Wednesday, March 31, 2010

kissing it all better

The air has grown softer this morning, less raw. Skies remain grey and raindrops cling to the screen outside the window, but the rain, which came down with unremitting insistence yesterday, has stopped. The buds on the trees look fat and happy.

This morning, before coming here, I read an internet bulletin board where questions of loneliness and explanation caught my eye.

Loneliness: We can not share experience. "Oneness" salves the wound even as it inflames it.

Explanation: How could something be acknowledged as 'true' if it cannot be explained? If you say something cannot be explained, isn't that just another explanation?

I feel very fortunate to have encountered a spiritual-endeavor format that encourages determination. I may not be terribly good at it, but a practice that incorporates body, mouth and thought at a single blow ... well, even a mediocre student like me may be better off than s/he would be growing piles in a pew or filling the bookshelf with some new explanatory and lonely-making compendium.

When kids are little, they may run crying to their mothers or fathers with the latest cut or bruise. And one of the things that mom or dad may do is to "kiss it better." Not a single thing is changed about the cut or bruise and yet when mom or dad "kisses it better," it is, however fleetingly, better in fact. That's the magic of mom or dad ... or anyway they seem to get the credit.

And that's the magic of our own determination ... to place our lips on this cut or burise, this world full of pain and sorrow, and "kiss it better." Nothing changes about the cut or bruise, the pain or sorrow ... but when we put our determined lips to work, things do, in fact, become all better.

If you want a saccharine sweetness, buy another book or find another explanation.

If you want the facts, exercise determination.

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

when I grow up

I guess everyone has fond and perhaps formative memories that shape the prism behind these eyes. One such memory for me is George Orwell,
balloon-popper extraordinaire, a writer whose "Homage to Catalonia" really rocked my boat with its fire and decency and indecency. More than most writers, Orwell was a put-up-or-shut-up kind of guy ... actually DOING what others could only write about. When I grew up, I wanted to be like that.

Set the goal, whatever its nature, and then ... well, when I grow up, I want to be like that.

And what is the upshot of such goal-setting and efforts to attain? Assuming there is a serious effort, my guess is that you can never attain the goal and that finding that out is crucial. There is no "like that" to be like.

Pop singer Michael Jackson had a lot of plastic surgery, I understand, in an attempt to become his female idol ... was it Diana Ross? -- I'm not up with these things. He ended up looking like some freaky alien and yet ... the man could dance the pants off the pope, truly beautiful moves ... and completely Michael Jackson. A weird, creepy guy who danced like an angel.

There was no "like that" for Michael Jackson any more than there is a "like that" for anyone else. There are dreams and efforts and ... everyone dances like an angel despite all the plastic surgery they insist on having.

Everyone dances like an angel only of course there is no "like."

There are only angels.

There is only dancing.

Monday, March 29, 2010


In Mongolia, where a BBC report estimates that about one million farm animals have died, the people are waiting for a spring that never seems to come. Sheep and goats and cows ... dead and dying.

At this time of year, shoots of edible grass would usually be poking their heads up, but the bitter winter persists and where animals die, people are sure to follow.

Interesting to notice what we don't notice. Interesting to know what we didn't know before. Interesting how the mind and heart can feel pity and sorrow up to a point ... and then no further.

Usually, when the loving or self-important heart feels sadness at the plight of another, it seems fitting: I don't want to die; you don't want to die; he/she/or it does not want to die. We pride ourselves on our sympathies and caring ... and it's probably not a bad thing, given the numbers who just don't give a shit.

But when there is some recognition that there isn't the capacity or will or largeness of spirit (except among the imaginative or delirious) to feel sorry for all the events worthy of that sorrow, there is a halt. It is as if our sympathy machine breaks down and feels somehow insulted. "I can't do it all," some voice cries out.

And that is precisely right: I can't do it all. Those who prance around pretending they can do it all grate rightfully on the nerves: Cut the bullshit! Here we stand ... and I can't do it all: I have been chastened by reality and....and....and...

Usually it all gets shoved in the back of the closet, conveniently forgotten so that the loving or self-important heart can remain blissfully unchallenged. No one wants to feel insignificant and yet the sorrows of the world point out that insignificance sharply.

But I think it is better to be challenged and to meet that challenge. How long can anyone believe their own nonsense? Don't answer that ... the answer is a long, long time. But for those disinclined to rely on the words from one pulpit or another, I think it is possible to reflect a little and make peace with the fact we all offer to the world what we can when we can. And we do not offer what we do not have. And all of this has no certain outcome. It is neither good nor bad, virtuous nor venal ... it is just what happens ...

After a little reflection, I think it is possible to meet the challenge where sheep and goats and cows die or grow strong.

eye candy

A surprisingly wooden horse opera on the Public Broadcast System kept me up past my bedtime last night. The story was set in India in the mid-19th century. It had horses and uniforms and brown people and pink people and British accents and turbans and a damsel in distress and quasi-courtly language and a hero with as much swash and buckle as the show's creators could muster.

There was lots of eye candy, which is probably what kept me up, but little or no substance or character or nuance. Don't get me wrong, I love a good action-adventure movie with guns and booze and broads, but those movies aren't pretending to be 'important' or to carry a message or ... well, you know, do something for the Jane Austen or Henry James crowd.

Eye candy ... how many things in life are like that? Looks good, but shudders or collapses when touched.

It doesn't interest me so much that others may try to sell the eye candy approach to things, but it does interest me when people live their lives according to the eye candy they feed themselves. Invariably, not only do eye-candy aficionados short-change themselves, they also hurt others.

I guess the best that can be hoped for is that anyone might reflect, if only a little, on the question, "Eye candy for what?" or "What reality does this scam hope to convey?"

Is spiritual life nothing but texts and temples and vestments and incense and wise old coots nodding with a sage silence? Spiritual adventure without guns, booze and broads ... what sort of eye candy is that? What sustenance is there in the eye candy of the moment -- the beliefs and hopes that draw us forward but never sustain more than a bowl of cotton candy? Yes, it's tasty, but lollipops are for suckers.

What reality is this? When the eye candy is stripped away, what do you get ... you personally? Can you really afford not to answer this question?

Your life, your choice.

Sunday, March 28, 2010



I have never seen a wild thing feel sorry for itself. A little bird will fall dead, frozen from a bough, without ever having felt sorry for itself.
-- D.H. Lawrence

How Lawrence could know this, I'm not sure, but it sounds like a pretty good guess.


The pre-dawn light that used to etch each naked twig and branch has suddenly begun to depict a blurred tableau, one in which those sharply-seen branches are no longer stark but rather plump with buds.

And along those puffing branches, there are silhouettes of different birds which are filling the air with different songs. Some, as the day progresses, will pair off two-by-two and dance among the branches or along the neighborhood roof beams ... swoop and flutter and preen.

Robins and mourning doves and chickadees and some horde of black birds (grackles? starlings?) that invariably seems to take a break over my car ... and leave their shit as a reminder ... white-green drizzles that only scrubbing will remove. I wonder how they'd feel if I crapped on their modes of transportation. A vain question since birds are not stupid enough to drive cars and I haven't got the agility that they have.

"the past becomes present"

Today it is Palm Sunday among the Christians who predominate in the country where I live. Palm Sunday crops up every year one week before the celebration of Easter, which marks the resurrection of Jesus. Somewhere between Palm Sunday and Easter, Jesus was crucified.

History and mythology merge in these events said to have occurred two thousand years ago.

On this particular Palm Sunday, the Roman Catholic pope, perhaps the most visible Christian, finds himself in hot water because of the pedophile priests his church and perhaps he himself covered for in the past.

As Jesus is remembered in his execution, so the past of the Catholic church is remembered as well. The past becomes present ... what a strange phrase that is -- "the past becomes present."

A friend of mine used to quip, "No good deed goes unpunished." And I think it's true. Good deeds, bad deeds -- we might all like to believe in reward or retribution, but nothing is ever lost or absent or past. It simply is not possible.

I know, I know ... it may not be possible, but it's not for lack of trying. Good deeds, bad deeds, past and present -- if we didn't name things, how could we sort things out?

Last night, I was watching "Gangs of New York," a 2002 movie about Irish immigrants in Brooklyn, N.Y., in 1863. One of the threads of the movie was the draft riots of the time. The poor were conscripted to fight in the Civil War, while the well-to-do could buy their way out for $300, a princely sum. The poor revolted and went on a rampage ... a rampage that was put down by the empowered's enforcers, the military and police.

Leaving aside the white-whining and outrage and finger-pointing, when has it ever been different? What is established tends to look with disfavor or distrust on that which is not yet established. Historically this seems to be true ... but I think it is also true in the heart:

Hard-won experience clings to what it has learned or earned or established with so much effort, some of it criminal, perhaps: I am a Christian; I have a house; I overcame obstacles to arrive where I am ... and now someone or something is threatening to crucify my historically established mind? Call out the military! Call out the police! Call out the beliefs! Call out the religions! Call out the philosophy! Call out the history! Call out the praise and blame ... quick! bring in reinforcements! No upstart doubt or uncertainty will rampage through my streets, threatening to destroy what I hold dear ... a past so hard-won.

Well, I have a harder time explaining things these days. But I do think it is worth some reflection: Are we not all, right this minute, the history we claim to revere or look back on? How could it be otherwise -- in all directions, the history we call past is what we are actually living. And the only disconnect is that we somehow think things are disconnected ... that there was a time when Jesus got nailed to the cross or was resurrected or that priests diddled little boys with damning effect or that yesterday could somehow be separated in some way from right this minute. OK, bring out the Buddhists and their "dependent origination," but when anyone gets more serious than the established names and histories, I think it's worth checking out.

Everything infuses everything else ... what an idiotic thing to say, especially since it's simply true. It may make a lovely little temple in the mind, be quite inspiring ... OK, temples are nice places. But temples fall down, so it might be worth realizing the truth instead of just speaking it.

Things are a lot lighter when things are less freighted with established meaning and importance and improvement and church bells ... though I have to admit I'm a sucker for church bells.

Suckers get crucified every time.

Lucky for us there's resurrection, assuming we're willing to open our eyes.

Or, as Rinzai put it, "Grasp and use, but never name."

The past becomes present?????

Get real!

Saturday, March 27, 2010

gourmet and gourmand

In French -- and I guess English too -- a gourmet is someone devoted to fine and refined eating. A gourmand is an over-eater ... a pig, in short.

Gourmet spiritual adventure -- all the fillips and furbelows that make for a mighty repast ... delicacies spread out and savored and digested with the fine wine of logic and praise. Not a crumb overlooked or unappreciated. No wine glass lifted without the obligatory pinkie erection.

Gourmand spiritual adventure -- cram it all in, from soup to nuts and back to soup. Barbecue sauce up to the elbows. Never mind, I'll wash my shirt later ... oh look, over there, isn't that baby-back ribs?! It's all good and what is made good can be made better with more and more and more. This is God's territory! The beer comes in kegs and there are bushes providing a convenient place to puke when the occasion arises.

Everyone's got to eat. It's just a fact. Is there some reason to make much of it? Nourishment is important ... so, eat. Eat first, call it spiritual adventure later.

Tangen Harada Roshi

If I forgot to post it, here is a nice teisho or Dharma talk from Tangen Harada Roshi: Kamikaze pilot and Zen teacher

Friday, March 26, 2010

for you


Reading some appreciations of a sutra elsewhere made me want to say ....

Can we all please, please, please, please, please, please, please make some effort to remember that texts and temples and gurus and saints and all the truly wonderful encouragements of spiritual endeavor are only for one thing ... repeat, ONLY: They are specifically for you. There is no other purpose whatsoever ... ever!


Yes, those who enjoy a particular school or style or flavor of teaching can become very well versed; they can put the teachings to the test if they have the determination; they can ingest and digest until the cows come home. And it may be a very good thing.

But what is the cornerstone, the sine qua non, the alpha and omega of all such exercises and efforts and wisdoms? There is no framing your true nature ... there are only frames in which to place your own beautiful painting.

Without you, the whole matter falls on its face.
With you, the whole matter falls on its face.

Who is it who could possibly fall on his or her face?

It's not a big deal, but I think it's worth keeping in mind.


Jizo's galore

Received this picture in email ...

Jizo bodhisattvas ... they're everywhere!!!!!! :)

going no where

"Cardioversion" is a longish word that means getting the heart back in its proper rhythm. It was in aid of that effort yesterday that something that blew my mind occurred.

Having been rolled from the room I was in to the bowels of the hospital, I found three or four people in a small windowless space that sported several important-looking machines. A short plump woman remembered me as she coiled some tubing; another nurse moved from here to there, humming as she adjusted the machinery; outside the room's entrance, the anesthesiologist, wearing a Muslim-like skull cap and looking a bit like Morgan Freeman, offered his salutations; and to my right, the impeccably-shaven-and-combed young doctor explained that the numbing of my throat was to be the worst of the exercise at hand.

The numbing was to short circuit the body's natural gag reflex when, after sedation, he shoved a tube down my throat in order to investigate for possible clotting in the heart that was not entirely visible to a less-invasive X-ray. When the investigation was complete, I would then be electrocuted via a couple of stick-on patches the doctor slapped to my chest and back ... another version of the TV medical shows in which doctors and technicians shout "Clear!" and then shock the patient.

OK ... so I was taking all this in. And I did in fact gag as the doctor sprayed my throat. But after a while he stopped ... gave me one last spray and listened patiently one last time as I gagged and then ... and then ... and then ... and then the story simply ended, as if it had fallen off a cliff or someone turned off the radio. There was no "and then..."

Back in the hospital room, I wracked my brain to remember the anesthesiologist returning to put me to sleep. I wracked my brain to remember what had happened after I gagged. I wracked my brain for some hint of what happened next ... but there was no "next" ... not a clue ... everything was clean and clear and blank. It wasn't frightening or threatening ... it simply wasn't there. It was cleaner than a dream that you remember having had but you don't remember the particulars ... the story in this case just didn't exist and no story had been made to replace it ... there was nothing. And it was weird.

The doctor assured me with avuncular certainty that it was the drugs that had done it, wiped all memory clean. He also told me the procedure had been a success, but I was stuck on the memory part: What I wanted to know and what I asked him was, if there was a drug effect that could wipe things out so perfectly, was any research being done on a mirror image effect ... one in which memory that had been lost was retrieved or resurrected? Was there some reason that memory worked up to a certain point and then was lost? Why didn't the drugs erase the previous day or week or even year ... what made them stop at the gagging part? If the drugs could be that smart and pinpointed, surely resurrection was not out of the question.

His avuncular nature turned smirky and scornful as he left the room without answering. The question that seemed viscerally reasonable to me -- if it can be born, it dies; if it can die, it is born -- struck him as idiotic.

And as I write it, perhaps it is idiotic. But I felt as if I had been in "The Truman Show" and somehow reached the edge of an acceptable but inaccurate universe and opened an obvious and easy door that went ....

I had no clue where.

It seemed brand new ... and yet strangely obvious.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

home again

Leaving the hospital turned out to be a 'false alarm' since I went back and spent two days getting my heart's rhythm realigned.

In the next bed, a quiet fellow fifteen years my junior had multiple problems that included having had a toe cut off and wrestling through the nights trying to figure out where he was and then telling the nurse quietly that he had shit in the bed.

So I am a little ga-ga at the moment ... from lack of sleep as much as anything, I imagine. Trying to answer emails resulted in a bunch of typos, as did even this small entry. So I will take a shower and try to wash away both a whispering body odor and a sense of having been distanced from the air and sky.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

visceral stuff

An irregular heart-beat made for four or five hours at the hospital today while very nice people fluttered and prescribed.

Funny how the body just knows something is wrong when something is wrong. It's not a matter of aching or complaining ... the body just knows as it might know that it was in an earthquake -- viscerally and without any recourse to language or emotion.

They freed me after a while with nostrums and directions.

Nothing like the perfected indoors-ness of a hospital to make the sky beautiful.


If anyone knows what it is like to steal, writers can certainly go to the front of the line. Consciously or unconsciously, writers rework the clay of ideas that others have worked before them.

But the same is true for anyone else, I think -- remolding, recasting, reshaping. Sometimes it is pretty unattractive, the theft without attribution ... but even the petty thieves -- the ones who bring no creative shape to the stolen item -- cast some new shadow.

Each of us, stealing from the next.

My vote: Just be a good thief ... put the new-found riches to good use. It's the use, not the ego, that's interesting, don't you think?


The word "exempt" is partially defined by an Internet dictionary as:

▸ adjective: (of persons) freed from or not subject to an obligation or liability (as e.g. taxes) to which others or other things are subject

And perhaps it is understandable that those who choose to take up some spiritual endeavor or belief system would hope to become somehow exempt from things like "hell" or "greed, anger and ignorance" or other ravages of uncertainty or sorrow. The notion that something or someone might confer an exemption from unpleasant circumstances ... well, isn't that a function of hope?

Utterly understandable: No one ever took up spiritual life because they were so damned happy. And it's a short step from longing for freedom or peace to imagining the chosen vehicle for attaining that freedom or peace would or could provide some sort of exemption from the 'bad old days,' however they are defined.

Exemptions remove difficulties and pains.

But I think that the totally understandable exemption point of view in spiritual life is a mistake. Imagining that 'good' people are exempt from 'evil' activities or that 'evil' people are exempt from 'good' activities ... this is comic-book spirituality, suitable for beginners and believers, but not for those who choose to take things seriously.

And where the yardstick may be inappropriately applied to other 'saints' and 'sinners' with little or no effect, it is even more confusing when individuals apply the exemption point of view to themselves ... imagining that because they have taken up one spiritual approach or another that therefore they should not be angry or jealous or stupid or hurtful or any of the other stuff that does not fit into some improved format or goal they have laid out for themselves.

How come I am such a lousy Buddhist? Probably because I imagined there was such a thing as a 'good' Buddhist...someone exempted from attachment or delusion or any other walking-around idiocy.

For my money, this (unavoidable?) mistake rests on the idea that spiritual life slams the door on what is unpleasant or evil. But spiritual life is in the business of opening doors, not closing them. Closed doors means there will always be some doubt as to what lies behind them ... and spiritual life is not in the business of creating more doubt; it is in the business of erasing doubt.

From the pulpit, there may be many lyrical descriptions of what causes evil or sorrow. And perhaps such lyricism -- in texts and tomes and out of the mouths of one guru or another -- provides some encouragement. But the heart of the matter lies in the individual, exemption-seeking heart, the heart whose doors are never closed.

Greed, anger and ignorance -- no exemption.
Evil and ugliness -- no exemption.
Kindness and decency -- no exemption.
Unity and understanding -- no exemption.
Courage and cowardice -- no exemption.
Birth and death -- no exemption.
Intellect and emotion -- no exemption.
Alms and parsimony -- no exemption.
Purity and filth -- no exemption.
Sickness and health -- no exemption.
God and man -- no exemption.
Pick your poison -- no exemption.

But where there is no exemption, there is also no inclusion. This life is neither something anyone could lay claim to nor is it anything they could escape.

This is the benefit of spiritual discipline -- to settle matters once and for all, to see into a doors-open life and the principle that infuses it.

Personally, I have given Zen Buddhism and its seated-meditation practice a try. I like addressing thought, word and deed in toto. It is a world in which closed doors are not an option ... however much I may kick and scream or praise and extol.

I too have sought endless exemptions with endless ruses ... but Zen practice won't put up with that nonsense. I have sought exemption through discipline and sought exemption through free-spirited hot air ... and none of it works. It's a good practice, one that, fortunately or unfortunately, has the key to every door.

I don't know if other practices can be equally effective, but I imagine they can: After all, no one's got a lock on one is exempt from life.

Monday, March 22, 2010

zen training clip on youtube

It's a bit old, but a Zen friend called my attention to this clip today.


cap pistols and dolls

When I was a kid, boys played with cap pistols and girls played with dolls. Roughly speaking, that was the frame of mind ... not always or even insistently true, but more or less.

I had a lot of cap pistols and I knew girls who had a lot of dolls.

Cap pistols were a part of my world -- pretty important, pretty defining, pretty empowering, pretty consoling.

I don't own any cap pistols any more, though I have picked up a couple of interesting dolls at tag sales. Dolls and cap pistols ... well, they're pretty much out of the picture. Somehow they walked away. It's not a matter of sadness or arrogance: They just disappeared at some point, into the realm of memory and a recognition that without them, I could not type these words.

No one can push the river -- excise what is not yet ready to be excised, focus the attention where it is not yet ready to be focused....

But this morning I think of cap pistols and dolls and, in the same grab bag, spiritual endeavor. Somehow -- and I'm not really sure how -- I think this is a necessary matter. All the specialness and support and wonder and delight and wisdom and accuracy ... all very good stuff. But like love, it only works when you give it away or fuggetaboutit.

Isn't it funny about religion? -- people came before religion ever hit the scene and yet recognizing that fact is often treated like dog shit on the sole of your shoe. If someone were to acknowledge it within, I guess, that would be unbearable somehow -- imposing the kind of responsibility that a well-fashioned God allows you to surrender.

It's just you ... as any number of Zen teachers and others with sense have suggested. Keep the cap pistols and dolls as long as you like. They were and remain excellent companions. Wriggle and squirm and praise and blame and exercise your little heart out and still ... it's just you and do you really need a cap pistol or a doll?

I know ....

Yes, but
Yes, but
Yes, but
Yes, but

I'm not trying to convince anyone or slander anyone's particular persuasion. It's just that it occurs to me and so I write it down. Does it really take any endeavor to prove and actualize who you are? Of course if you try to define or delineate -- if you rely on cap pistols or dolls -- the shit may start to pile up around your ankles. But outside that ... here you are.

You got a problem with that?

I doubt it.

stuff to do

Not feeling so good today and I want to put whatever energy I have into revising the book for Kindle-like purposes. Imaginative confections are off the table for the moment.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

magic and illusion

I watched about a third of a movie about magic and magicians today. Part of what stopped me from watching the whole of it was that I had never heard a "magician" refer to him- or herself that way. "Illusionist" was the term I thought all serious magicians used, pointing out implicitly that just because I was credulous didn't mean something was factually credible.

About the most interesting part of what I did watch came when the central character referred to the role deception played in the human and animal spectrum. On the one hand, deception is often scorned as unkind and duplicitous. On the other, there is a need and longing and usefulness to deception.

The example given was of a mother bird that sees the fox getting too near to her nest and the eggs within it. She flies away, flopping along the ground as if she had a broken wing. The fox follows, looking for a quick lunch, but as soon as the fox gets far enough from the nest and near enough to the mother, she simply flies away.

And human beings have similar diversions ... both for protection and gain.

"I will tell you the truth," says the deceiver. And the listening mind, when it longs for the truth, is open and receptive. At this point the deceiver can take the route of bilking the believer or the route of, in fact, offering what the deceiver imagines to be the truth...and it may in fact benefit the believer.

On the one hand, please don't deceive me.

On the other, deceive and delight me.

Show me the truth.

Show me the magic.

Show me the illusion.

the 'weird' factor

In email this morning, a friend sent along some cartoons in one of whose boxes, the boy asks his snoozing father, "Dad! Do you suppose we just don't have enough weirdness in our lives?!" And the dad mumbles, "Yer doing fine, son."

By way of thanks, I wrote back to my friend, "Maybe getting older is nothing more than wondering why we ever thought anything was weird in the first place...and kind of missing it."

Weird, surprising, wonderful, horrific, boring, exciting, serious, solemn ... it's an interesting habit.

what happens

A national health care bill is due for a vote in the U.S. House of Representatives today. The bill would bring insurance to millions who don't currently have it, bar insurance companies from denying coverage to those with pre-existing conditions, and cost almost a trillion dollars over a decade ... the same decade in which it is projected to save $138 billion on the federal deficit.

The news stories about this end-game are muddied with words like "rare" and "historic" ... a sure sign that everyone is tired of the topic. It has been hard to turn on the TV news without hearing yet another 'expert' dissect one important aspect or another of this important issue. And no matter how concise and thoughtful and well-informed the dissection, still the viewer is left feeling s/he doesn't really have a clear, clean grasp of what is going on. The desire to get re-elected, corporate and individual greed, belief systems and a host of other competing interests make it all but impossible to get a handle on things.

As yet another nitwit in front of a television screen filled with what seem like other nitwits, I boil it down in my mind to something manageably bite-sized ... people get sick, no one wants to get sick, and whose money is it that allows our 'representatives' to posture and pose and 'get things done?' True, corporations buy a great many politicians, but who creates the money that allows them to make such purchases? Who does the work? As I say, another nitwit oversimplification that clarifies little or nothing.

Winston Churchill observed, "Democracy is the worst form of government except for all the rest."

And perhaps the same could be said for spiritual-endeavor formats. Like communism, they start out with marvelous and kindly promises, but the devil is in the details and what was over-archingly kind and thoughtful has every capacity to harden into self-serving unkindness....

But what other choice is there? Without addressing the down-and-dirty details, what chance is there to see things clearly and to clear up the matter of nitwit-dom? Without discipline, where is there any honest ease? The endless reassertion of lofty goals can hardly match the practical wonders of burning the toast. Believers and non-believers are faced with the same conundrum -- burned toast ... life as it actually arises moment after moment. Philosophy and religion can go suck and egg.

The only way out of the difficulties and delights that life poses -- or anyway the only one I can see -- is in. Pick a format in the sure and certain knowledge that no one can format life and then follow it to the ends of the universe ... no holding back, no being deterred and never mind what anyone else is saying or doing.

If you're rich, it happens.
If you're poor, it happens.
If you're single, it happens.
If you're married, it happens.
If you're convinced, it happens.
If you're confused, it happens.
If you're Christian, it happens.
If you're Buddhist, it happens.
If you're young, it happens.
If you're old, it happens.
If the toast burns, it happens.

The only question is -- what happens?

Saturday, March 20, 2010

koan du jour?

I was in the army in the 1960's, a fairly literate and imaginative era, what with flower power, the Beatles and the Beats recently having opened some doors and eyes.

Within that framework, men's room graffiti were often up-scale and provocative ... not just the, "for a good time call Jenny" kind of stuff.

And one of my favorites was a simple observation posted prominently over a urinal, where meditation is natural.

It said, simply,


limping limitations

A curious matter to me....

Talking, friendly-fashion, with an ex-Jesuit today, I asked a little about God and the seeking of God. What I asked was, "what happens when you find what you seek?" He said it was not possible for a limited human being to know God. "I am limited," he said. To which I replied, "How do you know that?"

But another sideline question I didn't ask was this: If, roughly speaking, you seek "God" or "enlightenment" or whatever other transcendent something-or-other and it is not possible to find what you seek, how can you possibly know that you are seeking anything at all? It takes some pretty sophisticated gyrations to say, implicitly, "I am seeking something, but I don't know what it is."

All of this relates, in my mind, to the limitations of intellect and emotion -- the two capacities anyone brings to bear at first when seeking out a peaceful life that in some way settles matters (intellectual and emotional matters) once and for all.

There are books and there are institutions and there is a hierarchy of authority and there are a lot of other intellectual and emotional props and encouragements that relate to past habits. If what I have known up until now is intellectual and emotional, then where else would I start? It's OK ... it's what human beings do when they are inclined to seek out whatever it is they are trying to seek out.

But if the intellect and emotions are the arbiter of finding what is sought, it can never work and the search is endless and endlessly defeating. Why? Because intellect and emotion are limited ... and most of those who set out on a quest know that in little and large ways. Yesterday's joy is today's sorrow; yesterday's failure is today's success; yesterday's anger is today's love ... and so forth. Limited. Unreliable.

So what is reliable? Is it just some elaborate fairy tale? Some pie-int-the-sky-when-you-die-it's-a-lie concoction? Some Jesuitical legerdemain? Some teenaged wet dream with adult trappings?

No one can know until they find out. Nothing else will suffice. Intellect and emotion, no matter how ornate or how compelling, simply cannot reach anything that might be called limitless because they are limited. This is not a criticism ... it's more like observing that a car runs best on four tires.

But to settle for some extended coitus interruptus -- poor old limited man has no way of settling the matter of a limitless god -- is, while understandable, pretty idiotic, for my money.

No one can know intellectually or emotionally whether the limitless either is or is not true. Intellect and emotion is the belief realm ... and how well does that work out when compared to a sneeze or a kiss? You can make up a religion and find many followers and pray until Christmas, but you simply cannot know for sure.

Nevertheless there are hints that the limited is not the only lot a (wo)man is bound by.

There are many words from many sources that echo the Zen teacher Ta Hui when he observed, "I have always taken a great vow that I would rather suffer the fires of hell for all eternity than to portray Zen as a human emotion."

Pretty tall talk.

But for my money, it is talk worth heeding ... and making a serious effort to actualize.

in the spring sun

Where usually there are 10-15 people along the peace picket line, today there were 50-60, all of them geared up for a march that would take place after Saturday's weekly hour of standing.

Up and down the line beneath picture-perfect spring skies there were people asking for signatures or passing out leaflets or stickers or signs to be waved: "Bring the war dollars home" seemed to be a large theme.

An elderly woman sat under a straw hat next to me. She was riding in one of those electric chairs and she steered it with arthritic hands -- hands too crippled to get a firm grip on the leaflets or stickers she was offered. "Just put it in there," she'd say to the eager proselytizers and she would point to the basket on the front of her vehicle. She collected a lot of stuff at the same time I said my polite no-thank-you's.

A nearby puppy did his best to scarf a half-eaten Snickers bar left lying on the sidewalk. He was short-circuited by his owner, who shoved her fingers deep into his mouth in order to retrieve the chocolate and nut confection. Her fingers came out gooey and the puppy looked dismayed.

Cars passed and honked their apparent approval and would-be marchers encouraged each other with their individualized brands of outrage and hope. Various people took pictrues to mark the event. It was a lively gathering.

A loud, tall man came up to inform me that he thought the Dalai Lama was a nice guy -- a guy with whom he might like to have a beer. I agreed.

An ex-Jesuit Veteran Against the War engaged me in conversation and we had a nice chat about our spiritual adventures and views. I seem to have some sort of Christian karma lately, running into interesting facets of a religion that helps to weave my country.

For the first time in what seems quite a while, I was too warm standing along the line.

Next week, assuming the temperatures remain the same, I will wear fewer clothes. It will be interesting to see how many people show up at a time that lacks an organizing fervor.

It's easy to do stuff once. It's not so easy to do it again ... and again ... and again ... unless, of course, it is a bad but delicious habit. :)

Today marks the seventh anniversary of the U.S. invasion of Iraq.

no other choice

Upon hearing that a particular woman had said, "I accept the universe," the Irish playwright George Bernard Shaw responded tartly, "She damned well better!"

On the one hand, we can understand the longing of the woman's remark -- to accept and be at peace with life as it comes along. On the other hand, we can recognize the appropriateness of Shaw's observation ... what other choice is there? ... life comes along irrespective of our smarmy, mooning longings or endless efforts.

There is no choice. But this doesn't mean all of us can't wriggle like a worm on Shaw's clearly-stated hook. Wriggling and writhing, issuing philosophies and religions, spouting "love" and "freedom" and "compassion" and "joy" ... wriggle-and-writhe, wriggle-and-writhe...and still, there is no choice.

Those with a canny wit may feel a smug satisfaction in Shaw's popping of an air-head assertion -- it certainly is spot-on -- but the question remains unanswered: How is anyone to meet and greet and be at peace with the fact that there-is-no-choice?

So on the one hand there is an assertion that hopes to find peace by out-nicing life's vagaries. And on the other, there is a razor-sharp, 'realistic' assessment of the facts. Wriggle-and-writhe, wriggle-and-writhe.

If we can't out-think life and can't out-emote life and still there is no peace, what's the option? Is peace just some illiterate illusion, some pie-in-the-sky weaving by religion or philosophy or other gyration? Life requires no improvements and yet we long to improve things. It's human stuff.

The option is that there is no option. The only choice is that there is no choice. I'm not talking about determinist drivel. Look around, see if it's true. Life comes along and ... what other choice is there?

For my money, attention and responsibility are very good tools. Whining, whether elevated or otherwise, won't cut it. Wit won't cut it. But attention and responsibility -- and yes, sorry, it does require some effort -- points the way to an ease that requires no smarm and cannot be outwitted by wit.

Since emotion and intellect are habits of long standing, of course we will fall flat on our faces from time to time ... slip back into old desires to 'improve' or old control-freak bits of intellect. But with patience, attention and responsibility cut through old habits and make them less necessary.

Attention and responsibility are necessary ... right up until the moment when they too are no longer necessary.

Is there some reason to get your tail in a twist about a matter in which there is no other choice?

No other choice.


Isn't that easier?

Friday, March 19, 2010

grammatical lifestyle

Maybe it would be interesting to spend a day viewing everything considered a noun as a verb.

Car, toothbrush, coffee cup, ceiling, friend, enemy, whole, part, virtue, evil ... all verbs-for-a-day.

serious up :)

Sometimes I think the whole of spiritual endeavor boils down to nothing more than the willingness to take seriously what you take seriously. The habit of relying on others is simply too limited. Understandable, but limited.

If chocolate ice cream or Buddhism or Ford pickups or getting laid or God or stamp collecting or family life or old age or death or running a marathon or fame or money or ... or anything else is what you take seriously, then that is enough. Now, serious up!

What anyone is serious about is what gets their attention -- what they are willing to expend effort in. Too often that seriousness relies on the seriousness of others, so limitations become institutionalized ... just a group hug of seriousness ... sometimes called solemnity.

But where the night is dark or reflection sets in, there are things that people take seriously without any prompting or need for confirmation: This, whatever it is, is just what they honestly take seriously. And it is in this realm that spiritual endeavor works its most effective magic.

It may take some time before anyone discovers what it is that they actually take seriously. OK.

But once having found whatever it is that honestly touches the heart and mind, then it is time to get serious, to look things over, to watch and take responsibility, to refuse to be diverted, to return again and again and again and again ... and see what happens. This is serious work for serious people, but it has the advantage of pointing out and actualizing what is sometimes called a limitless true nature.

Serious, serious-er, serious-est ... yes, it takes patience and courage and doubt. But the funny thing about this sort of seriousness is ...

You get to laugh.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

victory and defeat

Sometimes we get the best of things.

Sometimes things get the best of us.

But is "getting the best" really the best?

I seriously doubt it.


Imagination can be more delightful than a laughing child or more horrifying than an execution. Its range is a marvel and it comes in different intensities and different sizes according to individuals. It sure is imaginative.

A headline in the arts section of today's local newspaper reads, "Artist's magical realism reveals Nature's hidden identity." The headline writer's imaginative capacities are heaped on the artist's imaginative capacities in order to excite the imaginative capacities of readers, and perhaps the imaginations of those who will see the paintings.

It wasn't a bad headline. Headlines are supposed to draw readers in and as headlines go, this one had a nice, wispy, fairy-tale-like invitation to it. But it also made me think:

"Magical realism?" True, it takes some imagination to see beyond surfaces or below them, but doesn't magic lie in what is not magical at all? What imaginative world is revealed when the onlooker gets 'beyond' or 'below' the appearances? It may take some effort to see beyond the tree's bark, but once having done that, what have you done? Isn't this a failure of imagination?

And "Nature's hidden identity?" What, exactly could be hidden in Nature? If you found what was 'hidden' or had it revealed to you, would that suffice or be true? Sure, it might be satisfying or elevating or horrifying, but after that...?

Imagination is defined by an internet dictionary this way:

▸ noun: the formation of a mental image of something that is not perceived as real and is not present to the senses ("Popular imagination created a world of demons")
▸ noun: the ability to form mental images of things or events ("He could still hear her in his imagination")
▸ noun: the ability to deal resourcefully with unusual problems

I'm not trying to disdain or somehow debunk imagination. Hell, I thrive on it and have done so for much of my life. Imagination has led me to roll around in delight and to find the horrors of hell. I look into a friend's face, listen to his or her words and ... well, I imagine I am nearer the hidden identity of our conversation or connection. It's magical stuff, everyday stuff, ennobling and degrading stuff.

Imaginatively speaking, we might say a (wo)man searches for god or peace or relief and yet if those goals were in hand, what, precisely would s/he hold? Would the magic any longer be magic? Would the hidden any longer be hidden ... or revealed either, for that matter?

Sometimes we use the phrases, "lack of imagination" or "over-active imagination." Both suggest a failure of some kind ... too little or too much of what can be a useful tool. But what ARE the uses of that tool? If we use a tool, something good may result. But if the tool uses us, we are left feeling pretty foolish ... and for good reason.

Outside the house here, my car is parked in the driveway. I can see that the spring birds have crapped on it, so the secret of spring unravels imaginatively before my eyes. I can imagine that car taking me to the supermarket or downtown for a walk, but all the time, whatever my imaginative abilities ... it's just a car. And what is a car -- what is it really -- before I sic my imagination on it?

If you had your heart's desire, what would you have?

If you escaped your worst nightmare, what would you have?

Without applying that old friend imagination ... seriously, for once ... what would it be like?

A couple of days back, I emailed a Christian monastery to ask: If the purpose of monastic life may be roughly described as the search for God, what provision does the monastery make for those who find Him?

But the fact that I asked this question of a monastery is not so important. Everyone lives in their own imaginative monasteries, searching for what might roughly be called God. It's not important what the monastery may say in response to such a question. What is important is what you say or I do.

And it's funny: If you answer such a question, it's too imaginative by half. And if you can't answer, it's too upsetting for words.

Where the good tool called imagination is replaced in the tool box, even for just a nanosecond ... doesn't this allow things to come into what others may call a 'magical' focus, a 'mysterious' understanding, a 'secret' revelation?

It's not a matter of defeat or victory ... it's just birds crapping on the car.

How's that for imaginative crap?

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

imagining the abbot

Watching St. Benedict's Rule the other day made me think of my teacher, Kyudo Nakagawa Roshi who, before he died in 2007, was abbot of Ryutaku-ji Monastery in Japan. "St. Benedict's Rule" is a short film about a Christian monastery in Missouri and, although I am not a Christian, it had a number of touching and compelling aspects ... at least for me.

One such aspect was a comparison between the comments made by the abbot of the monastery and his fellow priests and brothers. Each of the men had his own personality and way of presenting things and most of them were very attractive in their straightforwardness and humility. The only slightly sour notes I detected -- or thought I detected -- came from the abbot. And that's what made me think of Kyudo.

The abbot acknowledged that he was in a somewhat different role from his companions -- forced by the nature of the job to have many concerns that were not part of their daily life. Food, squabbles, money, politics, chastisement/advice ... all the stuff that goes into running a large organization. And from time to time as he spoke, I thought I could detect his public-relations persona ... the one forced upon him by his office ... making things sound good, look good. And I felt sorry for him. Not because he was faking it outlandishly, but because being the front man so often entails being what you aren't, saying what you don't quite believe, and judiciously excising by omission the worms in the apple. What a weight.

Kyudo had been in Israel for 13 years and pretty much his own man as I understood things. But when his teacher, Soen Nakagawa died, the question of who might become the next abbot arose. One teacher who was dying to have the post and the prestige that went with it was not well-regarded by the monks at the monastery. He had the credentials, perhaps, but he was not a Zen teacher in anything but name. The monks, as I heard it from a great and perhaps-inaccurate distance, begged Kyudo to take the job. As it turned out, the post was given to Sochu Suzuki Roshi, one of Soen's Dharma heirs, and only on Sochu's death did Kyudo become abbot.

In Zen, there is a tradition for the one asking to ask three times. In this way, sincerity is suggested if not assured. And as I heard it, Kyudo turned down the request several times before finally accepting.

But in my mind, he wasn't playing Zen games. In my mind, he really didn't want the post. Really, he didn't. He took it, in my imagination, because he was a monk and because the Dharma was the Dharma, like it or lump it. But in his heart, as my imagination would have it, he knew that achieving so much rank and status was a dead loss ... the mirror image of what corporate cutthroats strive to attain. He wasn't anybody's front man... except that the Dharma was the Dharma and we are all front men.

I can't imagine that Kyudo did the job with anything less than his best abilities. But, perhaps entirely without reason, I feel sorry for his ascendancy and sorry for his descent ... neither of which probably apply ... and yet ... what an unfortunate outcome, my imagination suggests. It makes me feel the same as I might if one of my children broke an arm ... I would give anything to take that on myself so s/he didn't have to bear the burden.

It's all pretty imaginative.

in the news....

A jogger with his iPod earplugs in place was struck and killed on a South Carolina beach when the pilot of a single-engine airplane whose motor had died made an emergency landing from behind an oil-spattered windshield on Monday. The pilot and his passenger survived. Investigators agreed the jogger never heard the plane coming.

The story reminded me of Thornton Wilder's "The Bridge of San Luis Rey," a tale of several people's lives before they arrived at a bridge that collapsed and killed them.

It also reminded me of the old spiritual-endeavor nostrum, "Understanding is knowing to get out of the way of an on-coming bus. Practice is for the bus you didn't see coming."

I am reduced to reading the news. I cannot seem to summon the same interest and concern I once did for the difficulties etched on internet venues devoted to, most often, Zen Buddhism. The difficulties are often real and recognizable and touchingly human. The suggestions and answers are sometimes pretty good. Someone will answer them, someone will help.

What good is spiritual life if it remains a sheltered bastion? Yes, there are good teachings and good practices and they are sometimes worth learning and learning well. But having learned a little -- not just from books, but from experience -- isn't it time to go jogging with a smile on your face, to take your act on the road and forget about it?

Funny, the human habit of wanting to make things change when they change all by themselves.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010


I was brought up to be wary and attentive -- wary and attentive as a means of attaining what I hoped to attain. I suppose what I hoped to attain from the world around me was love, but the world around me seemed not to care much about the attentiveness and wariness I brought to bear. When I noticed that the world did not care much, did not reward my attentive wariness, I redoubled my attention, redoubled my wariness. It was an endless and fruitless cycle. Looking back, I would call it quite sad.

But within that fruitless and sometimes painful quest, there was something quite useful that was nourished. Wariness might be a self-defeating exercise, but attention was quite a good asset, however fruitlessly applied.

Within that desperate attentiveness, I noticed a lot of things that others seemed to ignore. I am not saying this in order to elevate my own status. It was just what happened and its teachings were positive... the brown spot on an autumn leaf, the small smile in a sea of sorrow, the lively stillness on a windy day ... the twinklings that spoke of some wider reality within what passed for a generally-agreed-upon reality.

As axioms go, I think it is a good one: "Everyone has suffered a tragedy." Comparing and contrasting tragedies is a fool's errand, but the fact that everyone has suffered a tragedy has a couple of implications at least: A. We have reason to be kinder to each other and B. Out of the tragic mud, there is nourishment and flowers that grow.

I don't mean this as some feel-good nostrum to be placed adoringly with the other feel-good nostrums on the self-help book shelf. Rather I mean that it is just what seems to actually happen. And if it is, upon reflection, what actually happens, then perhaps it's a good idea to reassess and re-see our tragedies.

spending money

For those who have money to spend, it might be an interesting experiment: Pick one day of the week and spend no money at all.

Just pick one day -- a day that can be prepared for ahead of time -- and don't spend a single cent.

Go about your ordinary business ... but don't spend any money.

Monday, March 15, 2010

"St. Benedict's Rule"

For those not too offended by Christian persuasions, I just watched St. Benedict's Rule, a paced and patient presentation of life at Conception Abbey in Missouri here in the U.S.

I am not trying to play the 'ecumenical' card by mentioning this (ecumenism makes my teeth itch horribly), but I was interested that some of the practices and difficulties might have come right out of a Zen monastery.



If you want to be famous
The best thing you can do
Is to drop dead.

When you are dead
It allows others
To build themselves up
In your eyes.

-- Written after watching a nice little film about Han Shan.

at peace

My take is this: In order to be at peace -- that seemingly elusive wish that everyone has -- you have to be at peace with yourself, to agree with yourself.

Lots of people run around proclaiming their thoughts and beliefs and asserting their certainties. Alternatively they can proclaim their uncertainties -- it amounts to the same thing: A proclamation of a self that is in or out of synch with the world around you.

All this is done in aid of a social connection -- a wish to find a home among fellow human beings who are doing precisely the same thing. It is warming, yes, but it also carries with it a cold and unremitting doubt ... forever shoring up what seems to fall into disarray. "I'm a Democract, except..." "I'm a Republican, but..." "I love Sally, except..." "I hate Johnny, but...."

Without finding out who this self is -- how it is constituted, what or whom it relies on -- how can anyone find any peace? any agreement with themselves? any peace?
Without investigation, life is just one compromise after another, one effort after another to shore up sensible thoughts and soaring beliefs. There is always a certainty that is uncertain... loud, perhaps, and heart-felt, perhaps ... but uncertain nonetheless, a compromise nonetheless.

And peace is not a compromise, any more than a sneeze or a laugh or a kiss is a compromise.

Who will do the work? I don't know.

cause and effect

One of the baited hooks that landed me on the spiritual-endeavor dock was cause and effect. In my reading, Swami Vivekananda underscored cause and effect and since cause and effect were so 'obvious' in my own life -- since I was willing to credit it and believe it and make it a cornerstone of sorts -- well, the invitation to think things over in terms of cause and effect was compelling. It was an antidote to the suspicion/fear that spiritual life was nothing more than a bunch of swooning air-heads and fanatics.

If cause and effect were an integral part of the spiritual-adventure tapestry, it became less threatening, less idiotic, less poorly-founded in my mind. By pointing out cause and effect, what I perceived as moronic sincerities were alleviated ... no, Adam, you don't have to be a nitwit in order to believe in God. And lord knows I didn't want to be a fool.

So there was cause and effect. I could see it, understand it, feel comforted by its concrete factuality ... and hold on tight. Cause and effect made sense and I could hold on in a realm that often didn't have a lot of hand-holds. If I hit my thumb with a hammer, it would hurt ... you can't get much more down-to-earth than that. When you hit your thumb with a hammer, the Magical Mystery Tour that spiritual endeavor sometimes puts on display can take a hike.

I was comforted. I was relieved. I felt a lot less suspicious. I felt less threatened by unfounded or at least unprovable idiocy, however delightful. And as time passed, my hand-hold pal, cause and effect, may have become less rebellious, less insistent, less needy ... but it was still my good friend.

Cause and effect. A-a-a-a-m-e-n!

And even today I think cause and effect are a sweetly-baited hook -- a factual reminder and a true observation ... especially when the airy-fairies get too insistent. Cause and effect are as sensible as salt.

But too ... this life does not require condiments. Hand-holds are not required except when they are required. For conversational purposes, cause and effect are good indicators and good friends. We hold their hand as circumstances arise.

But circumstances provide no hand-holds. They arise and fade away and arise some more. Good friends just come and go. What was a hand-hold yesterday may be an impediment today and a hand-hold again tomorrow.

If we need convincing, then perhaps cause and effect are a good hand-hold. But where holding hands can steady our balance in one instance, it can also throw us off balance in another.

Circumstances arise. We create and meet them. We fall prey or prey upon them. Cause and effect come and go and come again ... but it's just circumstances, isn't it? Circumstances don't require our salt, however sensible it may be. It's just circumstances. It's just life. It doesn't take a brain surgeon to know that pounding your thumb with a hammer hurts.

And as the Zen teacher Rinzai once put it, perhaps the best advice is simply, "Grasp and use, but never name."



Sunday, March 14, 2010

Zen center transgressions

For those interested in the sexual and other transgressions that can occasionally crop up in Zen centers in America, I received this cleanly-written piece by Stuart Lachs and Vladimir Keremidschieff today in email. Aitken-Shimano letters

The information is relevant to this blog post

time passes

The wall clock read 6:57 this morning, but the computer read 7:57. Here in the U.S., daylight savings time went into effect today, pushing the clocks forward by an hour.

We lost an hour.

Where did it go?

Was something really lost? If so, where did it get to? Did it go on vacation or move to Tahiti or something?

It's a silly question, perhaps, but I think that the assumption of what we call time is something to consider ... and 'losing' an hour is a good reminder of an underlying axiom in our lives. We don't even think about time until someone says, "Your watch is wrong."

But is time ever wrong or right? Is it the foundation block we sometimes give it credit for or is it just a convenience I offer to you or you offer to me? Intellectually, we can fob all this off, but time, even without the government legislating a loss or gain, does seem to pass: Once I was six, now I am not. What happened? What happened really, before birthdays and time pieces were invented?

Agile and facile minds will wave their hands brightly in the classroom: "Ooh! Ooh! I know! I know! Pick me! Pick me!... all things change!"

And of course, it's true. But there is a difference between knowing what is true and actualizing what is true.

Knowing what is true means that I am confused when the wall clock says 6:57 and the computer says 7:57.

Actualizing what is true means one, rueful smile.

out of stories

I seem to be out of stories this morning, but here I am, writing that I seem to be out of stories ... making it a story.

And maybe that's the way of things: When the stories run out, there is a chance to relax and smile ... a piece of music, a kiss, an itch to scratch, a grey and gusty day. When the stories run out, there is just this story and, man, it leaves "Avatar" in the dust when it comes to special effects!

Maybe I'll think of something later.

Saturday, March 13, 2010

rewrite, revise, rethink

I just went through the first draft of my book that will be placed on Kindle-like electronic formats. This is happening with most of the internet heavy-lifting being done by my friend Julia, the Bodhisattva of internet gobbly-gook.

As usual, when it comes to bodhisattvas, it's not as if I get off scot-free. So I ran spell-check and then went through for an hour or better, replacing hyphens, where necessary, with dashes.


Old stuff, carefully combed, hoping against hope that I will not have to return to any of what I had once hoped could be marked "complete" or "finished" in my mind.

But I know it won't be that easy. The past is never exactly the past because the present calls it forth ... making it present.

Books, emotions, thoughts ... same stuff, different day. Over and over again, rewriting, revising, rethinking.

It's a good thing we have zazen to straighten things out.


There was a time when I too aspired to "inka," a word that can mean transmission of mind in Zen Buddhism, a state attested to from teacher to student.

Here's some of wikipedia on the topic:

Inka Shōmei (印可証明?), (Korean: Inga) is a term used in Zen Buddhism to denote a high-level of certification, and literally means "the legitimate seal of clearly furnished proof."[1] In ancient times inka usually came in the form of an actual document, but this practice is no longer commonplace.[2] A qualified Zen master bestows inka only upon his or her students that have demonstrated themselves as leaders and capable of teaching.


According to Peter Matthiessen, "In the Rinzai tradition, inka is equivalent to dharma transmission."[5]

In other schools, such as the Harada-Yasutani school, inka is approval that goes beyond Dharma transmission—granted to a master who is confirmed to be, "an enlightened successor of the Buddha."[6] In the Kwan Um School of Zen, inga is not associated with Dharma transmission at all. Rather, it denotes that the individual is a Ji Do Poep Sa Nim and can lead retreats and teach koan practice to others.[1] The Japanese Soto school also confers inka shōmyō (or inshō) upon students—meaning "'[granting] the seal of approval to a realization of enlightenment'"[7]—and the student must undergo a shiho ceremony to receive Dharma transmission.[8]

The word and my own aspiration had not crossed my mind in years, but this morning it did again and it was with relief that I realized:

"I'm too old for inka."

One of the advantages of age, I imagine.

rainy day, good sense

A rainy, raw day around here.

I will have to take my umbrella to the peace picket.

Umbrellas are good tools and remind me of the Hindu tale of the two monks walking barefoot down some rock-strewn dirt road. "Wouldn't it be nice if the road were covered in leather?" one asked the other idly. "Maybe it would be easier just to cover our feet in leather," the other replied.

sporting events

Sports-enthusiast friends have told me that going to a game is about the entire experience and not just the game, but I realized last night when my sons and I went to a hockey game why I am not a very good sports-enthusiast.

The three of us drove 20 miles or so to Springfield, a nearby middle-sized city, and parked across from the center where the game was to be played. Crowds swirled and eddied in the lobby where we picked up the tickets I had ordered. A young woman with a walkie-talkie pointed out where we should go and we went there.

The seats turned out to be about six feet from the Plexiglas barrier that separated the ice from the seats. The closeness to the ice and the people playing on it were compelling. Over the center of the rink was an enormous sign on which the score and video replays and other promotional material was housed and from which a booming voice encouraged cheering and purchasing.

And then the game began. Young men zipped and swooped and displayed their athletic abilities. They had my attention. They were pretty good at what they did and I was happy to watch them.

But just watching was not all of what the crowd had come for. They came to root for one side or the other. They came to scream. They came to applaud and egg on the fights that occasionally broke out on the ice. They came to sing and watch themselves being filmed on the screens over the rink. Their enthusiasms seemed a bit like a group orgasm, one in which the collective energy took them out of themselves and thereby brought them closer to themselves.

But I was somehow unable to find much in this group hug. I wanted to watch the game and be wowed by its skills and glory ... which I pretty much was. But I couldn't seem to get the hang of the 'total experience' my sporting-event enthusiast friends referred to. It seemed somehow beside-the-point, which may just mean I was beside-the-point. I wasn't critical about it. I just couldn't get the hang of it.

What it made me think of was the applause that follows in the wake of a folk singer who has invited the crowd to sing along. Nothing wrong with that. In fact, it's kind of fun. But the applause that follows is not just applause for the folk singer on stage ... it is applause for me, applause for us ... as if the concert put every audience participant in the stage spotlight ... which, in one quite obvious sense, they weren't. It was not enough to be enthralled ... I needed others to tell me to be enthralled. It is all very odd to me... which probably makes me odd.

Anyway, I was happy to be with my sons, to hang out, to watch the game and its skills and errors, to be delighted ... but I also came away thinking that I can understand watching games on TV instead of on-site. It's a narrower, less-visceral experience, watching the game on the boob tube, but it does allow me to focus on the game ... which is what I wanted to see in the first place.

It was a good time, whatever the wonderings it left me with. I guess I'll just have to settle for the fact that I don't see the 'total experience' as being the total experience. Others, of course, do.

And either way, it's the total experience, I reckon -- not something anyone could escape or embrace. There was a warmth to the crowd, despite LaRochefoucauld's observation that "the intelligence of the mass is inversely proportionate to its number." Warmth ... and who does not want to be warmed, whether it's in a sports arena or voting for George W. Bush? Critical observations can't hold a candle to the desire to be warmed, and criticizing that group-think effort (another version of seeking out warmth) is too facile by half.

I had a good time with my boys. I enjoyed the wonders of the game. That's enough for me.

the goof-off

Sometimes I think religion is like the high-school goof-off who sits in the back of the classroom shooting spitballs and trying to figure out ways to avoid doing the homework ... religion is just maneuvering and manipulating things so that the bad boys can get away with being good.

Getting away with stuff isn't easy, as any dedicated goof-off can attest. And being good is no exception.

Most goof-offs end up in the principal's office, serving a detention among the tall spires and wondrous texts of religion.

But a few slip through and actually get away with it.

If religion is your cup of tea, do your best to be a thorough goof-off. Don't let the principal get in your way. Goodness is not for the goody-two-shoes.

Friday, March 12, 2010


If you mention oneness, people's hearts can flutter with delight, but the first thing they do is to make it a matter of differentiation.

If you mention differentiation, they may dissolve into wonder or despair, but the first thing they suspect is the oneness of it all.

If you suggest making an effort, the first thing they do is to fear laziness.

If you point out pride, they may tug their forelocks in profound humility.

If you fail to give them a mystery to solve, their detective spirits are all at a loss.

And if you ask, "What's the matter with tying your shoelaces?" they can become irritable with the lack of deeper meaning.

What a mishegas!

Luckily, no one has a problem snoring at night.

the what-if's

What if, instead of having been mistaken or horribly wrong, you were precisely right?

What if, instead of being precisely right, you were mistaken or horribly wrong?

And what if right and wrong had nothing to do with it?

Dontcha just hate the laziness of the what-if's?

tickling our cheeks

Today, because I dislike leaving more mess than I have to for others to clean up, I will go with my wife to a lawyer and begin the steps that will lead to the creation of a will, a durable power of attorney, and a health proxy.

In aid of this adventure in mortality, I spent a lot of time yesterday gathering information, collating it, putting it down in such a way that, I hope, when I either die or become badly sick, there will be a little burden as possible. Bank account information, a few stocks, copyright data, burial rights as stipulated for veterans, and was there a discount for cremation.

It all took several hours of quite particular work, phone calls, and focus. No doubt the lawyer will have a laundry list of stuff I overlooked, but in the same way I dislike having others' cleaning up my mess within the family, I also dislike making more work for the lawyer than is necessary ... so my efforts were a start in a world I have never entered before ... so to speak.

But of course the stuff I was addressing was stuff I had accumulated over the years, stuff with which I was familiar to one degree or another. Possessions, like memories, pile up over time. And what I cherished or cherish needed to be seen from the point of view of someone -- my wife or children -- who might not cherish such things at all. What about the cruciform twig my then-small son gave me to put on the zendo altar? What about the tables I once built and whose wood I love? What about the picture my smaller son made in kindergarten or first grade -- the one I framed because of the words that he wrote together with a picture that was indecipherable: "We luv echuther."

Each of us has stuff we cherish, I imagine. But it is just what we cherish. And there is a usefulness in seeing that it just we who cherish it. Others may see it in a completely different and perhaps not-at-all complimentary light. The importance we invest in things has no inherent validity ... it's just a taste or love or meaning that we ourselves have found ... or, more accurately, created.

What is useful about this observation, I think, is that, once having gotten over the loneliness that may adhere to the understanding, we can release our clutching and see that what we cherish is just ourselves. That clutching is not so much good or bad as it is possible-rather-than-necessary. What I would call important -- no matter how many may agree or disagree -- is just what I see as important.

With this sort of understanding -- or some effort to put it in place -- things become lighter. We can say with the utmost force whatever it is we want to say, but the clutching need for agreement or support is reduced. What is sad is truly sad. What is woo-hoo is truly woo-hoo. But the topic is like a silky milkweed seed floating on a spring breeze ... delicate, intricate, beautiful, full of promise, and practically weightless.

Your milkweed seeds float onto my earth. My
milkweed seeds tickle your cheek. It's a wonderful dance.

Might as well learn to enjoy it, to be the angels who "can fly because they take themselves lightly."

Thursday, March 11, 2010


Five discs of Mozart, one of bluegrass music and one of 'the three tenors' were what I got for my birthday and yesterday I went out and bought myself an upgraded sound system for the computer.

My musical buddy Dave suggested that I do this when I complained that I had no room and no checkbook for an upscale sound system and found that getting a simple radio with disc player -- and some decent sound -- was not an option unless I wanted to see the CD player collapse in a year or two.

I bought the speakers -- and, apparently tellingly, the subwoofer -- at Best Buy, got it home, plugged it in with my daughter's help ... only to find that the bass notes were good, but the treble was tinny. So I went back, returned the one I had bought, and paid for a more expensive one. The sound now is a bit like a ghetto blaster -- very powerful -- but the notes are truer and there's nothing saying I can't turn down the volume.

And now, I can drown in Mozart ... a death worth dying for my money.

Music is so wonderful. You can't touch it, taste it, smell it, see it, think it, or even, in one sense, hear it. But you can be consumed and wiped out with it. Gonzo!


What a nice reminder.

kids and grown-ups

When I was a kid -- maybe in the second grade -- my mother once overheard me playing cowboys and indians in the basement with a friend. I was acting the part of the voice-over that could have been part of one of the movies I loved going to on Saturday afternoons. And my mother heard me say, "Now it's ten years later and we're all grown up."

All grown up. Anyone who has grown up knows there's no such thing as growing up, but you can't tell that to a kid who yearns to do grown-up stuff like driving a car or staying up late or being tall or ... well, whatever it is s/he isn't allowed to do now.

As a kid, mom and dad are grown-ups. Their friends are grown-ups. Teachers are grown-ups. Cops are grown-ups. And as the kid gets older, the list of grown-ups grows. The boss is a grown-up, someone skilled in a desired expertise is a grown-up ... there is always someone who is a grown-up in a world where we are still kids. Kids are the ones who have stuff to attain, to learn, to aspire to, to change into, to be applauded for. Kids R Us: In polite terms, it's called learning and you're "never too old to learn."

Perhaps it is just my age, and perhaps others have run across it sooner than I did, but I think there comes a day when you wake up and realize that just as there is no such thing as grown-ups, there is also no such thing as a kid. You wake up and realize that -- right, wrong or indifferent -- you are the boss. Given a lifetime of kids and grown-ups, it can come as something of a jolt: There are no more heroes; this is it; and, besides something of a surprise, it can feel as if you had lost your moorings.

I was thinking about this in terms of spiritual endeavor and how anyone might start out with high hopes and bright lights. Texts and temples and really wise people that pointed the way. When I grew up, that's what I wanted to attain, but in the meantime, before I grew up, someone or something else held a candle in my darkness, offered hope to my confusions, painted pictures of what it might be like to be tall or drive a car.

And then, all of a sudden, as it seemed, I was just stuck with the candle.

I was thinking of this when reading someone's words describing this or that about spiritual adventure -- finding meaning and importance and candlelight and grown-ups. There was nothing wrong or mistaken in it, but it was someone else's candle...bright, inviting, inspiring, important, auspicious. And I sort of wished I could re-enter that realm, a realm full of kids and grown-ups. It is reassuring and cozy, even when there are difficulties to face.

And I don't mean to don some mantle of understanding or wisdom by saying there are no more heroes, no more grown-ups. It's nothing special, but makes me think more of the leaves on a tree in summertime ... each bending to some warming wind. Each leaf is a grown-up leaf, complete in all its completeness, complete in all its fragilities and flaws, complete in its potent green-ness. Each leaf shares with the next what cannot be shared. Each leaf is a friend to the next, yet each speaks a unique language that is compatible and yet ... well, this leaf is the boss; this leaf drives the car; this leaf is the perfect teacher ... like it or not, the PERFECT teacher.

From a kids-and-grown-ups point of view, it's odd being the boss, odd and sometimes a little scary ... no leaf wants to mislead its companions. And using the word "boss" is a little misleading because a "boss" suggests someone who lords it over or is more powerful than someone else. Maybe it's more like, no one is in charge because everyone is in charge. I'm not talking smarm, here. See if it's true. Find out.

See the warm breeze nudge and travel through the leaves. Who's in charge here? Is anyone hoping it's ten years later? Is anyone looking back with regret? Moms and dads and bosses and employees and gurus and disciples and grown-ups and kids and all the leaves at ease and easy with each other. It's not as if anyone could be responsible or elude responsibility ... it's just easy. Who's in charge?

Warm wind, blue sky, summer sun ... who's in charge here?

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

the TV show

For the third day in a row, the dawn comes up pale blue and clear from end to end. Looking into a sky like that, it is hard to pay it much mind. There is no contrast, no point of reference, no excitement ... none of the dazzling or delightful clouds that float and shape-shift. It's a little like looking at a TV that's off.

When things are the same, people get agitated or confused or bored: They know instinctively that things change and yet this blue sky is the same. In the army, everyone wears the same clothes, day in and day out. In the zendo, everyone wears a robe. And each morning the employee seeks out a different tie or skirt, a change for what the mirror tells us is the same -- this blue, blue sky -- but different.

It is hard to face up to the fact that there is something that doesn't change. Not intellectually or emotionally, but really -- really, there is something that doesn't change in our lives, some cloudless blue sky.

Part of the difficulty, of course, is that the moment we say something doesn't change, we are cruisin' for a bruisin' because, of course, everything changes. Running around and spouting snuggly words like "god" and "oneness" and "love" ... well, if blue sky laughed, I imagine it must snicker fiercely.

What is it that is the same but will not accede to any notion of same-ness? What is the same but different ... and does not accede to difference either? What is the principle that cannot be grasped and yet cannot be escaped? What is it that, despite all the mystical and religious maneuvering, is at peace ... that is solid as a rock and yet when we try to sit on it, we fall flat on our asses?

Just now, on the porch, beneath the blue, blue sky, I could hear a flock of Canada geese somewhere in the distance. A schoolgirl with a backpack passed by, talking on a cell phone. And on the porch, some old fart nitwit conjures up words to evoke something ... to turn on the TV.

It never changes.

Time for breakfast.

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

safe and sound

How often does it happen in spiritual endeavor -- that sense that what was pleasant and supportive and consoling had turned around and bitten you on the ass, that spiritual endeavor was serious and personal and oh-so-lonely?

For the lucky ones, I think the answer is ... often!

What was a pleasant belief or philosophy or religion runs head-on into gut-level facts.

For example, a pleasant conversation about the insignificance of man in the vast cosmos becomes a flash of understanding that "I am insignificant." Or what was a well-oiled and on-top-of-it conversation about death suddenly hits home when looking in the bathroom mirror: "I am going to die."

I am insignificant ... and no one cares!

I am going to die ... and no one understands!

And other flashes of up-close-and-personal lightning.

It's a major reality-check and there is no philosophy or religion or best friend that can kiss it better, that can stanch the confused and writhing tears. This ... is ... serious.

And the first thing anyone wants to do when confronting such serious matters, such inescapable recognitions, is to regain control -- the control that seemed to be in place before the recognition occurred. The problem is, of course, that the latest recognition has blown earlier contentments to bits and there is no going back, no palliative that will adequately solve and control this bright, white light.

And this, it seems to me, is where serious spiritual endeavor proves its usefulness. The only way to assure some honest consolation is to first lose any sense of consolation, to be bereft of all the two-bit nostrums and control mechanisms, to lose faith in what provided faith, to be naked and alone.

Serious spiritual endeavor deals with what is inescapable. And when you look around, what is there that is truly escapable? It may feel as if there were no tools adequate to fixing such a sense of loss, but I think the tools are in hand.

Anyone who has had a child or two -- and perhaps those who haven't -- knows the instantaneous reaction when hearing a child cry. Hearing just a single cry, before even thinking about it, the adult is up and out of his easy chair ... on the way to changing diapers, or burping the child, or feeding the child or simply holding the child close and warm and rocking.

And the same is true upon this reality-check barren plain. Yes, there is a loss of footing and a sense of despair and a confusion to beat all confusions. But would you care less for one crying child than another? So it is time to pay attention to this child, this despairing child -- to hold him or her close and warm and rocking. It takes patience and courage and doubt. It takes an attention which acknowledges the situation and doesn't pretend there is some easy way out ... some way that would rely on the philosophies or religions of contentment and control.

Patience and caring and attention. This is serious. So ... serious-up!

I feel fortunate to have run into the practice of Zen Buddhism -- a practice that puts some emphasis on seated meditation. This practice brings body and mind into a single accordance. This is the whole ball of wax -- the crying child's entire life, seated on this cushion. And it is here that I can care for what is inescapable and yet, for the moment, weeping. There, there ... the breath comes and the breath goes. There, there ... the moments go by inescapably. There, there ... it happens over and over again ... another moment and another moment and another moment. There, there ... birth and death are not just some talking point; they are what actually happens and is that really so bad, so sad, so confusing, so depressing, so lonely?

No baby I ever held went back to sleep immediately. It takes some patience and care before the tears are eased and things really are right with the world. There, there ... a little at a time. There, there ... what is inescapable is simply inescapable, but who is it who could possibly escape or what is it that could possibly be escaped from?

There, there ... here, here ... rock, rock ... safe and sound.

reading for pleasure

With my friend Julia holding my internet-challenged hand, I am preparing the book I wrote for inclusion in the world of Kindle and other read-it-online applications.

Actually, Julia is doing the work since even the simplest of how-to internet instructions leave me gasping for air. But she told me on the phone yesterday that in the world of on-line reading, you put reviews of the book right at the front of the internet presentation.

So I went and looked up some reviews and was forced to read them for typos.

The book, self-published in 2007, now seems a bit old and stale in my mind, but reading the reviews made me think, as if someone else had written it, that it was a book I might like to read. A strange sensation.

The reviews -- all of them complimentary, of course -- were, with the exception of one that was a bit boisterous-if-fun, the kind of praise that I could listen to, hear, and be at home with. I found myself pleased that even one person liked it, but the question whispered, "Who is the guy who wrote this book? Oh yeah, that was me."

In the past, I have been habituated to not receive praise well, to open myself to it, to enjoy it and let it flow through: Some glass-half-empty was always waiting for the other shoe to drop ... the mirror image of wallowing in it. But last night as I read those reviews, it was pleasing and I found myself allowing the tail to be stuck on the donkey: "Isn't that kool?" And yes, it was kool. And there was no other shoe, no yes-but rearing its head like some wicked stepmother.

Strange how matters of the past can so often be matters of regret...or at least for me. Others, I know, can glory in the past, find solace and support and reaffirmation. But it occurred to me that finding regret is really not a whole lot different from finding affirmation ... it's just another affirmation, though not, perhaps, so tasty and warming as relying on and wallowing in the accomplishments.

But last night, I just found myself enjoying it all. I wasn't entirely sure what I was enjoying (the guy who wrote that book and the words written in it are gone), but I knew that enjoying myself was fun. A nice birthday present, somehow.

Monday, March 8, 2010

don't be clever and trivial

A message posted on Zen Forum International said in part

Jack Dainin is scheduled to be executed by the state of Arkansas on March 16, 2010 at approximately 9:00 pm (Arkansas time, 7:00 pm West Coast time.) It is believed that all appeals possibilities have been exhausted.

Jack Dainin Jones is also said to have taken up a Zen Buddhist seated-meditation practice while incarcerated. And he was quoted in the article above as saying, relative to a living practice:

Don’t be clever and trivial.

Coming from a man on death row, the words have considerable resonance, I think.

I too have been clever and trivial when it comes to practice, when it comes to life. Clever in my solemnities, clever in my philosophies, clever in my failures and successes. Clever and thereby, trivial. If it's any consolation, which it is not, I don't imagine I am alone.

It is a good reminder ... a scowly face or a blissed-out persona simply cannot outsmart this life we live. And it is important to discover in what ways we need -- and indeed long -- to be something more complete than clever and trivial.

Good words -- don't be clever and trivial.

where the threats are

For my money, the most serious threat to the essence of what religion points to is what passes for religion.

But what other choice is there?

To get where we long to go, we all have to confront and subdue the most serious threats.


What if (dontcha just hate what-if's?) your hero or heroine, mentor or guru, showed up on your doorstep? What if Jesus knocked at the church door or Mohammad tried to gain entry to the mosque? What if your guru stopped by for a cup of coffee?

Wouldn't this be a serious threat to business as usual? A s-e-r-i-o-u-s threat?

Wouldn't the hero- or heroine-mindset be thrown into disarray?

Wouldn't philosophies and religions and other forms of elevation crumble on the spot?

All that imagining, all that philosophy, all that religion, all that veneration, all that elevation ... poof!

But poof is a good thing, I think...very useful in serious affairs.

We're all in the business of being, so to speak, poofters.


On the TV, a handsome young Spanish bullfighter said his profession took him to his limits. It helped him to know himself. He seemed a bit confused when the reporter interviewing him asked him if he had found his limits.

Between the show's interviews with various matadors, there were film segments in the ring ... young men dressed in brocade enticing bulls that weighed something less than a ton to charge a red cape the matadors held in their hands. The bull's power and horns were obvious. The banderillas inserted at the bull's shoulders or neck waved awkwardly in the Spanish sunshine. The banderillas were meant to slow the bull down by blood loss, but it was clear that in terms of the man the bull was facing, the bull was still very dangerous, a potential killer that the matador had chosen to challenge. Nostrils flaring and dusty, the bull charged again and again as the man faced his death again and again... faced his limits ... and the onlookers, vicariously, faced theirs.

One matador was gored, suffered liver damage, was hospitalized, recovered, sat out the rest of the season ... and then returned to the ring.

Testing our limits. Strange how we ourselves are the ones who set the limits -- through hopefulness or fear -- and yet the urge is there to test the limits, to break out, to go beyond the limits we took so much time and made so much effort to erect. And yet, having tested our limits, there still seem to be limits ... and a need to return to the ring despite the goring we may have received.

Death may sound like the 'ultimate' limitation, the point beyond which limits are no longer valid or binding, but is it really true? If it were true and if the limits that preceded it were true ... well, hell, matadors could just commit suicide and have done with it.

Of course most of us are not matadors or soldiers facing the firepower of an enemy or anything so extreme, so 'ultimate.' But everyone, I think, meets and acknowledges his or her limitations in life and longs to be more at ease, longs to be less limited, longs for a limitlessness that is sensed in the very limitations that have been erected. Of course there are those who can talk a good game, erecting limitations of profession or marital status or religion or philosophy and then heaping on ever more intricate reasonings for remaining within those confines. But the very effort to maintain and perhaps dress those limits in brocade does little to find the limitless ease that whispers from within these limits.

Again and again the bull charges. Again and again the matador adroitly avoids the potentially-fatal horns. Again and again we learn and then press our limits in an effort to assert and somehow reclaim our limitlessness. Again and again and again. Any matador can tell you, this is no realm for philosophy, no realm for religion, no realm for belief: This is a time for focus and attention. This is a time for responsibility. This is serious shit.

Every moment is like this, I think -- an opportunity for limitlessness that is not an "opportunity" at all: It is just limitless before limitlessness ever becomes a hope or a wish or a fear. "This," as Robert DeNiro says in the movie "Deer Hunter," "is this." This is this and there is no limitation whatsoever. This is this -- limited and complete and limitless and peaceful as a dandelion.

This is this.


Sunday, March 7, 2010

temple gongs

For any who may be as entranced by temple gongs or bells as I am, someone posted the following link on Zen Forum International about the creation and importance and use of such gongs in Japan: BBC report

PS. In response to this post, a friend sent along this picture, which gets bigger if you click on it: