Sunday, January 31, 2010

obvious and obscure

I was brought up and educated -- like most people, I guess -- to seek out and understand what was obscure or unknown.

But sometimes I think that, more daunting than understanding what is obscure, is plumbing the depths of what is obvious.

These days, it is the obvious that defies and encourages and informs.

I'll leave the hidden and profound to others.

a kiss on the lips

Last night, the night of a full moon, my younger son, 15, returned from a high school dance and told me that for the first time, he had kissed a girl ... a girl he had asked earlier in the week to be his "girlfriend" and she had agreed.

"It wasn't like kissing family members," he explained with a combination of sagacity and confusion.

He did not elaborate.

He didn't have to.

As he sat next to me on the couch and the two of us idly watched TV, he was positively brimming with wonder and excitement and delight and uncertainty. What did it all mean? What did it portend? It was wonderful and surprising and yet the moment he called it "wonderful," the confusions of utter novelty whispered. He had no reference points, no previous experience, no history to call on. And still ... woo-hoo!

Brand-new woo-hoo!

It was like trying to nail Jell-O to the wall: Wherever he turned, it just didn't stick, somehow -- didn't fit, didn't allow itself to be contained or boxed up in a mind full of baseball and homework and family and video game boxes. He was floundering and foundering and yet was utterly clear: He longed to say it was "like" something else ("tastes just like chicken"), but there was no "like," no "something else." This was this ... end of discussion ... but who could stop discussing?!

Brand-new woo-hoo!

And yet, sitting on the couch, it was not the same as the actual brand-new woo-hoo. Brand-new woo-hoo was then, was another time and place. Sitting on the couch remembering brand-new woo-hoo was a delight, but it was not the same ... it was like searching in vain to recapture what could not be recaptured. There was no choice but to let it go and yet -- like the rest of us -- he was damned if he was going to let go of a brand-new woo-hoo.

Once upon a time, I went to a Zen teacher to discuss a bright opening -- something so compelling and confounding, delightful and frightening, that I really didn't know how to process it. The experience had kissed me on the lips ... for the first time. It rocked my universe. He heard me out and then said simply, "Forget about it."

I felt as if my face had been slapped ... hard. How could I forget about something so compelling, so earth-shaking, so naked-making? I had felt as if the world had stripped me bare, opened me up like a kumquat, left me in its churning wake ... and all he could say was "forget about it????"

In retrospect, of course, I knew he was right. But he might also have said, more gently, "where is it now?" He could congratulate himself for being right, perhaps, but was he right? I don't know. I only know what happened and what he said.

I did not say "forget about it" to my son and I did not ask him "where is it now?" Life teaches such lessons without any prompting or effort. What is inescapable is no more or less inescapable just because it is called "inescapable." Life teaches such lessons ... it's just a question of whether anyone will attend to those lessons and find some peace within them.

Where is it now?

No one in the throes of woo-hoo or despair is likely to be in the mood for forget-about-it. Things were/are just too compelling. What was fresh and new and ungraspable is now sitting on the grocery shelf of the past ... delicious perhaps, but never exactly as delicious as that first kiss, that actual experience, that face-to-face horror, that naked-in-the-light actuality.

And yet life teaches it without any prompting. There is no living in the past. Or, if there is, there is always something vaguely stale and repetitive and inexact and somehow false about it. The past is informative, but can it compare with a kiss right now?

Moment after moment is just like that, I imagine -- kissing us on the lips for the very first time; leaving us without handholds or anything except ... this. It's not sexy or religious or spiritual or profound: It's just this, for heaven's sake! Moment after moment, this after this, woo-hoo after woo-hoo, horror after horror.

Just this.

This very this.

No one can remember this.

But they sure as hell can enjoy it.

Saturday, January 30, 2010

the cost of beauty

Buying dinner food in the supermarket a short time ago, I ran into Dave, a former news photographer at the paper where I once worked. Both of us, in different ways, had been eased out the same door. Dave had one daughter (of two) tucked into the rolling grocery basket and was waiting his turn to check out. I stopped to say hello.

We chatted a bit about the latest unfortunate happenings at the newspaper and then I asked him how things were going for him. The last time I ran into him in the supermarket, he was about to start a job with some 'green' company that was into solar panels or something similar. He said things were OK ... he was now the chief traffic enforcement officer in the small city where we both live. The pay wasn't much, he said, but the benefits made up for it.

As I left the store, I thought about the beautiful -- literally beautiful -- pictures Dave had taken during the time when we were both at the paper. It takes a good eye and a good heart to take good pictures and Dave had taken some good pictures.

And now he was hip deep in what I imagined to be parking need for a good eye or, necessarily, a good heart. Just parking tickets. Parking tickets to feed and care for his family. In hard economic times, it was steady, assured work ... steady assured income ... steady, assured peace of mind.

Beauty is an expensive commodity. Beauty has its prices. And not everyone has the capacity to create what is beautiful. I suppose the stocks and bonds that sent this country into a tailspin have a beauty to some people, but do they really make their hearts soar or do they simply inflate the ego. Beauty has no ego. Beauty has no price sticker.

But two daughters can be truly beautiful creations.

short and sweet

There's another windy post below this one.

I just finished writing it.

Looking at its weighty-freighty distances, I thought it would be nice to offer something short and sweet.

So here it is.


war in the heart

I wonder if it's just a truism that anyone on a spiritual path has to wrestle with over and over again ... and find a resolution for, assuming spiritual endeavor is to have any experiential credibility at all:

On the one hand, to state it one way, I have problems or uncertainties. Those problems are emotional or intellectual and they can be pretty compelling ... a loss, a longing, a fear, a poverty, a sense of homelessness that gnaws.

On the other hand, there is the promise of spiritual endeavor of whatever kind. That promise is warming in its distances from my problems. It is not affected in the same way I am affected. It is overarching and serene and competent ... and maybe is filled with a delightful glow.

I don't much care if the direction is called "God" or "enlightenment" or by some other name. Whatever it is called, still it is a good thing, a promising thing, a thing that stands in an apartness that is both loving and unaffected.

And I like it like that. I am not interested in a God who has the same stumbling difficulties that I have. And woe betide the suggestion that that God could be as plain and stumbling and uncertain as I am. Where would my faith and belief and dream be if that were so? How could there be relief and release and a loving home if God/enlightenment/Tao were not be an improvement on my narrow and narrowing circumstances?

So on the one hand there is a longing to find peace and relief and release in a home that might be called God. There are hymns and rituals that support and encourage and offer fulfillment of that promise. On the other hand, there is a fear and utter revulsion at the idea that such a fulfillment might occur. "We can know God through his works" the Christians say. And maybe this is so, but it leaves out the fulfillment that the human heart began and continues its quest in search of ... who the hell IS God, anyway?

Please tell me!

No wait! Please don't tell me -- that would ruin the dream! That would be apostasy! That would be a true horror!

The longing to be close-closer-closest to God is nothing other than a desire and insistence on keeping that God/enlightenment/Tao at a distance.

And this is no goddamned joke or speculation or religio-philosophical Tinker Toy for those who are serious about spiritual endeavor. It is a serious daily matter ... the hope and belief and dream of relief and release, and the realization that if such a hope and belief and relief were attained, there would no longer be any need for hope or belief or dream of release. Eeeek!

When Swami Vivekananda, the Vedanta teacher who studied with Sri Ramakrishna and knocked them in the aisles at the World Parliament of Religions in Chicago in 1893, was offered the opportunity to realize in experience what Vedanta and his teacher had to offer ... he balked. Balked as anyone involved in spiritual endeavor balks day in and day out. Ramakrishna put his thumbnail against Vivekanada's forehead. The promise was clearly in the air ... this was it ... Vivekanada was about to see with his own eyes what his mouth could so wisely praise. Ramakrishna put his thumbnail against Vivekananda's forehead and Vivkananda cried out: "Not yet! Not yet!"

Not yet!

Not now!

It's so consoling for the believer of today to look into the past. Looking into the past, it is easy to find great teachers and teachings. But it also offers the perfect excuse not to look into the present: Those guys and gals are all dead: What could they possibly know about my uncertainties and longings and the stumbling steps anyone today might take while seeking God or enlightenment or Tao or some other wondrous relief and release? They're holy. I can spend time elevating and adorning them and then keeping the wondrous dream, this wondrous distance, alive.

Well, to put it indelicately, it's the same shit, different day. The differences we may assert between ourselves and the holy (wo)men we may adore are, to the extent they can be found at all, the differences between two peas in a pod. No one in their right mind selects or elevates one pea over another when it's time for lunch ... let's eat!

But ... and there always seems to be a "but..."

Not yet!

What I long for in my deepest heart is what I fear and abhor in my deepest heart. Seriously ... not philosophically or religiously. Seriously. I would rather suffer the fires of eternal hell than to actualize what it might be like if those fires went out. It's just plain too scary, too out-of-control, too simple, too lacking in heaven and hell.

None of this is intended as a criticism. It's just a depiction of what I think actually happens in the human heart, the human life, the honest-injun places where no holy man could enter...the world in which my shoelaces break. We long for what we fear and fear what we long for ... and the whole process is reassuring in its limited nature. We claim to want what we fershur don't want at all...and we spend long hours and days making sure we don't get anywhere near attaining what we think and believe might be attained. OK -- it's just the human way, the human mind, the human heart. No biggie.

Not yet.

Not God.

Not release.

Let me snuggle down in my longings, so cozy against the cold winds.

The American civil rights leader Martin Luther King (it's OK, he's dead, no need to feel threatened or curious ... praise away!) once summed up the difficulty that is very much alive when he observed approximately that it's not what's wrong with the world that scares people; it's the fact that everything's all right that scares the pants off them.

Not yet!

Not God!

Not release!

I think the thing that offers the best chance of bringing the warring heart to rest, the thing that solves the mystery of why I may love God so dearly and yet spend so much energy steering clear of any actualization, is a practice of some sort.

A literal practice. In Zen, we sit down, fold the legs, straighten the spine, shut up, and focus the mind. Thought, word and deed are brought into this single activity ... no matter how much anyone might squirm. And isn't unification what anyone might seek? Isn't the posited God or enlightenment or Tao a unified being or essence ... even in a weaving, hopeful mind. I may be a mess, but something or someone is not like me, not fragmented, not uncertain ... but whole and complete.

And everyone knows about completeness. They know it in a sneeze. They know it in a laugh. They know it in a long run. They know it in a kiss. It's nothing special or unusual and yet there is a longing for that easy certainty as a constant presence, not something that comes and goes.

It's useful to find a practice ... and then practice it. Not just on Sundays. Not just when elevated by a delicious imagination or hope. Not just with all the usual filigree that may be placed around the objects of veneration or disgust. Practice.

Practice and a little at a time, the war in the heart is stilled. Practice and what was merely venerated becomes clear and friendly. Practice and let the weight of the world grow light ... let the weight of hopes and beliefs and fears and desolations slip away. Practice some limited and determined practice.

And just see what happens. See if there is not peace where once there was only "peace." See if there is not relief where once there was only a longing for "relief." See if there is anything limited in your limitations. Just see what happens. Stop loving to hate what you hate to love and just, well ...

Practice. Is there any end to it? Any goal to it? Any meaning to it? Any relief or lack of relief in it? Any need for dead guys, who, come to think of it, can hardly be called "dead?"

See what happens.

It's not so hard, is it?

And it's not as if "not yet" could keep anything at bay.

Stop making war when there is only peace.


Friday, January 29, 2010

worth the price of admission

The cold arrived today, solid and stolid as an anvil in some deserted barn, and I am glad once again for the wood stove's efforts.

It is pleasant to see that what once took some effort -- building the chimney, tiling an area for the stove itself, lifting, sweating, correcting so many errors, cursing -- has proved worth that effort.

old man Gautama

On a Zen Buddhist bulletin board, I posed the question: Had anyone seen any depiction of Gautama Buddha (the one most frequently referred to as the "Buddha" in "Buddhism") as an old man ... any art work or statuary? And, based on the responses so far, such a depiction does not seem to exist.

From this, if true, I infer that spiritual endeavor is a young (wo)man's sport, an effort reserved to the determined and energetic and hopeful. If you're going to advertise a car, you don't take pictures in the junkyard.

Everyone, young or old, is always young within and so young and old are equally welcome in the spiritual endeavor arena, but when it comes to Buddhist advertising, the smooth, serene and somewhat-hermaphroditic visage of Gautama is more encouraging, I guess.

I don't begrudge any of this or want to make a federal case out of it, but I find it interesting in a spiritual endeavor that, more than most perhaps, bases itself in the factuality of the life anyone might lead. The junkyard is unavoidable, but the car that may inform our travels is forever as pristine as lake water to the eye.

Jesus died at 33, so there is some reason to understand why he was and remains depicted as a younger person. Mohammad -- well, in Islam I think there is a prohibition against making pictures of any sort. Gautama died at 80. And (not to elevate or adore him by comparison) my teacher, Kyudo Nakagawa Roshi, declined to have his picture taken the last time I saw him: "I am getting old," he said.

It's all a small matter ... but informative, I think. Old age was one of the four 'sights' that the young prince Siddhartha Gautama saw when riding out from behind his palace walls. The four sights -- sickness, old age, death, and a monk -- put the fire in his belly to understand and clarify his own uncertainties in life. And who would not like to be at peace with their own uncertainties?

But, assuming as many Buddhists do that Gautama in fact came to a place of peace-with-the-facts, suddenly those facts are not something to embrace too brazenly. Yes, everyone gets old, but to press the point, to rub anyone's nose in it with pictures or statuary, might be to deter the willingness to make the effort necessary in making peace with the facts.

All this dovetails nicely with my own feeling that we all tell and are deeply informed by lies in pursuit of some compelling and important truths. And it reminds me of the tale of Gautama extending a closed fist to a weeping child -- pretending there was gold within in order to still the tears. And the tears do stop ... and all the time, the fist is merely empty. When seeking the truth, it really is not enough to tell the truth. A well-contrived lie is probably far more effective.

Those who seek to strip away such fabrications -- to duck and cover or to become outraged by a less-than-complete picture or to point righteously to the Buddhist proscription against lying, to suggest that meeting facts head-on is the best course -- are missing the point, for my money.

The point is the weeping child in all of us.

To stanch those tears requires a willingness on the part of the one weeping -- a willingness to make some effort, a willingness to step out from behind their own palace walls, a willingness to reflect ... a comfort zone. Comfort zones are invariably fictitious, but fictions can be extremely useful -- perhaps imperative -- when investigating the facts and actualizing any peace to be found within them.

Comfort zones and fictions ....

Consider Buddhism for example.

Consider Buddhism and do not scoff or wax profound.

It is the weeping that is important.

Old man Gautama did not miss the point.

Thursday, January 28, 2010


I think it is a good idea not to disdain our whispered doubts. When our most cherished thoughts and emotions face off against the bedroom ceiling at 3 a.m. and the question arises, "What if it's all bullshit?", I think it's a good idea to honor that thought. Not revere -- just honor.

It seems to me that it is our doubting Thomas who has the capacity to inspire a determined effort ... to find out for ourselves if our most cherished thoughts and emotions are worth the cherishing.

Elevating our skepticisms won't do any more than elevating our certainties will do -- that's just a surrender that invites a comforting lethargy. But when we find ourselves cherishing one god or another, one worry or another, one relationship or another, one belief/disbelief or another, then it is time to investigate and find out ... not just paper things over with more cherishing.

Honor the skeptic's sly whispers. Like as not s/he is suggesting something worth knowing. But only you can know that.

without consultation

Suddenly, without so much as a "by your leave," it is snowing.

Suddenly, without any consultation, I get word that Tommy's father is dead.

Suddenly, without wisdom or ignorance, this breath comes or goes.

Why anyone would want to rouse up a religion or philosophy beats the hell out of me.

Suddenly, it just happens.

building blocks

At the high school I graduated from, there was a mandatory Bible class. The school had its roots in a religious history, but by the time I got there in 1954, curriculum Christianity was vestigial -- more an acknowledgment that an educated man living in America would have at least a passing understanding of the religious threads in the American culture.

In Bible class, there was no indoctrination or brass-knuckle creationism in the air. The class included homework like any other class. The only assignments I remember were reading a book on the life of Jesus and having to memorize the books of the old and new testaments.

I thought of this last night while watching a bit of TV. It must have been Ken Burns' series on the national parks in this country, but I didn't see the beginning or end of the show, so I don't know. The part I saw focused on American naturalist and (I suppose) visionary, John Muir.

In a brief biographical background, the narrator said Muir was born in Scotland and brought up in Wisconsin. His father, an "itinerant Presbyterian minister," was hard on his son, beating him into memorizing scripture. By the age of 11, the narrator said, Muir could recite much of the Old Testament by heart, and had memorized all of the New Testament. He went on to study botany and geology in college and proved himself an able entrepreneur in the jobs he held before heading into the wilderness -- specifically, to what is now Yosemite National Park, where he walked and studied and ruminated on God's works in a way that impressed and convinced many ... convinced them not necessarily to go to church, but to see what was around them in a visionary context.

But I got stuck on his memorization. Think of it: Eleven years old and he could recite all of the New Testament. Never mind religion, that's a hell of a lot to remember, let alone recite. At 11 ... or any other age. What a building block and what a frightful weight ... taking up so much of his young energies and focus.

The show made me wonder if, with all of his reshaping and revising of his early training, Muir was a happy man. His acolytes and admirers will scoff at such a question ... of course he was happy. But I wonder idly if he really was. Not that anyone can know for sure any more than they can know the happiness and peace of any other human being. I just wonder.

And the segment of the show I saw also made me wonder if everyone doesn't reshape and revise their youthful beginnings ... the building blocks and weights that painted their past. Whether rigorous or lackadaisical, whether conformist or non-conformist, whether loving or painful ... still, reshaping and revising the blessings and curses of the past into a living testament. Not that it's a matter of conscious decision or will power -- I just think it's what happens as naturally as the growth of daisies.

Teenagers may scoff at or extol their parents' missteps and foibles -- "I'm NEVER going to be like that!" or "I want to be JUST LIKE my dad or mom!" -- and experiences in later life may nourish similar conclusions and judgments, but the imagined control is, I imagine, more imaginary than real. How could anyone possibly be anything other than what they are? How could they help but be an utter original?

I'm not arguing for some dumbed-down fatalism, some it-is-written comic-book approach.

Last night on TV, President Barack Obama said "change has not come fast enough." He was referring to the woeful economy and the suffering people are enduring in the wake of the money-manipulators' greedy mistakes. He would like to make things better ... or anyway make people think he was trying to make things better.

But "change has not come fast enough?"

What that means is that things aren't changing to my satisfaction. OK. But are satisfactions the premise on which change operates, on which change depends? Are circumstances that arise my doing ... or not my doing? By removing one weight, what weight replaces it? There always seems to be one ... some blessing or weight replaced by another blessing or weight. Is this a way that encourages peace and happiness? I doubt it.

In high school, I took a Bible class. John Muir suffered at the hands of a righteous father and was filled with biblical words. Each suffers and delights in the freights and weights of a past.

Building blocks, we might say. Building blocks to build more building blocks. Wondrous and horrific building blocks. But no matter how many building blocks we may collect and place and reflect on, still the house is never complete. The blocks may soar to heaven or drag us all into unimaginable hells, and still ...

Whose house is this? Houses protect and defend, but the one who lives in them is utterly unique all the time ... unprotected, unprotectable and living. So...

Who is this alive one?

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

wisdom and ignorance

Funny how those who long for or cling to wisdom of one kind or another are constantly confounded by ignorance. Where wisdom beckons, ignorance snickers.

In Buddhist practice, there are wondrous vows and sweat-drenched efforts. And still there's dog shit on the sidewalk and still there are hot flames of greed and lust and intellectual finery. And where dog shit stinks and the flames are hottest, anyone might seek a way out.

I honestly wonder which is more profoundly helpful: Wisdom or ignorance. No bullshit, which is more honestly useful?

If the principle, the home ground, is the same ... well, what principle is this? Don't daisies and roses and skunk cabbage alike grow out of this one nourishing earth?

Never mind any of the airy-fairy stuff -- the "Buddhist" stuff, the "wise" stuff, the "magical mystery tour" stuff, the "oneness" stuff ... how is it honestly in your life?

Don't we say "thank you" to what is wise and elevating? Don't we say "no thank you" to what is ignorant and painful?

But which is which? Seriously, check it out. Look it over. Which is or was more informative -- the wisdom with its invitations and wonder or the flat-out errors and mistakes, some of them very painful?

Surely we cannot devalue or dismiss the one or elevate and wax lyrical about the other. There is only one earth, right?

So ... which is which?

It may take some practice, but the best I can think of is ...

Thank you.

And I don't mean just some smarmy, goodie-two-shoes, philosophical "thank you," but rather a "thank you" in the heart.

Just, thank you very much.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

what's the matter with common sense?

What's the matter with common sense? Is it too common, too unspicy, too un-grand when compared to my ornate view of myself? What's the matter with common sense?

If you stick your finger in the candle flame, it will hurt.
Common sense.
If you don't look where you're going, you'll step in dog shit.
Common sense.
If you hurt someone, they are likely to hurt you back.
Common sense.
All things change.
Common sense.

But somehow common sense is not compelling enough, attention-getting enough. It's too d'oh! And so, as a means of keeping the attention on what is just common sense, we create choirs of angels and vast philosophies as a means of finding some peace.

And what happens when the vast philosophies and ringing religions are brought home and plugged in? Well, it's nothing but dog shit and burnt fingers.

What's the matter with common sense?

Monday, January 25, 2010

and then...and then...and then

On Zen Forum International, I was just now thinking of starting a thread in which people might give a laundry list of the encounters and thoughts and books that brought them to a serious spiritual practice.

But as I started to try to make my own list, down to the last bits and scraps, I realized that it would be damned near impossible without writing something as long or longer than "War and Peace."

The Buddhists I know, either in person or on the internet, may point to the television series "Kung Fu" or to Beat authors or to a search that evolved out of some religious upbringing that no longer seemed to fit. Or they may simply say "suffering" as a way of covering the bases and their conversational abilities or inabilities.

I certainly realized I couldn't do it in any very coherent form ... without turning into a incoherent child trying to explain his/her excitement about a story s/he had heard or read: "And then...and then...and then...and then...."

I could say that I read "Siddhartha" or "The Robe" ... and then I could say that I was brought up in the arms of intellectual zealotry, which is enough to send anyone seeking a more peaceful path ... and then I could say I had been touched by an stray look or smile or that quite accidentally I sat with a Buddhist monk over supper in college....

And then...and then...and then....

Funny how we have no trouble at all making a coherent, clearly-linked story out of anyone else's life, but when it comes even to the things we take most seriously in our own lives, the things we might wish to explain most carefully and exactly, we are left floundering like a fish on the dock. We are lost and are forced to surrender. The exertion is too much and, somehow, too futile. Here we are ... that's about the best we can do ... and even that may be open to some question, some inexactness, some failure.

And then ... and then ... and then....

And some weary but wise voice growls, "Forgetaboutit!" Get your head out of some imperfectly-remembered "then." Those priceless gems are, well, important perhaps, but they're dust and dither by this time. Explaining this now by referring to that then is a pastime for high school students and the infirm. "Forgetaboutit!"

The only question that might be asked is ...

Now what?

comfort zone

Let me write something accessible and comfortably indirect.

There ... is that accessible and indirect enough?

the mice behind the wall

Running around my mind, like mice behind the wall, is a vague notion of writing some book or tract entitled "Advice to All My Children." When you come to my age and station, advice is about all you have to give and, simultaneously, there is the recognition that advice is what people give themselves, not something they can reasonably expect anyone else to follow. But at my age and station, everyone except the guy in the mirror looks like a kid and kids deserve a hand, even if they choose to reject it.

Whatever the caveats, the mice run around behind the wall, sending out annoying little suggestions. The latest scritch and scratch concerned responsibility and the role it plays in happiness.

Responsibility, that weighted and freighted piece of terminology that seems to issue from the thin lips of a righteous Calvinist minister, is just a sine qua non of happiness. Nothing special, just a sine qua non.

Responsibility requires care and patience. It is not something that arrives full-blown on Tuesday morning. As annoying as that care and patience may be, and as much as anyone might fidget and squirm to avoid it ... still, consider the alternative.

Irresponsible people are constantly looking over their shoulders, constantly trying to patch up and beautify their irresponsibilities. They are full of excuses and reasons and artful meanings -- full of praise and blame for others -- and then wonder why they are not happy. It's a paltry sort of existence, one to which any of us might be prone. But just because we are prone to one trait or another does not mean we have to accede to it.

Little and large, the responsible (wo)man exercises care and patience.

A responsible (wo)man knows how to wash a shirt or sew on a button. Or, alternatively, knows s/he does not know how to do these things. The irresponsible (wo)man is convinced that a washing machine or a tailor is the way of the world.

The responsible (wo)man acts and corrects as necessary. The irresponsible (wo)man believes ... and will work his or her ass off shoring up those beliefs.

Care and patience provide nourishment you can take to the bank.

Beliefs just underscore the fact that you are always broke.

Sunday, January 24, 2010

monkey mind

In Buddhism, or even among those who never heard the word "Buddhism," there is often an acknowledgment of what Zen Buddhists can refer to as "monkey mind."

It doesn't take a Buddhist to reflect from time to time on the unsatisfying results of a mind that flits from one thing to another, never settling down, never finding a peaceful repose, always after the next big excitement or acquisition.

And in such times of reflection, there may be a wishful voice that longs for a more settled way of being, something less superficial, something with more meat on the bone. A diet of more and more and more potato chips just doesn't seem very nourishing, no matter how sincere the munching may be.

And sometimes we grow disgusted with our own antics. "Bad monkey mind! Bad, bad mind!" and we try to hit it on the nose with a rolled up newspaper for peeing on the living room carpet yet again. We may long to be more steady and stable, but this monkey mind just seems to get the best of us ... dancing and dodging our every effort, running out to the kitchen and peeing on the linoleum instead.

It's pretty frustrating.

Monkey mind.

I think maybe our criticisms are a bit too intense. Think about it: What has your mind done since day one if not bounce from one thing to another like a monkey in the forest? It is wondrously agile, climbing tall trees in an instant, leaping from branch to branch, wary of predators, careful with its grooming, nourishing its young ... what a perfectly fine beast it is. Monkeys do what monkeys do, don't you think? And it's the same with this mind ... agile, swift, tenacious, caring, wily, strong, loving, venemous, sorrowful ... and hell, that's just in the first two minutes of the day; there's a whole 23 hours and 58 minutes to go ... and the monkey mind is up to the task, day in and day out.

But when our own superficialities and lack of nourishment presses in and a notion arises that this is not a satisfactory situation, then I think we might all take a hint from the Christians who are sometimes misquoted as saying, "Money is the root of all evil." The correct biblical quote is, "The love of money is the root of all evil."

Nothing wrong with money.

Nothing wrong with monkey mind.

But the affection and attachment we may have to either poses difficulties and nourishes unfortunate results.

And as we might take a hint from the Christians, so we might take a hint from the Buddhists. Acknowledging a problem is the first step to any solution, but there is then the matter of actually stirring our stumps and doing something about that problem.

Zen Buddhists practice seated meditation as a means of addressing the wonderful and hellacious monkey that is our mind. Since a superficial mind betokens a superficial life, it is good to find an exercise that will encompass our whole lives -- thought, word and deed ... body, mouth and thought. And a little quiet time, a little time to slow down and pay attention brings this monkey mind not 'under control,' but rather into perspective.

Monkeys leap around. That's what monkeys do. They are miraculously good at it -- a wonder and a joy. But to imagine that this monkey mind rules the roost is a step too far, just as loving money is a step too far. Money is what we use when we need it. Monkey mind is what we use when we need it. Both are very good tools, but imagining they are the only tools or even the ruling tools is an overstatement that the circumstances of life challenges every day. And those challenges make for uncertainty and unhappiness.

It is good to take some time to reflect -- to make friends with the monkey mind that has ruled things for so long. S/he's not a bad monkey or an evil monkey but no one wants to spend their lives cleaning up after an a beloved pet.

So a little training is probably in order. That way, you can get on with the love and stop coping with the mess.

Saturday, January 23, 2010

Dokai Fukui

Dokai Fukui, a Zen Buddhist mentor from afar, once wrote to me from the small temple he ran in Japan that he was married and that he usually sat zazen in the mornings for an incense stick and then went about his business.

I stared down at the paper in my hands and was flabbergasted.

First of all, I didn't know at the time that Zen monks married. But what really floored me was his passing reference to zazen/seated meditation practice. I was hip deep in pedal-to-the-metal practice at the time and very much into a more-is-better mode. And more than just 'better,' it was, in my mind imperative.

Enlightenment was no joke; suffering was no joke ... the practice took a steely resolve and a constant effort and ... and ... and... here was someone I took and continue to take seriously saying it was just a part of his daily routine.

At the time, I was going to a Zen center forty or more hours a week, grinding my teeth, sacrificing whatever social life I might have had, going to retreats, reading Zen books the way other people ate potato chips, constantly needling myself with hopes and thoughts and efforts to understand ... and he was ho-humming through the day????!!!!!

An incense stick, for Christ's sake? Hell, I sat five or ten or more incense sticks in a day.

I was, as the French might say, bouleversé.

True, Dokai was older than I was by perhaps 20 years. True, he had been a slave laborer after being captured by the Chinese -- an enslavement that left his body in poor shape. But...but... I thought everyone who was serious about Zen was a gung-ho Marine. Semper Fi! Enlightenment or bust!

Dokai's letters over the years were filled with acute observations and kindly encouragements. The 1970's were a time before the internet, so his letters arrived at sometimes lengthy intervals. I trusted what he had to say even as I was sometimes left unsure of his meanings.

But one of the things I thought we had in common was Zen practice, was zazen, was an iron-fisted resolve was ... something like that. But the letter in my hands that day left me feeling that what we shared was not at all what I understood. I felt somehow betrayed and simultaneously knew Dokai would never betray me.

It did not occur to me at that time to reflect on my own presuppositions -- to ask, for example, what I imagined enlightenment to be, what I imagined practice to be, what, in fact, I was doing in my own gung-ho practice.

I didn't want to reflect; I didn't want to go backwards; I wanted to charge forward and get 'better' -- to somehow 'win.' I wanted to defeat suffering and uncertainty and bask in some compassionate serenity which, even if I couldn't really define it, was better than what the muddling and uncertain present offered up. I wanted to be enlightened ... and don't bother me with what enlightenment might actually mean! I wanted to get to heaven and the hell with the fact that the parameters of that heaven remained imaginary ... ornate, well-spoken, well-educated and with lots of supporting quotes, perhaps, but imaginary nonetheless.

A little at a time, I forgot Dokai's letter and his ability to flabbergast me, to set me back on my heels. I went back to being a Marine, endured the knock-knees that made sitting a painful business, slew the enemy hordes as best I could, faced down and even came to some understanding about both difficulties and bright openings. I failed and succeeded and failed again. Semper Fi! Onward and upward! Into the valley of death rode the 600!

And here it is so many years later. I'm married now and have three children. I wish I could remember half the stuff I once knew about enlightenment and compassion and emptiness, but the fact is I don't. I don't run a temple, but tomorrow I will go out to the small zendo I built in the backyard and do a little zazen ... an incense stick will be enough: The zendo is poorly insulated and I am more affected by the cold than once. So, a little zazen will be nice.

Thirty-five or forty years has passed since I first took and interest in spiritual endeavor. Dokai is dead now. I have no clue as to his enlightened status, then or now. I do know I wouldn't insult him by calling him 'enlightened.' And I do know he was a good man, a man I honor and honored.

I only hope I can be a good man too.

the pope and the internet

In times stricken by dwindling membership, dwindling income and a dwindling number of new Roman Catholic priests, the pope has urged those priests to make use of the internet ... and blog as well.

I think it might have been interesting to listen in on the conversations that preceded the public announcement. Given phenomena like the election of American president Barack Obama, it is clear that the internet can be a potent and galvanizing force.
But the rich confusions of personal connection and intimacy (no, I am not talking about priests screwing little boys) is lost in the distances the internet asserts.

I wonder if the pope figured it was just the best compromise he could come up with and if so, how sad he might have been to make such a compromise. Certainly the internet gets the word out, but its superficiality in real-life terms is everywhere apparent.

Barack Obama was swept to office by words like "hope" and "change" and perhaps the fact that he could speak in coherent sentences after eight years of enshrined malapropisms. But where are his "hope" and "change" now, a year into his presidency?

Surely the Roman Catholic word can be transmitted more widely on the internet, but will that transmission assure or even encourage much of an intimate, living, breathing faith and understanding?

Perhaps the bottom line for the pope was to have faith in his faith -- a tough nut for any proselytizer. Who has faith enough to release a cherished faith into uncherished waters? The wispy hosannahs of the internet are hardly the stuff of any substantive religious practice and yet who knows what wispy words will infuse an intimate heart? Certainly you can increase a fan base on the internet ... but are cheering fans the point of religion ... or politics either, for that matter?

Anyway, I am sitting here imagining that I can see the pope's dilemma. I just would like to have heard the arguments that led to the decision.

Joachim S. Porzig

Herr Porzig, a one-armed former artillery officer in the German army during World War II, was one of five or six instructors responsible for training the eight of us to speak his native tongue. As young soldiers, we often had a hard time understanding his south-German accent spoken at light-speed because we were more used to our other instructors, who all came from the north, and all spoke in the clipped, sharp-edged accent common there.

Joachim S. Porzig had had his arm blown off during service on the Russian Front. The only thing he couldn't do was put on his leather-banded wrist watch, he said. None of our German teachers at what was then called the Army Language School had ever fought against the French, English or Americans on the Eastern Front. As students, we used to laugh about it as if, perhaps, the teachers had lied about where they served in order to find work with the Americans.

Besides being an upright and impeccable man, Porzig, who died in 2002 at 86, had an avuncular side. He was not above imparting the kind of advice an older man might dispense to a younger one. He once, for example, looked me straight in the eye with utter seriousness and said, "You can do anything -- anything you want." As an uncertain 20-year-old, I was both wonder-struck and dubious about the encouragement.

And on another occasion, he told the class a little something of his father -- a man who had saved discarded nails and bits of string. Nothing should go to waste, the old man told his son ... nothing.

And I thought of Porzig this morning as I remembered the Zen Buddhist teacher Lin Chi/Rinzai, a Chinese man who grew up thousands of miles away from and hundreds of years before the Germany in which Joachim S. Porzig and his father grew up.

Lin Chi, who said, "Grasp and use, but never name."

Waste nothing.

What is useless always has a use.

Friday, January 22, 2010


In the spiritual tradition I 'grew up' in, Zen Buddhism, you can find people who are hell-bent on finding a teacher, some flesh-and-blood instructor. You can also find people who are hell-bent on avoiding finding such a teacher. And most of the rest combine some elements of both positions.

But tonight I feel like arguing that if you lay claim to an interest or investment in Buddhism, you have, by definition, got a teacher. For it, against it or mixed-up in the middle ... still you already have a teacher. No joke.

To distinguish this from that is to have a teacher.
To praise one thing and disdain another is to have a teacher.
To be pleased by accomplishments and depressed by defeats is to have a teacher.
To succeed today and fail tomorrow is to have a teacher.
To be ignited by virtue and flummoxed by evil is to have a teacher.
To be owned by certainties or wracked by uncertainty is to have a teacher.
To succeed at koan A and fail at koan B is to have a teacher.
To imagine things might be improved is to have a teacher.
To fear that something is missing or well in hand is to have a teacher.
Intellectual and emotional understanding is to have a teacher.
Lack of intellectual and emotional understanding is to have a teacher.

Having a teacher is implicit in being a Buddhist no matter how much anyone might suggest or underline the importance of having a teacher. Why? Because Buddhism as I get it means to pay attention ... to everything. And the closer the attention, the greater the teacher and teaching. There is no escaping the teacher and no embracing him/her/it either.

None of this is to malign or overlook the friends anyone might meet along the way, or the good instruction those friends might offer. Thank you very much, one and all!

But let's not fret too much -- those of us who lay some claim, even a limping one like my own, to Buddhism. Having a teacher is like wetness and water ... how could wetness or water possibly abstain or protest?

Isn't that just the way things are ... endlessly teaching?


Do you suppose if people stopped pestering paradoxes that they might sort things out perfectly well on their own?

Do paradoxes, when they're not being badgered by the would-be wise, gather like whispering school girls in some corner, reciting their conquests, and then, looking furtively over their shoulders, say things like, "Uh-oh, here comes that nitwit philosopher and his solemn acolyte. Quick! Straighten your hair! Puff yourself up and look important!"

Everyone likes to be noticed.

Why should paradoxes be any different?

something for me

Once upon a time, after a sesshin, or Zen retreat, I was talking with a fellow student. He was agitated and in the midst of his conversation he said (in words that anyone who has been to a sesshin might appreciate), "There's got to be SOMETHING for me!"

Of course Zen practice does not point to "something for me," some prize, some relief, some ... some SOMETHING for me. But coming face to face with the facts of the matter is different from talking casually, philosophically or 'spiritually' about it. My friend's words were a cri de coeur, a cry from the heart.

I had no words of comfort to offer. Hell, I was in the same boat: I too wanted, in whatever wily ways, something for me in a world that seemed to point towards nothing-whatsoever for me.

Well, when you put it in words, it sounds sexy or philosophical or unimaginable: Not only is there nothing-for-me, in Zen practice, there is not even nothing-for-me.

I'll let others mutter about the illusory nature of the ego ... that's probably something for them.

I have to go to the bank and get some cash.

It's something for me.

the solution

What a lot of dictionary definitions there seem to be for the word "solution." I don't know about you, but the more anyone explains a subject, the more I suspect they don't know their ass from their elbow ... but that may just be my suspicious nature.

Anyway, here are an internet dictionary's definitions for the word "solution:"

▸ noun: the successful action of solving a problem ("The solution took three hours")
▸ noun: a method for solving a problem ("The easy solution is to look it up in the handbook")
▸ noun: a statement that solves a problem or explains how to solve the problem ("They were trying to find a peaceful solution")
▸ noun: the set of values that give a true statement when substituted into an equation
▸ noun: a homogeneous mixture of two or more substances; frequently (but not necessarily) a liquid solution ("He used a solution of peroxide and water")

Of course no one cares about the definition or the etymology of the word "solution" when life's problems come along. Where difficulties come up, well, we've probably all wished we could be like the Mafia don whose solution required nothing more than a bullet in the malefactor's brain. When anyone wants a solution, where the problems press in like angry bees, well it can be a desperate race for a solution ... not a discussion and dissection of something called a "solution."

Pressed for money?
What's the solution?
Unfortunate relationship?
Gimme a solution.
Finding a solution is important.
Unsure about one thing or another?
What's the solution?
Uneasy about death, disease, drugs, divorce or even delight?
What solution will ease the dis-ease?

Solutions are as serious and urgent as the problems that suggest we seek them out. They are a personal matter. Sometimes we find a solution. Sometimes we find a compromise that we are willing or forced to accept as a solution. And sometimes we never find a solution at all. But whatever the case, the notion of a solution seems to be entwined in our DNA.

Spiritual endeavor is no exception. For some, such efforts are an answer to questions that arise from deep and specific uncertainties ... real tree-shakers like death or disease or loss. Sometimes it's just an overarching malaise that calls out for something that will be a solution to "everything." Sometimes it is an excuse for a smarmy or rigid moralism. And sometimes spiritual endeavor is just a good way for guys to get girls ... or a good way for girls to get guys. Whatever the problematic impetus, spiritual endeavor may seem like a pretty good solution.

The difference between spiritual endeavor as a solution and other more ordinary solutions is that, assuming anyone is serious about a spiritual endeavor, there is a requirement for honesty. Yes, we can all be pretty solemn about spiritual endeavor, but there is, for those inclined, a time to serious up: When has solemnity ever assured any peace, any real solution?

And so, in seriousness, it can be instructive to investigate our willingness and longing to solve the problems at hand. First there is the problem, whatever it may be. And then, our DNA tells us, there is a solution. But looking back over our lives -- just taking a look -- when has a solution truly solved, completely eased, or utterly erased any problem that preceded it? Did the answer completely answer or do the echoes and shadows of the problem remain ... if only in informative memory?

From such an investigation, I think it becomes obvious that solutions don't really solve anything in the perfect sense our DNA may suggest. And if this is true, then it is obvious that such a solution can only be found in the problems themselves. Perhaps, instead of seeking out the solutions, we should be seeking out the problems. What IS the problem? Whose problem is it? Is it really a problem and if so, who says so?

Such an investigation is not for sissies, not for the solution-prone, not for the spiritually-lyrical. It takes some courage and it takes some patience. If solutions rely on problems and problems call out for solutions, then problems and solutions are a package deal, as tightly entwined as wetness and water, as inescapably woven as a strand of DNA.

I'm not sure which takes more courage and which takes more patience -- investigating our problems or investigating our solutions -- but I do think that there is no escaping the need for investigation if any satisfactory solution is to be found.

And what's the carrot in all this effort, all this so-called spiritual endeavor? What do I get out of the deal? What's the brass ring? What solution does all this sweat propose?

Well, perhaps "peace" is one way to put it.

Of course "peace" probably has more dictionary definitions than "solution," but dictionary definitions never solved anything.

Peace is more interesting than that.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

serious laughter

Strange to think that in spiritual endeavor, you've got to be pretty serious if you want to really laugh.

photographic perspectives

Received in email:

Use your mouse to move around. ( Up / Down....Left / Right, Gotta hold left "click" down)


RIP Kate McGarrigle

In an email from my friend Dave, I heard this morning of the death of folk singer Kate McGarrigle. I'm not exactly sure why, but it pierced my heart. I love(d) the music she and sister Annie could make and the fact that the clip Dave appended was a waltz redoubled the sorrow. I am a pure sucker for waltzes.

What is it about beloved music? It is intangible and yet capable -- as with Beethoven's "Pastoral" or the McGarrigle waltz -- of opening me up, of stripping me to the unreachable reaches of love, and of making me know that there is something I would literally die for.

I cannot say my sadness.
I cannot say my love.
I cannot say my music.

I don't mind being called a fool.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010


Though I read many of his books, I had never heard Aldous Huxley in 'person' until yesterday. I always knew he was exceptionally well educated, a star in the 'intellectual' firmament, but, given my own upbringing, was wary of his light. In the linked clip, he does say that the intellect without kindness is a cold and distant and inhumane appendage (which makes me like him), but I still don't know if the capacities he had were capable of bringing some peace to his life. I would have liked to ask him, since the intellect is such a wily cuss. Anything can bring people home, assuming they are willing to investigate and consent, but getting home is not a matter for the intellect. Huxley was smart enough to write, "If the intellectual travels long enough and far enough, he will return to the same point from which the non-intellectual has never started." It's an apt observation, but I do wonder if he was capable of taking the next step.

And, in the 'thinking' department, here is Auguste Rodin's "The Thinker" -- a graceful statue that depicts and ability to think, but no ability to be at peace.

And finally, there is Swami Vivekanada, a British-school educated expositor of Vedanta, author of many books, and a man who knocked them in the aisles at the Parliament of Religions in Chicago in 1893. His search for God led him to become perhaps the best-known disciple of Sri Ramakrishna, a teacher who spoke directly to Vivekananda's search when he told Vivekananda he could and did speak as directly to God as Ramakrishna was speaking to him. Vivekananda, with all his fine, thinking-cap capacities, credited Ramakrishna's experience and stayed on as a student.

Stayed on and later would write: "The mind (he meant intellect) is a good servant and a poor master," an observation that, although merely intellectual in nature, nevertheless points directly, for my money.

a little refreshment

I had cause to re-watch George Carlin's take on religion today and, although I could recall it pretty much in detail, still I found it lively and refreshing.

Not everyone's cup of tea, but it sure is mine.

now and then

Yesterday, while thumbing through "The Meditations of Marcus Aurelius," a book I haven't looked at in perhaps 30 years, it occurred to me again how there is no time or place distant enough to slice and dice the wisdoms of this life.

Marcus Aurelius, a Roman emperor, thought many of the same good and encouraging and confounding thoughts that any man or woman in 2010 might. And his thoughts had been poured over in ages before him.

Naturally, there are eureka moments when someone stumbles into the questions and answers that move people, but I think it would be a good idea to remember that there is only one story ... so it's not all that surprising.

I don't mean to play some smarmy 'one-ness' card, some 'interconnectedness' anthem. It's more plain than that. Marcus Aurelius had a high profile and a good education and so he is remembered by some. But shepherds along the valley floor and yak drivers among the peaks are no different.

Questions and answers ... it's pretty much the same, whether it's designated as 'profound' or 'shallow.'

Just because something surprises me doesn't mean it's surprising.


When I began girding up my loins for the spiritual-endeavor challenge -- reading a lot of books, going to lectures, and working up a collection of wows and woohoos -- one of the things that crossed my mind was to become some sort of teacher.

As much as I might try to suppress the dream, still it whispered like some devilish mosquito on a dark night: Robes and accolades and a capacity to teach lots of people ... being oh-so-helpful, dontcha know. It was all subtler than that, of course -- swathed in a beneficent glow of kindness and humility and ....

Of course it wasn't humble at all. It was a pipe dream and if there is such a thing as a humble pipe dream, I'd be pretty surprised. I wanted to do good and, well, if the crowd applauded and found good in my imagined goodness, that would be kool too.

I don't look back on this daydreaming as naughty or stupid or something to disdain. It was par for the course -- another way of encouraging the world of spiritual endeavor as I understood it at the time, another way of asserting a control I did not yet possess. Every boy wants to be a fireman or a cop when he grows up, and I was no different: I wanted to be good ... and the play with the big boys, the boys I admired and revered. OK.

Once, when sitting with a group of Zen students who were idly sipping coffee and passing time expressing "what I want to be when I grow up," a forty-something woman nailed my situation to the wall. "When I grow up," she said, "I want to be a rich ... sexy ... saint." I too wanted to be a saint ... but with all the enjoyments and perks I had experienced in the past.

Time passed and I got my chance to assume various small roles as the 'teacher' I imagined I might be. I gave talks. I went on a radio show to talk about Buddhism. I encouraged those with less time-in-grade than I had.

But it was interesting: No matter what I said or what the result was of my 'teaching,' I found myself dissatisfied afterwards. "If only I had...." seemed to be a mantram. And I was somehow ashamed of myself. My 'teachings' always seemed to occasion regret.

But that regret did not rein in the willingness to practice zazen. If anything, it spurred it on. I wanted to be free of regret and zazen seemed like a good way to accomplish that goal. So I practiced ... and daydreamed.

Bit by bit, the elevation of goodness or saintliness or big boys seemed to wane. And together with it, the need to control, the need for the "rich, sexy" part, dwindled. Practice was more informative and profound and strangely both less and more important than what I had once imagined.

These days, while I would not lay claim to playing with the big boys, still I like the appreciation of Huang Po -- not just as some big-boy story teller, but as a man who simply stated the obvious ... the kind of obvious evident in this tale:

Once Huang Po stood before the assembly of monks giving a talk. In the course of that talk, he said, "There is no such thing as a Zen teacher." One of the monks stood up immediately and challenged him: "How can you say such a thing, master, when clearly you are standing before us, teaching?" And Huang Po replied, "I said there was no such thing as a Zen teacher. I did not say there was no such thing as Zen."

This statement is the kind of thing that rich, sexy and saintly teachers can twist to their advantage and thus improve their rich, sexy and saintly status. Yes, goodness and virtue and altruism can be elevated. Yes regrets by the dozen can natter and swarm. But whatever second-class maneuvering is brought to bear, whatever manipulation or meaning is flaunted, still Huang Po was just telling the truth.

And it is a truth worth actualizing.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

no strings attached

Maybe as good a way as any to sum up the spiritual-endeavor effort would be:

No strings attached.

No strings attached.
No strings attached.
No strings attached.
No strings attached.
No strings attached.
No strings attached.
Shoe laces.
No strings attached.

On the other hand, I suppose there might be other, more ornate descriptions.


Thinking about my Zen teacher, Kyudo Nakagawa Roshi, this morning, it occurred to me again that his instructions were not a means of getting me to agree with him.

That's the usual way, I think -- saying something in order to get others to agree or sympathize or be wowed.

But these days I agree with what I understand Kyudo to have been doing: Just offering the best common sense he could muster. Period. Just offering ... and letting the other guy make up his or her mind, arouse his or her determination.

It's hard to convey this in most intercourse because so much of that intercourse has to do with forging agreements and creating group homes of one kind or another. Cozy, social, emotionally satisfying.

But let's face it -- there will always be others to agree and disagree ... and what has that ever proved? The important part is to learn to agree with yourself.

Agree with yourself. Revise as necessary.

get real!

An email friend -- formerly a newspaper reporter, now a college prof -- wrote yesterday to wail about and rail at the sheer weight and idiocy apparent in faculty meetings. I wrote back that maybe it was like being at a gathering of Buddhists -- one in which everyone was so busy being serene and circumspect and 'loving' that it made you want to scream, "Go get laid! Go rob a bank or something!"

Get real!

What a great line: "Get real!" Anyone can utter it with the utmost fervor and sincerity and, let's admit it, righteousness.

War kills our children and the children of others.
Get real!
Everyone needs health one wants to die.
Get real!
Education is a good thing and ignorance harms us all.
Get real!
Drinking and driving don't mix.
Get real!

Make up your own laundry list and, like as not, there is a component that bears a similar stamp: Get real!

And then, with luck, we all hit a brick wall. Looking in the mirror one day, we may wonder what became of our dreams or shudder at what we have become. There is a distance between our actions and our hearts. And looking in the mirror, we may say with fervor, "Get real!" And a wee and uncertain voice may plead from within, "But how ...?" We may not like where we are and wish we were someplace else, but the spiderweb of circumstances seems to spread out in all directions ... sticky, confining, confounding, and inescapable.

It's a piece of cake telling others to "get real," but when we consent to consider our own lives and circumstances, a vague and vast helplessness seems to rise up. Sure, I'd like things to change -- or at least that's what I imagine -- but all I've got to work with is the same pile of habits and hopes that I claim I would like to escape. How do I know things would actually be better if I did, in fact, "get real?"
Perhaps the better-the-devil-you-know compromise is the best I can do...slump down in my life like some sullen teenager at the back of the classroom.

Get real!

Sometimes I feel incredibly and inexplicably lucky to have run into Buddhism as a practice. Other persuasions, as far as I can see, offer a get-real formula that is riddled with imaginative, but not assured, relief. How can "God" be an answer when no one is encouraged to know God? How can "heaven" (with or without the 77 virgins) mean much unless there is some understanding that is experiential rather than simply emotional or intellectual?

And while it is true that Buddhism uses come-hither and not-yet-actualized encouragements like "enlightenment," the scene is leavened by the inescapable imperative: Get to work! It might be nicer to sit around hoping the Tooth Fairy will magically dose us with whatever it might mean to "get real," but the old computer adage sets the bar: "Garbage in, garbage out." Dreams in, dreams out. No work, no results.

Buddhism as a practice is pretty annoying because it calls on its constituency to be ... oh shit! ... responsible. Responsible for what? Responsible for this life, this very particular, warts-and-all life. Everyone might prefer it if someone or something else were responsible, but the longing to "get real" means investigating whatever it is we consider to be false. False -- the old "me," the one who compromised his or her dreams, the one who feels stale and repetitive and trapped, the one who hollers, "Go get laid! Go rob a bank or something!"

Getting real means that the disconnect between body, mouth and thought -- and the uncertainties and irrealities that evolve from that disconnect -- require reconnection. Body, mouth and thought can never actually be disconnected, but it can certainly seem that they are. So, for conversational purposes, we say that a reconnection is necessary in order to settle into our true -- our get-real -- selves.

And Buddhism counsels responsibility ... a responsibility that no one can take for us. Investigation of our warts-and-all self is the only course available when seeking out our get-real self. Curse the heavens as we may want to, praise one god or another as we like, still the fact remains. "Get real" is not an endeavor for sissies.

In the Buddhism I trained in, there is some emphasis on meditation -- a route that leads directly to the old, stale, compromising and wobbly self. To sit down, erect the spine, shut up and focus on, perhaps, the breath, is to express our responsibility and reconnection. True, it may not feel very responsible or reconnected, but that doesn't change the fact. Where thought, word and deed are one, there is no one-ness ... there is only one-ness.

I suppose other persuasions may point out the same thing -- how to get real -- but their barriers seem higher and more confounding to me. Standing between the one who might hope to get real -- to settle and be at peace with their true nature -- there seem to be a host of get-in-the-way barriers: Church, God, scripture, praise and blame. They may be very good tools, but walking-around evidence suggests that too often the promise of get-real is nothing more than a chocolate-covered version of get-false.

Buddhism is not much different except ... it suggests the possibility of getting real where you stand ... not where someone else stands.

Where thought, word and deed 'reconnect,' the discovery is not open to doubt or belief.

Where get-real is the direction, and responsibility is brought to bear, what the student discovers is marvelous: There is no got in get-real.

There is just -- at last -- real.

Monday, January 18, 2010

the 1918 flu epidemic

Watching a documentary about the influenza epidemic of 1918, one of the most interesting aspects was how quickly people put it from their minds once the danger had passed. Something like 500,000 people died in the United States alone. Civil society was brought largely to a stand-still. No one knew what to do: Doctors were flummoxed, patients would be admitted to hospitals with toe tags already affixed, and coffin makers had to post guards around their wares. Soldiers packed onto troop ships headed for the battlefields of World War I were facing more than a death from bullets since it was recognized that crowded spaces were fertile soil for transmission.

And the United States was not alone:

The global mortality rate from the 1918/1919 pandemic is not known, but it is estimated that 10% to 20% of those who were infected died. With about a third of the world population infected, this case-fatality ratio means that 3% to 6% of the entire global population died.[24] Influenza may have killed as many as 25 million in its first 25 weeks. Older estimates say it killed 40–50 million people[4] while current estimates say 50—100 million people worldwide were killed.[25] This pandemic has been described as "the greatest medical holocaust in history" and may have killed more people than the Black Death.[26] --- Wikipedia

Strange to think that World War I would be remembered and yet this unfathomable horror should have become, even immediately after its passing, a case of collective amnesia. Perhaps the fact that there was no credible blame or explanation that could be affixed made such forgetting inevitable...and perhaps imperative. Horrors like World War I have explanations and analyses that can be adduced. But a horror without an explanation is just too horrific, somehow ... maybe it was like that...where a scream has no sound, who would bother screaming?

And perhaps the same is true for joy. Where explanations find no footing, it is easier to forget about it.

smart 'n' stupid

Is it true or is it Memorex? --

It takes a smart person to know that s/he is stupid.

Only a stupid person would think s/he is smart.

church burning

Where the peace is broken, somehow the heart breaks with it.

Today, on the front page of the local newspaper, there was a picture of a 170-year-old Congregational Church in nearby Cummington ... engulfed in flames.

Someone had taken the trouble to build it. Others had taken the trouble to gather in it. Setting aside the Christian proclivity to pester others with their persuasion, still, it was a place of succor and creativity. No harm done ... and yet early Sunday morning, the harm was done.

No cause for the fire has been named, but the fire chief said that fighting a church fire was possibly the worst ... big, airy, high-ceilinged places where fire has a field day.

The fires of change and time burn down what is harmless and what is harmful. They burn without regard to tears or laughter or love. Who lit these fires? Who put them out?

And what nourishment can this broken heart provide?

comfort and belief

For those inclined towards spiritual endeavor, I wonder if it's true: To the extent that anyone might feel comfort or belief or comforted by beliefs ... to that extent exactly it would be a wonderful encouragement to return to practice.

Who would not comfort the weeping child and who does not weep in one way or another precisely as a child weeps? The uncertainties and suffering that this life can dish up are potent and sometimes overwhelming. Who would not comfort or seek comfort in such circumstances? Only a constricted and contrived heart would be immune.

Emotional, intellectual comfort.

Emotional, intellectual belief.

But also ... when have emotion and intellect ever provided an abiding peace? Doesn't this question need to be asked and answered if anyone were to find a way that was not just a repetition ... a hamster-wheel of living?

OK ... no one wants to become a zombie.

But by the same token, some people tire of their own hamster wheels.

For this reason, perhaps, the Zen teacher Ta Hui once observed approximately, "I have always taken a great vow that I would rather burn in the fires of hell for all eternity than to portray Zen as a human emotion."

Practice ... it's the only option I can think of.

my friend Bill

Like the former U.S. president, Harry S. Truman, my friend William B. McKechnie's middle initial didn't stand for anything. It was just a middle initial. "Rich people," he told me on several occasions when I expressed my incredulousness, "can afford middle names. We never could."

Bill's father and grandfather had had the same name, so Bill was actually "William B. McKechnie III," a moniker with a well-heeled ring despite any lack of loose change.

Truth to tell, I never did quite believe Bill, which may have said more about me than it did about him. But since we were good friends and since he's now dead, I find myself forced to take his words to the bank ... as gospel.

An integral part of what seems to have meaning (his name) had no meaning whatsoever. Interesting. Tantalizing. And a minor matter: Bill was just my friend.

Maybe all language -- all names -- is a luxury item ... reserved for the safe and secure, the ones who have time to imagine and distance and elevate.

Buddhists say "enlightenment," Christians say "God," Muslims say "Mohamed" ... the luxury items of their persuasions. Anyone might go to great lengths to shore up what they take seriously, to swath their 'middle initials' in brocade when all the time ...

Bill was just my friend.

Sunday, January 17, 2010

everything changes

Yesterday, on the peace picket line, it was 47 degrees F.

Now the snow is falling, silent as cotton, around the house.

Deeeep meaning, some might say.

Not me.

more interesting than me

I wonder to what extent spiritual endeavor rests on a proclivity/necessity/need to find something more interesting or important or compelling than I am.

I guess I am thinking of having children, which, assuming anyone likes their children, will put a major dent in our egotisms. But perhaps, with some practice, the love of God might do the same thing ... you can only pretend so long before the rubber hits the road.

On the other hand, perhaps the whole shooting match is nothing but same-ego-different-day.


An internet dictionary defines "refuge" as:

▸ noun: a shelter from danger or hardship
▸ noun: something or someone turned to for assistance or security ("Took refuge in lying")
▸ noun: a safe place
▸ noun: act of turning to for assistance

In times of danger or tumult or uncertainty or sorrow -- where every cell seems to cry out for relief -- who would not seek out or pray for some refuge, some easing, some shelter, some release?

Buddhists, for example, seek "refuge" in Buddha, Dharma and Sangha. But you don't have to be Buddhist to know the longing, to pray the prayer, to seek the relief. Whatever is going on is 'unbearable' and the cry ascends to the heavens, "Get me out of here!"

Refuge -- the time or place or circumstances that will ease what is currently not at ease. Sometimes relief occurs. Sometimes not.

But for anyone who surveys the landscape of multiple refuges sought and attained, one thing becomes clear: There is no abiding refuge. In fact, the refuge sought today may turn into the very time or place or circumstance from which we seek refuge tomorrow.

No refuge. Everything changes and there is no refuge. In theory, "refuge" is hopeful and fine. In practice, there is no hiding place, no perfect safety net, no refuge that will put a signed-sealed-and-delivered period on the sentences that life can dish up. People can work up quite a verbal and philosophical sweat denying this fact, but anyone who has been around the block a couple of times knows it is a fact. In theory, "refuge" is delicious; in practice it falls short.

And yet -- facts be damned -- still we seek refuge. Refuge in relationships, refuge in employment, refuge in location, refuge in religion or philosophy, refuge in a new pair of shoes. It seems impossible to meet the facts as they are: That would be too hopeless, too grim, too imprisoned ... let us continue to seek refuge!

But I would say that the facts offer a real chance at finding a real refuge. Since resistance is futile in actual-factual, walking-around life, perhaps it is the resistance itself that keeps our refuge ever at a distance, never at home.

What are things like in an unintended silence? What are things like in an uncontrived sneeze? What are things like when a pregnant woman is pregnant? What are things like when laughter just explodes? What are things like when the sun goes down? What are things like when the tears won't stop? If such things are inescapable, the only escape is to take refuge in them, don't you think?

And then the question arises -- in practice ... never mind philosophy and psychology and religion -- who could possibly take refuge here? Who could take refuge in a place where there was no refuge? Who could possibly be saved or salved?

These are the places of refuge ... where no one could be saved. This is the abiding refuge ... a refuge that is no refuge, but simply the breath, coming and going and coming and going, or the sun going down, or the laughter filling laughter to the brim.

This is freshness -- the freshness that was all anyone sought in seeking refuge.

Is it easy to talk about and hard to do? Sure, in one sense it takes practice and attention and responsibility and it is hard to seek out such refuge. But since it is inescapable, what could be easier?

Saturday, January 16, 2010

Pat Robertson's teachings

Southern Baptist minister and conservative Christian Pat Robertson has suggested that the Jan 12, 7.0 earthquake disaster in Haiti -- one that has all but leveled capital Port au Prince and left a guesstimated 200,000 dead -- was at least partly attributable to the fact that the Haitians had "made a pact with the devil" when they ousted the French in the 19th century. Ever since they made that deal, things have gone from bad to worse and the Haitians need to make a serious Christian effort in order to redeem themselves, Robertson said. Blame the victim.

The arrogance and unkindness of such a remark is mind-boggling to some -- me included -- but is agreeable to others who hope that a kind, but occasionally cranky, god will see them through the night.

Even from within this 'Christian' mythos, it seems that Jesus Christ might well have made a pact with the devil and been crucified. If only he had turned his heart and mind to the Robertson version of redemption.

But for those whose minds may reel with nitwit unkindnesses and theology, I really think Robertson's is an excellent teaching. The egregious egotism manifested in his remarks -- and the frightening fact that so many might agree with or be influenced by those remarks -- is a first-class reminder ... outrageous when seeing the stricken faces on TV.

But is outrage enough?

I first heard of Robertson's remarks on the peace picket line this morning. A man and woman to might right were talking about it in a way I couldn't help but overhear. And, on overhearing it, the words popped out of my mouth before I could stop them: "What an asshole!"

But the man who was part of the conversation then segued to the fundamentalist-Christian elements of the South. "They really do think that way," he said earnestly. And, with my cauldron still bubbling, I jumped his case. "Don't say that!" I said. "That's no better than Robertson's idiocies! How do you know what 'they' think or believe? How do you know that 'they' think or believe this crap? Have you been there? Have you met 'them?' 'They' are individuals, just like the Haitians...." and I blithered a bit more. Elevating my position by demeaning the position of another strikes me as stupid-stupid-stupid.

What was nifty about the whole small interchange was that it spoke to present conditions -- conditions that are growing more horrific right now ... on the TV news. Bodies piled up; stunned and bloodied faces; tears and eyes to numbed to cry; hunger on the rise; medical help all but non-existent. The heart contracts in sympathy and sympathetic sorrow. And the mind races to make sense of it, to put it in a context that will explain and compass and, in the end, put matters to rest.

But the central teaching of a guy like Robertson is this: No kidding -- I could do precisely the same thing, be precisely the same sort of nitwit, in an effort to lay things to rest and get others to agree with me. And I don't want to be that sort of nitwit ... the sorrow and suffering is too great to be written off with my 'meanings' and 'understandings.' It would be inhumane ... and I really don't want to do it ... even if my mind is just dying to do it, to be in control, to understand with kindness or unkindness, with wisdom or stupidity ... just to find a way to assert my control where others are, in this case, suffering.

Pat Robertson's remarks were very unfortunate ... dumber than a box of rocks, from my point of view. But the lesson was fine:

Don't you do that, Adam.

Just don't you do that!


Some people worry about the ego -- this rampaging, delightful, horrifying something-or-other that seems to rule the roost with an iron hand. They worry about "I" and its fictitious nature and activities. "I" is pretty wily.

But more wily still, I sometimes think, is "because" and the credibilities it can offer.

Maybe things would be easier just to keep and eye on this "I" but dispense with the "because's."

Try it for five minutes. No more "because's."

the One True Color

Sometimes that which is treasured is worth treasuring. Sometimes not. But which is which is not always easy.

One of my all-time favorite tales, one I used to tell my kids when they were little, comes from the world of the Hinduism, a religion/philosophy I admired in part because it always seemed to have the good sense to laugh at itself.

Once upon a time, a tinker carrying a vat came into a particular village. He set himself up in the town square and offered to dye the villagers' cloth in his vat. So the villagers lined up with their bolts and bits of cloth. The first in line told the tinker she would like her cloth dyed blue. Into the vat went the cloth and out it came, blue. The second in line said he would like his bolt dyed red. Into the same vat that had produced a beautiful blue went the bolt, and out it came, red. And so it went, down the line -- red and blue and green and yellow. Each bit of cloth went into the same vat and came out as requested. Finally, there was only one man left in line. He approached the tinker and handed over his cloth with the request, "Please make mine the color of what is in the vat."

I suppose different people will hear that story differently according to the color of their cloth, but I think many if not most would like to be as acute as the last fellow in line. Yeah -- I want to know the essence of things, the essence without the colorful diversions, the very-god of very gods ... the center of the universe, the one answer to every question. What a treasure that would be!

And certainly that last guy in line is an inspiration and an encouragement ... someone suggesting that there is a treasure and it is worth having. Where there is a brass ring, people are bound to try to grab it.

But I see the story somewhat differently these days.

Red and blue and yellow and green ... is it really so smart to relegate such secondary matters to secondary-matter status? Didn't red and blue and yellow and green come out of the same vat? And if so, how could they be any different from exactly what the savvy villager was asking for? I think red and blue and yellow and green are precisely the same ... the one answer to every question; the brass ring among brass rings; the treasure among all treasures.

And still, people will treasure what seems to lie far away and out of sight. They will treasure the magical invitations of their minds. Red and blue and yellow and green are not as special, as magical, as savvy as questing after the color of what is in the vat. Sometimes they will work their asses off trying to attain what is already apparent in the clothes closet: Red and blue and yellow and green. They want something else because what they have just now is not good enough, not holy enough, not functional enough, not peaceful enough, not ... magical and wise. They can make quite a lot of noise about the worthiness of the quest for the One True Color, the Something Else that will bring meaning and peace to all that has gone before.

And if you say, "What's the matter with the blue shirt or red dress you already have?" they can become despondent or even outraged. No, no, no ... I am full of anger and sorrow and regret and a whole lot of colors that aren't the One True Color. There is a greater treasure to be had! Or, alternatively, they can grow lazy ... why bother seeking the One True Color when every color is it ... let me stick to Buddhism or Christianity or Islam as my rock and salvation: Since there is no better way, let me make the best of what I've got and stop mewling about some One True Color. I've got my treasure and I will treasure it as best I may, accepting the fact that there is no brass ring, no improved course. I'll compromise because that's the way the fickle finger of fate has arranged things.

And so they treasure what is not much of a treasure at all...a clothes closet full of colorful compromises.

The pivot in this long-winded and tortured metaphor is the matter of work -- of investigation, of attention, of responsibility. That work begins and ends with the colors already in hand and rousing up the energy to take a look. Red is a good color. Blue is a good color. Yellow is a good color. Green is a good color. Love is a good color. Anger is a good color. Greed is a good color. Joy is a good color. Acquisitiveness is a good color. Compromise is a good color. Fucked-up is a good color. Hell, even religion is a good color. It's a good color because it is your color -- your honest clothes closet, your for-the-moment treasure. Naturally it might be nice to find some tinker who would provide the One True Color without your work, but that will never happen. Who could possibly know your colors better than you ... or treasure them either?

Work. Investigation. Courage. Patience. Doubt. Making mistakes. Heavenly breakthroughs. All of them asking. All of them answering. All of them a magical vat. Whose vat is this? Whose cloth? Whose hope? Whose sorrow? Whose colors? Whose magic? Whose treasure? What other color could all this possibly be?

Maybe, with a bit of effort, we can all become like the Hindus ....

And laugh a little.

Friday, January 15, 2010

telling tales

One of the tricks of the trade in writing -- and maybe anything else -- is this:

Make up your mind: Is it the story that is important or is it what you think of the story?

If what you think of the story -- or pounding a nail or hiking up a mountain -- is the main concern, there will always be problems and the endeavor will be half-baked and rife with frustrated effort.

But if, having conceived of a story or decided to pound a nail, you simply surrender to what is at hand and let the story do the telling, then, although others may praise or blame the effort and although you may goof, still it is the best story.

how considerate is really considerate?

How considerate is it to be considerate? I tried thinking about it here today, but got flummoxed by the vagaries of linking and gave up.

Still, I do wonder: How considerate is it to be considerate?

I like being considerate of others but dislike being stuck in some sitcom universe where the wife asks the husband, "Does this make me look fat?" and woe betide the husband who does not come up with the right answer ... or the world of the inattentive grade-school teacher who can do no better than saying "good joooob!" irrespective of performance.

The best I can do is to state my view together with the proviso that it is just my view.

the magic

When I was a kid, I imagined that adults had magical powers or at any rate possessed secrets that kids were not told. Since their powers and secrets were not revealed, I was left to imagine what they might be: Maybe they could fly, maybe they could become invisible, maybe they could ... who knew what?

I deduced that they had such magical powers or secrets from the fact that adults were capable of weird stuff like making me eat Brussels sprouts or go to bed before nine o'clock, the time when all the best radio shows -- the ones that could scare you to death -- came on.

Where did they get these powers from and how many other bits of magic might there be? It was a matter of speculation but I could tell I was not alone wondering about it because when I was with other kids, they too would say with a kind of hopeful reverence, "When I grow up...." I was six or seven at the time.

At 35, I took a two-and-a-half-day battery of tests to determine, more or less, what I wanted to be when I grew up. The psychological testing targeted not just what I wanted to be, what I dreamed of, but also what I was capable of. At the end of the two and a half days, there was a sit-down discussion with a psychologist who gave a one-on-one analysis of the results. The only thing I really remember about that interview was that he all but offered me a job working in his field.

But beyond the almost-job-offer, the most interesting thing about those tests was this: They didn't tell me anything that was a surprise. I didn't seem to have the power to fly or disappear. No extraordinary powers popped up and no secrets were revealed. The tests provided nothing magical ... they just took all the information I already had lying around the house and put it in one place, collated and filed.

I'm not sure if I was more disappointed or delighted that there was no unusual revelation or outcome. On the one hand, there was the relief-inducing recognition that it was "just me," but on the other, there was the gnawing habit of wondering, "is that all there is ... when, oh when, will the stars align so that I too can fly or disappear?!"

Perhaps that testing was just another version of the profound and sometimes magical world of spiritual adventure -- another nudge, another wake-up call.

I don't know.

I do know that I no longer have to eat Brussels sprouts or go to bed before nine (much as I might long to).

How's that for magic?

Thursday, January 14, 2010

lies get a bad rap

After reading my son's homework assignment about an ethical dilemma he had faced -- and being delighted by it -- I found myself thinking that I would like to tell him something I considered important: Lies get a bum rap.

I thought of this in terms of writing, but I imagine it holds true elsewhere as well.

My thinking was something like this: All writing purports to convey experience and yet words are not capable of conveying experience. Nevertheless, there is a long-standing habit -- supported by school studies and human intercourse -- of supposing that what anyone might read or write or thereby know is "the truth." The links in the chain are strong and compelling: You tell me "the truth" of some experience and I assume that I am now in possession of "the truth."

But words cannot convey "the truth." And in this sense, they are lies. Words convey a description of the truth, just like lies. But the habit of assuming we have gleaned "the truth" from the Bible or Tripitaka or lecture series or analysis is very strong, probably in part because the longing for security and control is very strong. "I understand" has a consoling ring. It is like a warm blanket on a cold night. The only trouble with warm blankets, of course, is that people wake up at 3 a.m. and find their feet sticking out ... freezing.

To the extent that anyone might buy into this line of thinking, I imagine another factor needs to be added -- the assumption that the truth, whatever it may may mean, is good, and lies, whatever that may mean, are bad. Courtrooms underline such thinking by asking witnesses to "swear to tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth, so help you God." Truth is important and good. Lies are important and bad.

The analytical mind, on agreeing to the proposition that words cannot convey experience and are thus lies, may fidget and scurry into the presumption that a skeptical and somewhat curmudgeonly approach is best: It's all a pack of lies and I do not want to be a liar; I want to know and tell the "whole truth, so help me God."

But standing aloof from human intercourse, on or off the written page, is not possible and so, perhaps, the recognition dawns: What is called the truth and what is called lies are a package deal; they are more closely entwined than water and wetness ...impassioned lovers beneath a starry sky. The truth relies on lies for its good name just as lies rely on truth for their bad name.

What is called the truth and what is called a lie deserve a gentler approach, I would argue. Perhaps, without waxing moralistic, the question needs to be asked, "Of what truth is this lie and example?" or "Of what lie is this truth an example?"

Words can't tell the truth. It's just a fact.

Lies don't tell the truth. It's just a fact.

Facts don't require red-hot distinctions. They are just facts.

So a gentler approach is warranted when it comes to the truths we may adore and the lies we may hate. Coming down hard on lies is just a way of elevating the truth. But what is the truth?

Gently ... if the words can't tell the truth and lies can't either ... what can tell the truth?

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

a small movie

Strangely nifty, this was posted on Zen Forum International and thought I would post here as well: Thought Moments

nice surprises

Yesterday evening, my daughter walked through the front door bearing a rose...a single, red beauty.

And where had she gotten it?

A local florist with a billboard out front posts a single first name on a weekly basis. People with that first name -- and proof of identity -- get a free flower. And yesterday, my daughter's name was on the billboard: "Olivia."

A small matter, perhaps, and yet a surprise out of no where. How fun is that?!

Later in the evening, I was reading a homework assignment my older son had written -- a two-and-a-half-page piece on personal, ethical dilemma. The piece nailed the topic to the wall -- outlining an ethical situation he had once faced in middle school...a situation both uniquely personal and utterly universal. As I said to him, "That's an A by content and perhaps a B to B-minus for presentation."

It was the content that made my heart soar.

It was as if life had presented me with a single, beautiful rose.

serious up!

Strange, the tension in spiritual life, between a desired peace and tranquility, often bubble-wrapped in a stringent goodness, and the realities of daily life that can bubble up like searing magma.

To those enfolded in their bubblicious hopes and virtues, life seems to say, "Serious up!" And to those ensorcelled by greedy unkindnesses, convinced by their own perspectives and uncaring about what impact they might have ... life likewise seems to say, "Serious up!"

Yesterday, on the news, there was a story about the capture of a Mexican drug lord. The film clips showed a group of black-clad agents surrounding and herding a rotund man towards a doorway. The agents seemed to be clothed in Kevlar. They were also masked, in deference, it seemed, to the retribution they might suffer if the drug lords' allies saw their faces.

And then there was a short clip of the man himself, facing the camera, flanked by agents. He was fat and imposing and assured. His face, as I saw it, seemed to radiate the self-assurance of a person who killed without remorse and perhaps even on a whim. His face seemed to say, "My way or the highway!" and he had the wherewithal to back it up. In my imagination, this was a cruel person, someone unlikely, except under the most extreme duress, to reflect. This was someone, in or out of manacles, you would not want to fuck with, someone so convinced by his selfishness that the mere mention of selflessness was purely idiotic. This was a man who might love his dog, but would slit a child's throat without a backwards glance if circumstances -- circumstances as he saw them -- required it.

The searing magma of daily this case, writ large.

Those who concern themselves with spiritual endeavor may see such images, whether on TV or in lesser degrees in their own lives, with a kind of hopeful horror. Cruelty is too cruel, self-absorption too sad-making, kindness too attractive, virtue too worthy. Where others may close their hearts to peace and love, those concerned with spiritual endeavor, whether getting the cues from some holy text or trying to actualize a wider peace, attempt to open their hearts and become more honest. Sometimes sappy, sometimes serious, they can work pretty hard. The wiser among them try to overcome the righteousness they can feel and express, but whatever the circumstances, they make an effort...

An effort that often finds itself overwhelmed by the searing magma of life: Goodness is for rubes and schnooks and well-dressed parsons working a smarmy angle. Sometimes the best anyone can manage in the face of that magma is the pompous malarkey, "God is on our side!"

Serious up!

What might "serious up!" actually mean? How might it actually play out as a person does his or her best to sidestep the inevitable dog shit on life's sidewalks and feels the heat of life's magma?

Well, to each his own. But for my money, it goes like this:

1. When you cannot improve on life, stop trying. Stop selling ice to Eskimos -- whether yourself or others. Cut the righteous, Boy Scout crap. No one can tell another what to do. It simply doesn't compute. And if it doesn't compute -- if people can only convince themselves -- then speak your piece or engage in actions that seem most fitting and get back to the work at hand ... your life, your magma. Never mind talking "good," focus on being "good."

2. Recognize that this effort is not just some white-whine party -- some analytical, emotionally-overwrought, activist get-together. Serious-up is not a job for well-coiffed, check-writing idjits. It is down-and-dirty. It is sweat. It takes balls. And above all ... it is just your choice. And for anyone making such a choice, well, honor that choice; do the work; stop adjusting things according to "Buddhism" or "Christianity" or "Islam" or some other flag-waving persuasion. Adjust what you can ... adjust yourself; adjust your magma.

Spiritual endeavor is not a business for sissies, no matter how often we may all hide behind the sissifications of virtue and godliness. Do the work that can be done and stop relying on the magma of others.

When has virtue ever tamed a volcano?

Serious up!