something that could be held, sustained, improved....

As if there were some shame that was attached to being less compassionate than in other times...a shame we too might feel tugging at our shirts in the face of a poverty that wears us down.

"You cope with it. I've got my own problems."

On the one hand, it feels callous and inhuman. But rather than feeling shame alone, rather than immersing ourselves in the things we cannot do or are too tired to do and yet wish, in part, we might be able to do ... this is a good time to really look at how we really feel about things. If we simply cannot do anything, what can we do? If we cannot escape what may feel demeaning, how can we escape?

How about what we can do?

How about what we do do?

If there is no willingness to examine such facts -- such real-time abilities and inabilities -- then I think we are truly leading impoverished lives.

beginning at the beginning

I think it is important to acknowledge in spiritual life -- in the efforts and endeavors and even the beliefs and hopes -- that no one needs spiritual life. I may choose it, but that doesn't mean I need it. Spiritual life is not like food or sleep or even sex or stories ... does water 'need' wetness or badger itself seeking out the profound and peaceful nature of wetness?

Yes, there is the inspiration of others, but spiritual life is not a group sport. "Majority rules" is hardly a consolation to any who are serious in their spiritual lives. There are a lot of people in the world who espouse religion or spiritual endeavor: Some dissolve in grateful tears; some pray mightily; some chop off the hands of others; some build tall temples; some urge and convince others; some have great followings; some sit naked in dank caves ... yes, there are a lot of people involved in spiritual endeavor or something called "spiritual life" or something.

And together with all these people -- this vast majority perhaps -- there are a lot of people who don't concern themselves at all. They would rather do something else -- fix cars, climb mountains, get a Ph.D. in quantum mechanics, rob banks, drive fast, beg for loose change, buy shoes, join a street gang, or try sky-diving. If these people needed spiritual life, they would seek it out, but, in the usual way of speaking, they don't.

No one needs spiritual life any more than water needs wetness.

I think it is important for those inclined towards spiritual endeavor to concede this matter in their hearts. "I don't need it. I choose it." Without such a concession, those who choose spiritual endeavor are constantly relying on others and can never find the peace they claim to seek. It is simultaneously pitiful and idiotic ... and which of us hasn't been pitiful or idiotic in our lives?

Such an admission may pierce the heart with loneliness and uncertainty. But for those intent on spiritual endeavor, the not-terribly-polite response to loneliness and uncertainty echoes and resounds: "Tough titty! Do it anyway! You have been lonely and uncertain in the past and lived to tell the tale so you can probably live to tell this tale as well."

Nobody needs spiritual endeavor. They choose it. This, I think, is important. It is an admission and concession without which spiritual endeavor loses any honest meaning or usefulness it might have. To begin where things begin is a good beginning. Beginning someplace else is a fool's errand -- an errand that may excite some 'majority' agreement, but leaves the seeker as bereft, if not more bereft, than s/he was in the first place.

A book, a preacher, a temple -- how long can anyone rely on the goodness of others? Pretty damned long is the answer for anyone willing to sniff through human history. But does this mean a serious student needs to be equally foolish? If the Dalai Lama is a good and inspiring man, how in heaven's name does that compute when I stub my toe or am wracked by sadness or laugh at a good dirty joke? Relying on the goodness of others -- or the badness either -- is thin gruel, don't you think? It's about the same as not-relying on the goodness of others ... just relying in another way.

I choose spiritual endeavor.

What if I'm wrong?

What if I'm right?

What if I fail?

What if I succeed?

What if I go nuts?

What if others laugh?

What if it's a crock of shit?

What if it's not a crock of shit?

What if I'm wasting my time?

What if I am lifted up to heaven?

What if I am consigned to hell?

What if there really are 77 virgins awaiting me in heaven? Do women get them as well?

What if my friends and family think I'm weird?

What if I don't get to have sex any more?

What if holiness is just unholiness in another suit of clothes?

What if I don't have any fun?

What if I have too much fun?

What if ...?

Whatever the what-if's, still, spiritual endeavor is not something anyone needs. It is just a choice. And who makes those choices? Who is the responsible one? Who is the lonely and uncertain one? Who is the one who insists on relying on others? Who longs for comfort and peace and skinny-dipping in the moonlight?

I think it is good to begin at the beginning.

Things work out better that way.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009


I was doing zazen today in front of a Kuan Yin statue that always seems to catch the incense smoke that meanders upward in front of it. I was sitting near the front door.

My daughter stopped on her way out to school and told me about a water-main break in a nearby community ... so maybe I should take an alternate route if I was headed that way. She looked pretty and I told her so. Then she left and I went back to zazen.

Isn't that the way things happen?

the 'other' way

You can't make this stuff up or, if you can, how could it compare with what actually happens? All I know is, it's enough to blow my socks off:

This morning, out of the blue as it seemed, I got an email from someone interested in Buddhism. The nut of the message seemed to be this: What is the most direct route, the most direct way, the most effective means, the most no-kidding-around method of assuring some peace or understanding or laughter in this life?

You can't make this shit up. It is enormously touching and utterly human: Who, in their time, has not cried out for The Answer?

In the past, I seem to recall, I have been to any number of temples sporting any number of disciplines. And in the course of discussing or describing the approaches practiced in those temples, there would be the suggestion or implication: Ours is the most direct route, the most effective means, the fail-safe approach, the one true way. And certainly I wouldn't say no to any of it, but ....

The email asked for the most direct way, the most assured path, the least-diverting approach. And all I could think to say was this: The most direct way is your way. It is not some other way. The one thing about which you probably know a thing or two is your life, your joys, your uncertainties. You can never know as much about someone else's life, someone else's joys, someone else's uncertainties.

Of course it's a bit tricky to suggest that your way is the most direct and assured way. Buddhism, among other disciplines, suggests that we should be wary of the ego and its wiles. Which one of us has not built an elaborate structure of self during our lives? "I" am this or "I" am that. Everyone has done this, so suggesting that "my" way is the most direct way ... well, who's to say this isn't just another refinement of the old ego-tripper building a new and improved house of cards ... another structure doomed to failure?

Whatever the dangers -- and there are plenty of them -- still I would say so: Your way is the most direct way, the way most likely to lead to success. But there is a trick to it: This time, don't quit. This time, keep your promise. This time, get to the bottom of things.

You like Christianity? Fine. Just don't quit.

You like Buddhism? Fine. Just don't quit.

You like Islam? Fine. Just don't quit.

You like atheism? Fine. Just don't quit.

Don't quit. And the moment you find yourself quitting -- the moment you find yourself convinced that you have found a resting place or The Answer -- just don't quit. This time, keep your promise.

It's funny, but the moment you tell anyone that their way is the most direct way -- that their way holds the most assured understandings -- the first thing they do is run around looking for some other way. They want a way to quit and assure some imagined peace. "Yes but..." they may say. "Buddha was enlightened," they may say, "and I want to be like that." How in heavens name anyone might know that Buddha was enlightened beats me ... but people may insist: There is some other way, some way other than my way, some improved way, some holy way, some all-sunshine-and-no-clouds way ... and it's not messy and confused like my way. Gimme the good stuff! I've had enough of the bad stuff ... you know, MY stuff.

Floundering, squirming, wailing, extolling ... show me some other way! There's got to be another way! Your way, his way, her way ... anything but my way. Anything but the direct way.

And the kindly teachers of the past complied. They showed another way. There were temples and texts and vast disciplines that fell into the category of "profound" or "sublime." There were and remain endless conundrums and paradoxes that beckon and suggest. There were other ways pointing to the direct way, the way that doesn't quit, the way that keeps its promises ... you know ... your way.

And if you need some "other" way, there were always those who, like Dogen, pointed things out: "To study Buddhism (or life, if you like) is to study the self. To study the self is to forget the self. To forget the self is to be enlightened by all beings...."

Just don't quit.

What other choice is there?

There is no 'other' way.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

circling the prey


The old buzzard and the young buzzard sit on the same branch. Both of them are waiting for something to drop dead. Both of them have to eat, after all. If they didn't eat, they would drop dead.

"my master"

In Zen and other forms of Buddhism, you can read or hear people referring to "my master." I guess it is meant to express a sense of acknowledgment or thanks or awe or praise or comfort or humility or a time of learning ... something like that. I'm not sure.

But it occurred to me yesterday that the only one who might legitimately use the term "my master" -- the only one who might know what s/he was talking about -- would be the man or woman who was the equal of that which was described with the term. Anything else would be eyewash.

And if a man or woman were in fact the equal of "my master," then the use of such a term would undermine the actual-factual equation ... a kind of refined ego trip attempting to keep ego-tripping at bay.

None of this is meant to suggest either that I know what I'm talking about or that I stand at some convenient, protective, or critical distance. It just came to mind as being true.

Now, I guess, all I have to do is to find out if it is true. :)

Monday, May 18, 2009

ancient habits

I was brought up in an atmosphere that counseled or enforced an unwillingness to accept praise. If those I might have expected to support and praise me were unable or unwilling to do so, if such praises as they did offer were belied by their actions, and if things felt as if whatever comforting rug was occasionally offered was constantly being pulled out from under me, then I was, in fact, not praiseworthy ... and I learned to distrust the praise and comfort that might be offered elsewhere.

I see my growing-up reaction as understandable, but I see the deeply-ingrained habit as mistaken. A hardened habit is like a hardened artery ... not good for the blood flow. It is one thing to find the defensive skills that will address the slings and arrows that life can offer up and quite another to imagine, knee-jerk fashion, that life is lying to you ... even when it is.

It is all, as the Buddhists might say, another bit of ego and ego, however precious, simply cannot provide ease and peace. And so, like some child setting out, I think I will practice on wobbly feet ... saying "thank you." I'm not sure that I can revise this hardened artery in this lifetime, but I will practice. "Thank you" ... and mean it... attempt to drill out this clogged approach to things and let the blood flow more freely. Naturally there are people who do or say nice things simply as a means of flattery or as a tool for eliciting thanks or indebtedness from others, but even so ... "thank you."

At my age, clogged arteries are a real threat. :)

Last night, I took my latest kidney stone to the hospital emergency room and while I was sitting there, waiting my turn, a woman in her fifties sat down a couple of seats to my right. Across the way from us was a soldier dressed in fatigues. He and his wife had a little boy who needed attending to. The woman in her fifties started to talk to the soldier -- thanking him for his service, and then saying that her son had been in Iraq and had had both his legs blown off. The son was doing well in rehab, the woman said, playing wheelchair sports, among other things. The woman didn't cry (she had probably cried before) and she was apparently doing what she could to get on with the facts life had provided her with.

But, since her story was new to me, I wanted to cry. I too have sons and they too might have their legs blown off. And just imagining that -- just imagining, not experiencing -- made my heart ache and my gorge rise. On what bookshelf of satisfied solutions can you place such an experience? It defies all nostrums. No dodging and ducking can provide an escape. It is a scream beyond a scream, a fact so factual and in-your-face that ... that ... that ... what can you say or do?

It is hard to say "thank you," but I will practice.

Who thanks whom? This, to me, is serious ... not some religious or philosophical bullshit. Who thanks whom ... honestly?

I will practice.

What other honest choice is there?

Sunday, May 17, 2009

please lie to me

Yesterday, a chum and longtime Zen student sent me an email that said, "We both know zazen doesn't do shit..." James and I, each in our own way, had both spent a lot of time and effort on zazen, the seated meditation component of Zen Buddhism ... really, blood, sweat and tears. We have screamed and laughed and wept and imagined and been wowed and depressed... just like anyone else.

And yet....

Everyone thinks that their own life and the exercises of that life are important, sometimes "profoundly" important, and maybe the practice of zazen has an extra layer of imagined goodness or profundity or usefulness ... it's "Buddhism" after all and "Buddhism" is filled with a kind of common-sensical vision that can be heart-stopping in its wisdoms. And that's not to mention the fact that meditation practice can be literally painful in its applications: Let's face it, my pains are serious in my book and yours are in yours. Sitting cross-legged on a cushion over long hours is not for the faint of heart.

Zazen doesn't do shit. This is true, but there is no skipping over the shit in order to actualize such an appreciation. Everyone would probably like to be wise before they get wise, to skip over the devil in the details ... but it just doesn't work. And so Zen Buddhism -- which lays some emphasis on zazen or seated meditation, the actual-factual sit-down-and-shut-up function -- answers and fulfills our most fervent petition:

Please! Please! Please! ... lie to me.

Saturday, May 16, 2009

well preserved

Last night, in the parking lot, I ran into Don, one of the photographers at the newspaper. Don is a good guy and a good photographer, someone with whom I had worked on a story I had really enjoyed writing ... a guy who was interested in the story and what his photos might add, what the package might look like ... not an ego-tripping 'artiste.' I like Don both professionally and personally.

As we gabbed, he said he had heard I was going to retire. He was a bit surprised. How old was I? And when I told him I was 69, he said without malice, "You're remarkably well preserved."

The line made me laugh. Where once I might have been flattered or offended by some social 'rudeness,' now it was just a funny thing to say. "Well preserved" ... it made me feel like a foetus pickled in a clear-glass bottle of formaldehyde.

What a hoot! Inside, at whatever age, there is always something bright and spunky and full of energetic youth, bouncing around like some cartoon Tasmanian devil, unstoppable and giggling and assured. And yet too ...

Preserved: It made me think of the Hindu triumvirate, Brahma (the creator), Vishnu (the preserver) and Shiva (the destroyer) ... all gods for those inclined to gods, and yet also, more credibly, aspects of this mind and life. We create, we preserve as best we may, and we destroy ... and even if we don't do such things, life will do them for us.

It's not so common to ask who might create such gods, such circumstances, such a lifestyle. Sometimes it is easier to build temples and believe... temples of achievement and failure, belief and worship ... the great and well-coiffed 'me.' Of course I would like to be well-thought-of ... by looks, by accomplishment, by aspects I have created and preserved and encouraged in my life. But then along comes Shiva, like it or not, suggesting through the whispers of time, "The 'me' is extra."

And the eek's set in -- the sense that life is implacable and unkind and indifferent.
The sense that no one cares. The sense that for all the bouncing youthfulness within, things cannot be preserved in the ways I have sought to preserve them with my diplomas or status or bank accounts or beliefs or hair-do's. Somehow, I have gotten things wrong ... and I am being punished. Sometimes I think it is no wonder the Christians have a cowering and devoted following. Save me! If you stop where the eek's set in, then of course temples and sweet words make some sense... preserving, protecting, defending, explaining. Sweet music in the face of sour circumstance.

In the realm of the eeks, whoa mama! All composite things, as the Buddhists say, come apart. But as one of those composite things, somehow I imagined I was exempt. Coming apart was for someone or something else: I just know, based on this youthful something-or-other within, that coming apart can never happen. I...just...know it.

And the odd thing is that the part that 'just knows it' is absolutely right. How can what never came together come apart? This is not just some sexy philosophical or religious question. It is intimate. Check it out. Look around. Everything and everyone 'just knows it,' don't you think? And what is true is not out to punish or reward anyone. What is true is just busy being true ... why would it bother being indifferent or concerned? Isn't what is true just dancing and as peppy as the something-or-other within?

Sure, I will comb my hair and catch a shave and try (unsuccessfully) not to cuss too much and preserve one thing or another to the best of my ability, but preservation is creation and creation is dissolution and dissolution is creation: Isn't it just the truth? And maybe the something-or-other within just knows this ...

And is delighted.

Friday, May 15, 2009

odd man out

The other day, I read a comment on a Buddhist bulletin board that said, more or less, "I don't care for hanging out with Buddhists." And I felt a jolt of agreement. Buddhists are often too damned "Buddhist" for my taste. It's not that I begrudge them their interests and efforts but ... how about them Red Sox? how about molecular biology? how about a birthday party for a five-year-old? how about a love for stamp collecting? how about cooking scrambled eggs? how about high-stakes poker? how about the intricacies of an automobile engine?

A while back, at a baseball game one of my sons was playing in, I was having a nice conversation with a doctor. I asked him several questions about his adventures in life -- how he came to be a doctor, how his older daughters and younger son were faring, what he thought of the health industry -- and he filled me in. But I noticed after a while that he didn't ask me a single question about my adventures. It struck me as odd. Not wounding, just odd. Most of us know about our own lives and longings and information and bias ... aren't we curious about how someone else sees and has seen things? Odd.

I suppose it's odd that I should see this as odd. People are interested in and sometimes consumed by their own lives. But doesn't it suggest anything else, a connection to some other interest or way of seeing things? Doesn't it get boring and somewhat confining?

What about ... well, what about those things that don't capture our interest, that don't dovetail with our current bias. What about playing polo with a human head?

Buddhism ... I'm probably the odd man out on all of this.

pig farming

There is dignity and peace in all times and places, but the human desire to improve upon things ... well, there is the old, crass and utterly appropriate critique that goes, "S/he's so dumb, s/he'd fuck up a wet dream."

It's the same for all of us, I imagine, though many may be more polite about it. If it ain't broke, don't fix it. And yet we insist on fixing it. Sometimes I do wonder if the politenesses we visit on others work very well when we visit them on ourselves. Sweet-talking evasions and comfortable agreements. Maybe those politenesses work. I don't know.

The other day, I caught a snippet of a radio interview in which an Alabama pig farmer was the focal point. He and his wife tended pigs and knew pigs and had a collection of movies they enjoyed and cared for each other.

I have shoveled pig shit in the past and so the idea of a universe filled with pig-wisdoms did not appeal to me viscerally: Pig shit smells like human shit whereas horse shit or cow shit is pleasing to my nose. During the interview, I could hear the pigs oinking and grunting in the background and it took me back to my own days tending pigs and shoveling their shit.

The man spoke in simple ways about the wisdoms necessary to pig farming. He seemed to know those wisdoms -- feeding, breeding, butchering, etc. -- and was content in my ear. His wife seemed to be on the same frequency, both in pig farming and in life. As they talked, they seemed unaffected by being interviewed and unsurprised by the wisdoms they possessed. The were at peace in my ear.

And for the first time in a long time, I felt the longing to meet someone. As others might long to meet the Dalai Lama or some other spiritual light, so I longed to meet this Alabama pig farmer who sounded straight and clear and unconcerned with improvements. It was just wonderful to know that such a man existed in this world. My heart melted to him.

But of course, even if I were to meet him, what could possibly be gained? In what way would a melting heart be answered or informed? He was and is just a man -- two arms, two legs, one heart, one mind ... just like mine. What anointing could I possibly expect? Could he possibly tell me what I imagined he knew? Yes, he inspired me; yes, he made my heart soar ... but whose inspiration and soaring was this? If he told me not to fuck up a wet dream, could I possibly hear him or know what he was talking about until I stopped fucking up my own wet dream?

Where the heart melts and soars, it is hard not to follow and feel delight. Not to credit and believe and insist that it's all true. I would love to stand in the presence of this Alabama pig farmer and yet, were it all to come true, wouldn't I feel that something was missing? that somehow he had something to give and he was not giving it to me? that the salvation I longed for were not being strangely withheld? And might not my adoration and meltings then become mixed with irritation at the imagined withholding?

Finding salvation in another is so compelling. Look at the temples and churches on Main Street. Look at the temples and churches in the mind. Isn't it so? Yes, it's touching and human and forgivable up to a point ....

The point where anyone might decide to stop fucking up a perfectly good wet dream.

In Buddhism there is a saying that, however confounding, is just plain true:

"Do not do as the master did. Know what the master knew."

I take some consolation in this saying: At least I don't have to shovel pig shit. :)

Thursday, May 14, 2009

a light in the heart

Years after her 20-month old son, Charles Lindbergh Jr., was kidnapped and later found murdered in 1932, Anne Morrow Lindbergh was interviewed on TV. The interviewer asked the question that might have filled any viewer's mind and yet was impossible to answer: What did it feel like to have your own child kidnapped and killed. I cringed as I heard the question and yet I too was dying to ask it.

Mrs. Lindbergh was quiet for a moment. A handsome woman, she was, if memory serves, dressed with the understated elegance of her patrician history ... a black dress, perhaps, a strand of obligatory pearls perhaps. She paused and then she said ...

"I think everyone has suffered a tragedy ...."

The imperative truth of those words struck home with me. Bowled me over. It didn't matter whether Anne Morrow Lindbergh knew what she was talking about or whether she just found some believable solace in that one sentence. I found it incredibly wide and true and ... I wanted to live up to such a vision or voice. If, in my heart, everyone had suffered a tragedy, then I could not afford to be so blase, so quick, so dismissive of others. Tragedy is more important than my egotistical meanderings. It would behoove me to be kinder. And not just some oozy-goozy, narrowed and altruistic 'kinder,' but through-and-through wider and kinder.

My reaction at the time did not include the question, "If everyone has suffered a tragedy, what is it, precisely, that can be called 'a tragedy?'" What struck me at the time was the profound decency of the observation. It was a decency I wanted to learn ... to actually know and not just believe.

Funny how things strike home, really rock the boat with inspiration or awe or attention, and yet the first thing anyone does is to ascribe the wisdom of a statement to the person uttering it. Buddha said this, Anne Morrow Lindbergh said that, Jesus said the other thing ... and the first thing that happens is that we lay the cornerstone for some affirming religion or belief system: Buddha is wise, Anne Morrow Lindbergh is wise, Jesus is wise. Quick! -- let's build a temple with a statue of our beloved!

It is human and a bit childish, but I think it is probably what happens. The concomitant of "Buddha is wise" or "Anne Morrow Lindbergh is wise" or "Jesus is wise" is, of course ... "and I am not." And the concomitant of "and I am not" is, "in what way will I utilize the wisdom I see or hear or am inspired by?" Will praise suffice? Will religion suffice? Will sacrificing a hundred nubile virgins suffice?

Yesterday, I wrote, "Goodness, virtue, merit and the like are teasers for those who lack goodness, virtue and merit. Zen practice, by contrast, is a teaser for nothing whatsoever." At the time of the writing, it just sort of popped out from somewhere or other. Today it strikes me as a pretty good bon mot, close enough to the truth to be true, close enough for inspiration, close enough to be worth paying attention to. But it strikes me as ludicrous to make too much out of the fact that I wrote or said it. Who gives a shit who said what? Isn't the important part A. what strikes the heart and mind with force and B. what anyone is willing to do about it ... how they might actualize the light blazing in the heart?

Yes, it is hard to pick up the burden of responsibility -- to let go of the adorations and praises of this life and get to work. A child can be utterly convinced of his or her adorations and certainties and religions, but bit by bit a child learns, bit by bit s/he shoulders the burden, however confusing it may be: What other choice is there for someone with a light blazing in the heart?

Is religion enough to bring peace in this life? Does it make anyone more peaceful that they can observe others they imagine to be at peace? Where the rubber hits the road -- where anyone might stare at the bedroom ceiling in the middle of a sleepless night -- who gives a shit who said what? Isn't it the alluring wisdom that counts and what anyone might be willing to do about it?

OK, everyone was a child once. But children grow up. No one -- not Anne Morrow Lindbergh, not Buddha, not Jesus, not mom, not dad, not even a most beloved friend -- can do that for them.

Who is the one with true wisdom?

Check it out.

Or, put in less cozifying terms:

Grow up!

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

reversal of gravity

Little or large, old habits die hard, so I imagine that leaving the newspaper business -- retiring, as the expression goes -- will have unforeseen consequences that are not easy. Spending one third of each day doing some particular job adds up to a lot of time and habit over 20-plus years.

Last night the word came down: June 26th will be my last day. The full implications have not sunk in, obviously. On the one hand, it is nice to have settled what was previously hanging fire. On the other hand, the no-going-back concreteness is confusing, daunting, frightening ... in hard times, how do I replace or anyway mitigate the income loss; how do I provide for my family; how do I find the framework of doing that newspaper work provided? How do I feel about it all?

I guess, in some sense, it is like a reversal of gravity: Like having kids, you 'understood' that one day they would leave the nest and then you don't understand at all when they actually do. Old handholds disappear and there is no toe-hold at all. Around the office, colleagues have offered their "congratulations," but the word is strange, given the circumstances ... as if, being at a funeral, someone said, "I'm so sorry for your loss" ... it's just the best anyone can come up with given the actual-factual, gob-stopping nature of the circumstances. What DO you say when whatever you say has little or no meaning?

The children, together with a million lacy tendrils of love and experience and habit-forming understandings, have left home.

The work, together with a million handholds of habit and self-definition, dwindles despite the fact that I 'knew' it would dwindle.

And if others murmur the best murmurs they can come up with, what murmur shall I apply? Here I sit, typing, as if the words could compass and define and make whatever feels worse feel better. But, as if I were enmeshed in some grade-B sci-fi movie and the cast is gathered around a lifeless, mysterious lump that fell from the sky, there comes that moment when the lump moves and some unskilled actor cries, "It's alive! It's alive!"

The negatives and positives flicker on and off like some poorly-connected light bulb. In one moment there is gravity. In the next there is none. Old habits are like that, I guess: Smug, subtle and assuring over long periods of time and then utterly at a loss when faced with some present circumstance. Flicker ... flicker ... flicker.

When it comes to the fears and uncertainties of retirement, I do feel somewhat more fortunate than others in the sense that Buddhism as a practice addresses a world without gravity ... and a world with gravity as well. Not that anything is solved or even really salved because of practice, but at least there are some hints and clues about habits old and new. It's sort of like a habitless habit ... not at all like the warm-fuzzy nostrums of belief and hope, but useful and sane in its way.

Nice to think it has some practical application, however wobbly.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009


Barry, the guy who more often does the news-wire job at work, sent me an email the other day. Not only had he been laid low by bronchitis, but there had been a death in the family -- someone he had been close to -- so he probably wouldn't be in this week. As the back-up wire guy, that means I will have to do a job I once loved and have learned to hate.

I wrote him back: "Death stoppers the mouth but not the tears."

Isn't it strange? -- When tragedy befalls anyone, the first thing anyone might seek to do is escape. Part of that escape seems to lie in explanation or some format that will ease the dis-ease. Let's talk about death ... as if that might actually compass the fact. It doesn't work, of course, but it diverts the attention.

Here is a format for tragedy.

Here is a format for delight.

Here is a format for comfort.

Here is a format for this moment.

And yet the moment cannot be escaped. It cannot be improved. It's just a fact, isn't it? Hard, easy, sad or joyful -- who can format such things with any hope of success? If you try to limit what cannot be limited, who is the fool?

That'd be me, I reckon.

curious incuriosities

I guess it's an unkindness and a blind spot to imagine -- or insist -- that if others hold beliefs, they would therefore be curious about the implications. It's a bad habit, I sometimes think.

Incuriousity is a strange thing -- convenient and cozy, perhaps, but still some childish voice in my mind insists, "How can anyone look themselves in the eye and be at peace without investigating their own beliefs?"

The question is not meant to imply I want anyone to see their beliefs as I see them. I'm not a Christian. The question does imply that I would like to see anyone own up to or plumb their own beliefs. It's probably too pushy by half ... and stupid into the bargain.

The mental chewing gum that occasioned such thoughts was this:

If, to use the language that some prefer, "God is omnipresent" and if someone holds that belief as true and if, perhaps, they insist on it and trumpet it and believe it with their whole heart and without the assistance of theologians or clerics ....

If God is omnipresent -- present in all times and places and events -- then, I would say, only God can acknowledge God. Is there any other option? And if only God can acknowledge God, then who is this one who runs around acknowledging and loving God? I suppose someone might wriggle and explain in the face of such a question -- seek out clerical or theological support -- but if "God is omnipresent," then I think there must come a time when intellectual and emotional squirming has to cease. It is time to get to work.

If only God can acknowledge God, what makes anyone believe God would bother to acknowledge God? Wouldn't that be a pastime for an ego-tripper? If God is omnipresent, what room would there be for preferences -- for ego? And if that were true, whose ego would be tripping? If God is omnipresent, I think the curious might find him/herself between a rock and a hard place: If believers make something of God that God does not make of him/her/itself, wouldn't that be a false God -- a golden calf among golden calves? Why would God be curious about God? Or incurious either?

Oh well, I guess it's easier to believe than it is to find out. Easier ... but sad-making.

Reading this over, I dislike the notion that anyone would see it as mere philosophy or religion. In the face of the longing and uncertainty and sorrow that anyone might feel, what a load of crap philosophy and religion and improved ways of believing and remaining incurious.

So it goes.

Monday, May 11, 2009

your Dutch uncle

As much as I may cuddle and counsel myself that language is mutable and really does fall into the secondary and that therefore I shouldn't give it too much credibility, still there are bits of language that send me around the bend.



And there are others I can't think of right now. Each of these bits of language seems contrived to make the person using them look better, more 'educated,' more sensitive. Well, horseshit in a blue suit is still horseshit. Such usages suggest the speaker might somehow be capable of distancing him- or herself from whatever matter was at hand. It's slick, chic, suave ... and can drive me around the bend.

What in god's green earth is wrong with having a "problem?" Everyone has problems. No one has an "issue." Does having an "issue" make something any less a problem? Of course not ... except for the blue suit laying claim to some higher, more distanced, more sensitive ground.

And are "behaviors" any different from behavior? How many behaviors can anyone have, however many the aspects of that behavior may be? By divvying up those aspects, it suggests the speaker has an analytical handle on things and is therefore closer to some honest understanding. Is there really a difference between the behavior of a drug addict or a pope and his or her "behaviors?"

Why I enjoy allowing all this to "impact" me is beyond my understanding. But it's like anchovies: I just don't like it. I'm not large on hypocrisy, linguistic or otherwise. It's hard enough to communicate without adding other problems.

Of course much of this has to do with age and the crankiness that can come with it ... living in some imagined past. And while I was busy grinding my teeth about the imagined past of less slick language this morning, an old chestnut popped into my mind as well: "Dutch uncle."

In the old days -- which is to say, days I can remember -- a Dutch uncle was someone who would cutthrough the poses anyone might don. A Dutch uncle would tell you the hard truths in the face of those prancing poses. A Dutch uncle might love you, but that love was not constrained by convenient praise. A Dutch uncle would support you but would not lie down for idiocy. A Dutch uncle was all about facts and responsibility and less about the self-serving designer labels of this mind.

I imagine everyone has run into people or circumstances that acted as a Dutch uncle in their lives. But what occurred to me this morning was how nice it is to run into a Dutch uncle ... how nice, however hard. And yet an aspect of your Dutch uncle or mine is this: When first encountered, a Dutch uncle is likely to be someone or something else, some separate entity, some wake-up call that is 'out there.' While the lash the Dutch uncle may administer is 'out there,' the stinging pain is 'in here.'

How hard it is to discover our own best Dutch uncle. It's so much easier to imagine that a Dutch uncle is someone or something else. Easier to rely and criticize and adore. And how much harder to acknowledge and nourish the Dutch uncle within. If there is no one else to praise or blame or thank or disdain ... whoa mama!

I guess that's part of the tale told by Zen Buddhism's Ten Oxherding Pictures: It's easier when it's the ox creating difficulties, when "monkey mind" is the culprit, when salvation is found through an unpleasant effort that addresses something "else." It's easier when there is some Dutch uncle called "suffering." It is harder to nurture and nourish our own straight-shooting Dutch uncle, the one within ... you know, the one who knew what to do all along.

And it's hard to remember, I guess ....

Your Dutch uncle loves you.

What the hell ... someone's got to tell the truth, right? It might as well be you.

Sunday, May 10, 2009

Mother's Day

In this neck of the woods, it's Mother's Day, a day that calls attention to a relationship and implication everyone has had and perhaps continues to have. If you have a mother, that is pretty special. But if you are a mother, it's nothing out of the ordinary.

The older I get, the more I like holidays or days that call attention to one thing or another. I am a fan of the usefulness of attention and if anything gets someone's attention, mothers are probably one of the best examples. The tendrils of affection or disillusion or support or lack of support are so intimate and subtle and compelling, and yet often there is little or no attention. Mothers are an assumption most often, so having a day that calls attention to them and to our assumptions is a good thing, I'd say. Everyone has a belly button, but how often does anyone pay attention to it?

Today, I will take my belly button out to the zendo to do a little zazen or seated meditation. No one else is coming today. Those who might are probably celebrating Mother's Day in one way or another, so that is the important thing in their lives -- the thing to which they will pay attention. Later, I plan to call my mother and wish her a happy Mother's Day. She is 91 and probably not too surprised that she is a mother. At her age, it's hard to be surprised by facts. Surprise requires energy and separation. Her energies are waning.

I don't know how anyone else sees it, but sometimes I think spiritual endeavor is devoted to a complex and ethereal vision -- some salvation or relief from day-to-day uncertainties or sorrows. It is vast and compelling and pretty surprising. It is wonderful to find such a wonderful friend, such an inspiration.

But the older I get, the more I think spiritual endeavor is just a matter of making friends with our most intimate friends. Enemies too, for that matter, but I think that making friends with our friends is probably harder. Our intimate friends -- friends such as a mother might be -- cocoon and warm and support us. It is not so easy to make friends with such friends, to make friends with our belly buttons.

Our gods, like our mothers, have belly buttons just like our own. Who will take the trouble to make friends with their gods and mothers and belly buttons? Who will make the effort to seek out and assure themselves of the true creator?

I don't know.

But I think it is worth the effort and I think that Mother's Day is a wonderful encouragement.

Saturday, May 9, 2009

the wee troll

This morning there is a wee troll in my mind growling, "Spiritual life -- what the fuck does that mean?!" The cuss word is meant to emphasize a sense of ludicrousness ... followed immediately by a sense of the pure humanity of it all: Of course we're fools: What else is new?

Sometimes I think everyone who has a vast vision, an intricate philosophy or religion, a somewhat serious and certainly solemn hope ... sometimes I think such people (like me) should be locked in an empty room for a week or more to think things over. What is this philosophy like when the ceiling stares back at you implacably? What happens to this grand scheme where the walls seem to chuckle? How 'important' are you in a place with no importance? What happens when there is neither agreement nor disagreement? What happens when, like Jesus or any other serious person, you walk into the desert and every shred -- every shred -- of evidence points out that the 'important' things really are not enough?

"Oh, it is so lonely!" a voice cries out. It's too much. It's too hard. It's just too damned much! Give me some company! Give me a "spiritual life!" Give me some comfort and solace and ... belief. I'm human and frail and lack the courage and conviction. I am a hypocrite and an ego-tripper. Give ... me ... importance.

Maybe longer than a week is necessary for anyone interested in "spiritual life." Maybe much longer. But if "spiritual life" doesn't call out for verification in an empty room or a searing desert, what is it good for other than prattling and self-aggrandizement and yet another blood-letting? Whining about masochism only reaches so far. Playing the glittering Boy Scout only reaches so far. Goodness only reaches so far. Tea and cookies after the morning sermon only reaches so far.

Importance only reaches so far.

The humanity of it all is very touching: We only do what we can and we stroke and console ourselves within that framework ... maybe with something called "spiritual life." But, as the wee troll insists, "what the fuck is that?!"

What does the ceiling in an empty room say?

What does the desert say?

What do you say?

What do you say when importance becomes so unimportant that importance has the opportunity to assert itself?

What happens when you unlock the door only to find there was no door to unlock in the first place?

Yes, lock 'em up and throw away the key! Hypocrisy is such a cruel task master.

In spiritual life, there is the encouragement: "Do good. Refrain from evil. And purify this mind." I'm not entirely sure what this means, but my guess is that it's as close as anyone is likely to come to the facts of the matter.

It's Saturday after all ... a time to receive the blessings of our wee trolls.

Friday, May 8, 2009

my blue tricycle

When I was a kid -- about kindergarten age -- I had a blue tricycle. It was during World War II and it was a pretty lucky thing to have a tricycle in a time when so much metal was being used for other purposes.

But what does a kid know about good fortune? I just knew I loved my blue tricycle. It zoomed me up and down the sidewalk. It parked. It went in forward and reverse. It was kool and, by extension, so was I. It was an intimate part of my 'me.' My blue tricycle made me happy.

I guess everybody clings to what they need to until whatever it is they cling to releases them.

Like spiritual endeavor, maybe.

knowing more

Jane was doing the page 1 job last night and I was doing the wires. We were sitting perhaps five feet apart and from time to time would discuss the merits of one story or another -- whether it was worth trying to get into the paper.

Jane is a good-natured, hard-working and bright person. Like a lot of Jews, she admires and exhibits intelligence. The fact that she has a sense of humor adds to her capacity to grab my admiration. She's fun to talk with.

And so we were talking at one point about a particular economic-downturn story and I got off on a mildly-cranky rant about the blue-suit, manicured-fingernail set who had been largely responsible for the collapse of the house of economic cards and yet seemed unable or unwilling to assume any responsibility for it. No where have I read or heard that any of these smug, sophisticated, upscale twits said "I'm sorry." They seem to see no connection between their activities and the very-concrete sorrows that have been visited on very real people.

Yes, I was mildly cranky about it.

Jane listened to me. It is polite to listen and Jane is polite. But somewhere in the midst of my small rant, I looked at her face and saw there what I imagined to be a kind of awe, as if I were saying something she had not thought of and, having thought of it, was wowed by my having thought of it. Her face said to me that somehow I had become elevated in her estimation.

Of course I may have been wrong about the situation and her reaction. Perhaps she was reacting to a a complete idjit and wondering how anyone might be so emphatic about what was so utterly wrong... as if I had espoused some "intelligent design" platform.

It was all happening in tandem with our conversation. But it was below the radar. It was silent. And yet something seemed to be happening.

And it made me think: Isn't this often the way of things? -- Someone offers a point of view that is new to our minds and hearts, explains how something works or doesn't work, and we ascribe the wisdom of the view to the person offering that point of view?

And the dangerous part is that just because the other person sees things in this way, the one offering the point of view might think s/he really is elevated or wise or right. I have known people who are pleased as punch or scornful as an alley cat that they might know more than someone else. Since human beings are social creatures and rely on each other for feedback and comfort, it may be understandable. But it strikes me as dangerous territory...and worth noticing.

My take: Offer what you will. That is enough. What others make of it is their business and is not a reliable basis on which to lead your own life. This is not to say there is not room for correction based on the views of others, but the correction is the point, not the views or the relying on them or the elevation or diminution of self or other.

If any of that makes sense.

this metaphorical life

During army basic training, we were trained in a lot of ways -- saluting, shooting, marching ... it was an eight-week instruction period. And among those instructions was this: When standing guard duty at night, if there appeared to be movement beyond your perimeter, never look directly at what you think is moving. Always look to the side of it. Looking to the side of things made them clearer.

And maybe it's so in spiritual endeavor. Metaphors and similes abound and yet no one actually leads a metaphorical life. But without the gossamer threads of metaphor and tale-telling and philosophy -- without looking to the side of things -- it is too hard to see clearly. But just because it may be too hard to see clearly doesn't mean anyone's vision is actually blurred.

A fellow who passed as a Zen teacher once told his audience that he saw his function as putting ketchup on things for us. Something tasty. Something alluring. Something to the side of things. And so he read sutras to us and commented. And koans, and commented. And encouraged and nagged and mystified us. And came up with metaphors that might lead us all back to our unmetaphorical lives. It was just his job. He was moderately good at it outside the fact that he thought it was his job.

No one leads a metaphorical life.

This life is not "like" something else. It does not have some 'other' or indirect or profound meaning. If I hold a rock in the palm of my hand, what question could there possibly be about it? We may call it a "rock" for conversational purposes, but when has conversation ever adequately nailed down the edges of this unmetaphorical life? When has conversation ever made an unmetaphorical point worth relying on?

I like ketchup as well as the next person. I love the symphonies that stories can play in my mind. I love to sway to the music, to be taken away in some ineffable delight. I love being astounded and invited and encouraged and somehow loved. Metaphors and meaning can do that for me and I too love to swoon.

But when I go to Burger King -- let's face it -- it's the nourishing substance of the hamburger that I'm after ... not just the toppings.

So ... where's the beef?

How's that for a metaphor? :)

Thursday, May 7, 2009

unbearable sorrow

Last night I was reading an NYTimes article about smallish companies faced with the need to lay people off. These were companies where people knew and sometimes cared about each other.

The decisions were often made by people with a conscience who were forced to cope with the fallout generated by people who largely lacked one. One woman who felt she should tell the affected workers face-to-face of the decision to lay them off went back to her office and broke down in tears: The fierceness of life's required triage was just too much for her.

A number of months ago, on the radio, there was a story about a Japanese CEO who announced that his company was going belly-up. He stood before the microphones and -- mind you, this guy was Japanese -- wept. He asked that anyone who could help the people who worked for him ... please help them: This is not their fault. The CEO clearly thought he was at fault. Out of whatever mind-set, he was willing to shoulder the responsibility.

Sometimes, whether near or far, personal or objective, things become "unbearably sad" and the triage of life ... oh man, it hurts through to the bone. Personal or objective, things fall apart and the heart is filled with despair. And no amount of philosophical or religious icing can sweeten this bitter cake.

There is no escape and yet every fiber of the body and mind longs for escape. Sometimes it truly wonders me that Zen Buddhists should run around wrapping themselves in 1,700 koans when there are already enough koans for any sensible human being: No escape, but longing for escape, for example. If that's not an honest-to-god koan, I don't know what is.

Without distancing ourselves from any "unbearable sadness" -- without trying to put icing on a bitter cake from a pristine philosophical or religious distance -- I think it is something worth noticing and following through on: At the very moment that anyone might be "unbearably sad," still, the fact of the matter is that s/he is (right now) bearing it. Hating it, sure; weeping, sure; wailing at the heavens, sure; feeling as every bone were broken with sorrow, sure; filled with fear and anguish, sure; pleading for an escape route, sure ... and yet, for all that, in this very moment, bearing an "unbearable sorrow."

Sometimes Buddhists or others inclined towards spiritual endeavor attempt to hide out in a particular persuasion, to snuggle up to and be enfolded by a particular religion or philosophy. They seek consolation. And the fact is that they deserve it, but the consolation they seek in philosophy or religion is bound to fall apart. Facts are facts and where there is no escape, finding an escape route amounts to a false and unconsoling hope, good for five minutes or ten, perhaps, but unable to withstand the fierce triage that life dishes up in various times and places.

If I had to guess, I guess I would guess this -- that the true consolation, the one that does not crumble in the face of life's unbending circumstances, lies in the seed planted by the recognition that in the moments of "unbearable sorrow," still, we are, in fact, bearing it. It takes courage and patience and doubt to nourish this seed. Really, it takes balls, because the desire to escape from the inescapable is so damned strong; it just 'feels' true ... and don't tell me otherwise! ... I just KNOW this longing to escape is true! But is it? I think consolation lies with the one willing to ask and answer this question: This is unbearable and yet I am bearing it -- how does that work? What implications does it have?

In the face of "unbearable sorrow," philosophy and religion may offer some temporary solace (look at the number of churches and temples, the number of monks and nuns, the number of books filled with wisdom that paper this earth) ... but philosophy and religion can piss up a rope when anyone bears an unbearable sorrow. Philosophy and religion are secondary, however pleasant they may be. Hiding out among second-hand wisdoms may be popular and occasionally useful, but that doesn't really crack the nut, does it? Second-hand nostrums cannot cure first-hand sorrows.

What is not secondary, what is not doomed to failure, is this one small seed: In the midst of the unbearable, I am bearing it.

Now ... what is the truth of this utterly commonplace fact?