Monday, May 31, 2010

victory and defeat

It should be easy, I imagine, but it's not and I hardly dare to write it: The whole thing is like a fish-hook in my heart ... a foolishness to try to escape and yet I squirm and flop and look for some easy, salving, grown-up, forget-about-it relief. It's so minor compared to the woes of the world ... and yet where the fish hook sticks in your mind and heart, it's never minor and there is no dismissive, adult resolution.

As I say ... a minor matter in the great scheme of things ... and yet....

On Saturday, my older son was off for the Western Massachusetts track meet. He was among those throwing the discus. It was to be one of his last competitions in high school -- something he had trained hard for.

When I arrived, a couple of flights (groupings) of young women were still completing their throws. Then came a flight of young men -- the ones who couldn't throw quite so far. And finally, my son's flight ... the ones who threw further and were lumped together. There was one fellow from another town/team who my son -- and everyone else -- knew was the best. He was the one to beat, if anyone could. He was very good and both his supporters and those who sought to dethrone him kept an eye on his movements.

The discus pitch or field consists of a high, netted area in the center of which is a concrete circle in which the competitors stand and from which they must make their throws. Two chalk lines angle outward from the netted area and the throwers must keep their throws within the confines of the chalked lines. Each thrower gets three opportunities.

Angus' first throw was 133 feet. His second throw fell outside the chalk lines and thus was a dud. But his third throw -- his last throw of the meet for him and perhaps the last throw of his high school career, was 144 feet -- far and away the best throw of any competitor and just six feet short of the school record.
He trotted out, as required, to pick up his discus and on the way back ... on the way back his face was suffused with joy -- pure, unalloyed joy -- the kind of joy any parent would give their life to assure in their children. Not smug, not dismissive of anyone else ... just purely, openly, nakedly happy. It filled him to the four corners of the universe and he bumped bellies with a number of teammates, all of whom were happy for him as well.

It was all beyond hot-damn!

Until ... until one of the judges noticed that one of Angus' teammates had shown him an ipod photo of the moment ... a picture Angus hardly bothered to look at. The accomplishment was assured. He didn't need pictures. But the official noticed and there was a rule that there would be no pictures taken and displayed to competitors during the meet ... which was still going on. The idea of the rule seems to be that a competitor might gain some unfair advantage in his next throw. But there were no more throws for Angus. He was done.

Nevertheless, Angus was disqualified. Erased. Extinguished from the meet. The coach pleaded an impassioned case. The officials agreed they all liked Angus and could see the coach's point ... and then they agreed with the rule book.

And it was over. In the winning came the loss. It was literally stunning to those of us who did not know the rule book and, even when hearing the rule, could not get our heads around how it would apply ... except that it was a rule and the meet was still continuing and ... the rule book said.

Angus' face was still and hard as he walked away from those who would try to console him. He had to console himself and not be nagged by passing sympathies. He walked. He returned. He walked some more. And all the while I pleaded within for some words of comfort that would mean more than jackshit ... that would put that look of unalloyed joy back on his face, that would somehow WORK, that would not reflect or wallow in my feelings of sadness and yet might somehow relieve his ....

And I couldn't fucking do it!

Even two days out from the event ... sometimes life is like that: You cannot do anything ... though you might give anything, still, you cannot do anything. Despair falls short ... period.

war and peace

Funny how the same mind that seeks peace is equally in play when the wars begin.

This should probably tell us something about the nature of war and peace....

Same mind, different day.

eine kleine morgen musik

An article along this morning's news wires outlines a charitable effort to grant the wishes of the elderly ... making it possible for them to do things like take piano lessons when piano lessons previously seemed unattainable.

Meanwhile Israel, a country with an excellent public relations apparatus, attacked an aid convoy headed for the blockaded Gaza Strip. The attack occurred in international waters. "At least 10 activists were killed in Monday morning's clash in international waters of Israel's Mediterranean coast," the Associated Press reported. "Activists" ... not "aid workers." "Activists" are people you can blame, now or later, for violence you either precipitated or took part international waters.

My Zen teacher, Kyudo Nakagawa Roshi, once said, "Without ego, nothing gets done." Without our wishes, perhaps we would never stir our stumps to accomplish what we wish might be accomplished. And it may be a very fine accomplishment, whatever we wished for, but I think it behooves us to recognize that what we wish for and what we strive for leaves wreckage in its wake. Not taking responsibility for that wreckage ... well, it's common enough ("look what a good thing I accomplished!"), but it also is enough to turn your stomach.

A world without wishes would be a strange thing indeed and yet, as I sat on the porch today, watching the flag flap in the cool, morning breeze, watching the play of light and shadow ... and then hearing a neighboring cardinal sound off in colorful notes more colorful than his feathers, there was something pleasant about not wishing ... something uncompromised and uncompromising ... something like piano wishes necessary.

Sunday, May 30, 2010


A nice Memorial Day Weekend gift ... Alanna and Mike came to sit this morning. Alanna has been several times before, but Mike I have only 'known' on the internet. Always fun to meet in person someone you have imagined from afar ... and then be corrected. I like that.

It was especially nice, as we sat in a kind of triangular 'circle' to have Mike mention his shikantaza and mu practice and to have Alanna ask for some elucidation... and just to hear the two of them talk about a subject Alanna had read about and Mike was practicing.

There is so much stuff I forget until someone mentions it.

The morning passed nicely and helped to smooth some of the rough edges of what happened at my son's track meet yesterday ... something I still haven't got my head around and wish I could. The zazen helped.

Saturday, May 29, 2010

Memorial Day

Memorial Day weekend is in play at this end of the world -- a time, for some, to remember those who sacrificed on the battlefields of the past ... on behalf of those who did not sacrifice so much. I put the flag out as usual and after all these years still have no clear idea as to why I did it or what it means. Sometimes I wish I could be as assured (and to my mind idiotic) as those who think they are confirming their patriotism by wearing American-flag lapel pins.

I dunno. I just put the flag out ... the flag of the country I live in and am responsible for. It is good to acknowledge where you are, to take stock ... even when it's confusing and not at all as easy as red-white-and-blue.

A time for cookouts and sports and parades.

Yesterday was my younger son's last baseball game of the season, a game his team won, 18-14 ... a hitting festival on a sunny day. Today my older son competes in Western Massachusetts track ... throwing the discus. Another sporting event in which he will do well, but acknowledges he hasn't got the build to beat all comers.

When I see the kids on the field and when I hoot and holler to the dismay of my off-spring, I can't help but think we are incredibly privileged ... clean and safe and cocooned in a privilege that is ... just the way things are at the moment. I don't begrudge the kids or gnaw on the notion of all the starving and underprivileged people of the world, but I do think we are privileged and full.

Shall I attribute such privilege to our flag and to those who have sacrificed what others have not sacrificed? That reasoning strikes me as facile and self-congratulatory without a satisfactory base. Others feel differently and will make speeches to that effect.

Oh well ... I put out the flag. I holler at baseball games. And I will watch my son throw a disc into the sunshine today.

Happy Memorial Day!

Friday, May 28, 2010

obvious questions

Five years as a newspaper reporter plus a kind of insistent curiosity about things has brought me around to a pretty-much conclusion: Ask the simple questions. More often than not, the complex questions betray more confusion on the part of the questioner than they do any profound delving. The simple questions are enough and have a much better yield.

I was thinking about this bias after I watched a show called "Modern Marvels" on TV yesterday. The series seems to address obvious issues ... nothing Ph.D. about it. Yesterday's segment was about coffee -- its history, its delights, its making, its business, its social implications ... just the panorama of what constitutes an obvious segment of the society I live in. The show seemed to attempt an answer to the simple question of coffee-how-come. And there were a lot of interesting tidbits from Ethiopia and Turkey to the upscale Starbucks chain. During the Middle Ages, people were given to drinking alcohol as a substitute for the often polluted water ... and as a result wandered around in a fog. And coffee sharpened the wits of those required to participate in the Industrial Revolution that came later. Etc.

The simple questions are the questions that everyone has -- the honest stuff that lies below the veneer of intelligence and wit. How does it work? How can I be happy? What makes this a part of the society and mindset in which I live?

Picking up pizza yesterday, I was standing in line when a boy of about three looked up into my face and said, "You got a boo-boo." An inch-and-a-half-square bandage was plastered above my left eyebrow where a dermatologist had removed a small cyst that morning. The boy said what was most obvious to anyone looking at me...the kind of stuff no one else was likely to mention ... good manners, right? So the two of us had a small conversation about the obvious -- boo-boos and how I had a bandage just the same as he might get one from his mom when he scraped an elbow.

To others listening, I think there was a sense of mild embarrassment or oh-isn't-he-cute/kids-say-the-damnedest-things. But I felt utterly at home: Why wouldn't we share information about the obvious? We were human beings and curious and purring like a couple of cats.

Why do we credit something called the ineffable? Is it really worth the effort? What draws us to consider or disdain one thing or another? Is what is called good really necessary and if so why? It's no big deal any more than my boo-boo was a big deal ... just a moment or two of socializing while we waited our turn in the pizza line. Pretty obvious, don't you think?

Have a cup of coffee. :)

Thursday, May 27, 2010

still laughing

My internet Zen friend Hughie has had a stroke. A large and damaging stroke, according to his daughter.

Strange how affecting something like that can be (and I don't just mean that it reminds me I'm going to die). I've never met Hughie, never spoken with him. He lives in the UK and I'm on the other side of the pond. Nevertheless, through Zen bulletin boards, each of us has cracked wise to the delight of the other; each of us has made observations with which the other has agreed. And when he quoted his wife from time to time, I would routinely joke about coming across the ocean to marry her ... very pointed, feet-on-the-ground remarks; a straight shooter who needed Buddhism in about the same way she needed another nose hair.

Highie's son named his son after me, I seem to recall. Of all strange things! And I never met him either, though I did beg and plead for computer help from time to time ... Andy knows that shit.

Hughie had his stroke four days ago at 5 a.m. Here is a bit of an email I got from his daughter, Claire, today:

They have assessed him and said he's had a 'large' stroke and that the damage is severe. They said he probably can't follow what we are saying beyond 10 seconds before he loses the flow and that he then probably forgets it. He can't read he can't make any sense of the words. ...

For him to be the same again would be 'miraculous' to use their words. He seems fed up but is still laughing.

My friend is a laugh-er though I have never heard him laugh. I am happy he is still laughing ... and very sad otherwise.

dumb and dumber

A voice on the radio the other day argued that even assuming that those who are unemployed found some renewed occupation, the length of their unemployment would mean that there once-sharp skills would be dulled...that, in effect, the work force is getting less and less effective and the nation is likely to suffer a kind of collective dumbing-down.

Certainly I find it true -- use it or lose it. The jolly juxtapositions and intense importances I once found compelling and worth noting have entered a kind of Vaselined blurriness. What once was sharp and interesting and important ... well, the energy and willingness to engage it has dwindled. Is it age? Is it retirement? I don't know, but I do know that where once subject matter seemed to clamor in the mind, now I have to read secondary sources like the news or some revered text in order to fire up the engines of writing ... which, themselves, seem slower and less capable.

Let others be concerned. Help them if they ask. Otherwise ... well, otherwise let things alone. Great involvements are not all that great.

How much worse off would anyone be if they never involved themselves in spiritual life? How much worse off if they simply did a half-assed job instead of a good one? How much happier or unhappier if the dove headlong into one Big Muddy or another?

Dumb, dumber, dumbest ... it seems to be the direction.


People are far more interesting than their possessions, but it's not always possible to convince them of this fact.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

a community of eunuchs

Eunuch wedding halted

The article says,

Pakistan has a large population of eunuchs living all over the country.
The community was recently granted official status by Pakistan's supreme court.

How and why "a large population of eunuchs" came to pass is not explained. So I am left to wonder -- is it punishment or elevation or sterilization or ... what's at the root?

Inquiring minds....

Well, another BBC article says the group lives on the impoverished fringes of society and, without saying why, notes:

The eunuchs, known as "hijras" in Pakistan, are men castrated at an early age for
medical or social reasons.


rattling your cage

My older son was up early (and a bit grumpy) today, headed for the high school where the seniors are planning a "prank" that has its roots in previous years' pranks. It's pretty tame, but he got out of bed for it, so that makes it worth the price of admission.

What is planned is to set up a toll booth in the school parking lot. Those wishing to park nearer to the school's front entrance can pay a "toll" (I think it's a dollar). All others will be relegated to parking spaces further from the entrance. The money will go to some school need.

A prank made for relatively well-off, relatively 'entitled' kids. Sometimes I worry that the comforts the kids enjoy will not serve them well in the future, but life has a way of teaching lessons we didn't learn before -- lessons for which there is never enough preparation, no matter how well-off or impoverished anyone might be.

Funny how parents long to shield their kids from the lumps and bumps that are likely to come along and yet no matter how energetic the effort to shield, still the bell jar of growing up -- for better or worse -- can never be enough: The bell jar of entitlement or lack of entitlement is made for one thing alone ... to be shattered.

In the army, I had a black buddy in basic training. He and I would horse around -- challenging each other to do more push-ups or chin-ups or ... well, competing and then laughing with or at each other. He came from some place in back-roads Virginia and I was a white kid from New York. Both of us were dressed in the same fatigues and had the same impossibly short haircut and the bell jars of the past made little or no difference. We were pals, suffering and griping about and making the best of our current circumstances.

And then one day, he wasn't around. He was gone for a couple of days and I couldn't find out what had happened to him. Was he sick? Had he been thrown out for some reason? Had he gotten into some trouble? I simply didn't know.

And then he was back. "Where the fuck were you?!" I asked with a friend's exasperation. And he explained that he had been to the dentist where, at age 19, he had had all of his teeth pulled out.

My New-York-white-kid bell jar shattered in that moment. My assumptions were all pretty entitled ... dental hygiene was how people grew up; tooth brushes, however annoying, were something you used; dentists were people you went to for a filling or a cleaning ... but my assumptions were just that, assumptions ... not facts or laws chiseled on some holy stone ... just assumptions. My friend grew up poor and this was one indicator of that poverty. But, but, but ... but he was my friend and I didn't want to think he would be put upon in this way, this bell-jar-shattering way.
Together with my sadness was a recognition of one small way in which I was just plain ignorant and in that ignorance, inattentive. Inattentiveness is not the hallmark of a friend.

It really rattled my cage.

That's life for you, I guess. Always rattling your cage.

It may be worth looking into.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010


You can feel it coming today -- the summer heat that means each pore will kick into a moist and moistening high gear, when every puff of wind ignites a small "thank you" someplace inside, when it takes an added energy to complete a project ... something like getting an air conditioner in the window. The sky is blue and clear, the sun is bright, the birds are conversing and ... it is hot.

Today I ran into Donna in the supermarket -- a meeting that seems by its frequency to be destined by the fates somehow. Usually we meet in the produce aisle and laugh about our latest encounter before setting off on whatever gab comes to mind.

Today, I got to ask her about the protocols of the homosexual world, a world that doesn't offend me but towards which I would prefer not to be offensive any more than I would want to be offensive when in any other Rome.

Alanna, a woman who has lately visited the zendo, recently went through a divorce from her partner and is feeling a bit bruised around the edges. She moved back here after living in Connecticut and sees her daughter every other weekend. I like her and when she stopped by the peace picket line last Saturday to introduce me to her daughter ... well, there's a kid to melt your heart: So beautiful and friendly and probably four years old.

Anyway, I like Alanna and I like Donna and her partner Kathy and I thought it might be nice if Alanna met some nice people who were on her sexual wavelength ... but I felt uncomfortable making introductions based on anything so flimsy as sexual orientation. Kathy and Donna live across the street and I had been wondering about taking Alanna over after zazen some Sunday morning ... but I was feeling sort of shy.

So I tried putting the issue to Donna, someone I trust not to laugh at my uncertainties and someone who would probably set me straight, so to speak.

And as Donna and I stood grocery-carriage to grocery-carriage near the cash registers, I realized that I was being a real twit. This wasn't an issue for the United Nations General Assembly. It wasn't even something for Emily Post. I had been right from the get-go ... nice people introduced to nice people and perhaps they could find some friendly and supportive ground ... or not. Wasn't that enough? What made me think that straight and gay had anything to do with it? This wasn't some Arab country where you could fuck up by eating with your left hand. Nor were any of these women the hard-eyed harridans who sit around blaming all men because, after all, all men are to blame ... for everything ... just on principle.

Anyway, before I had even formulated the question, I realized how silly the question was ... and Donna and I went on to talk about the fact that it was going to be hot and when did she and Kathy and daughter Eliza plan to get their big, plastic-lined pool up and running and when we might all lounge around deliciously and gab under the blue sky with the birds conversing and the temperatures going through the roof.

stupid and smart

I don't really imagine Americans are alone in their disabilities, but I received the following four 'stupid' clips in e-mail this morning:

1. With subtitles
2. Remembering 9/11
3. Prime minister
4. From the Bush era

Stupidity is an interesting and sometimes frightening commodity. First of all, a person who is called stupid is frequently not aware of his or her own stupidity. It takes some second, 'smarter' person to point it out, although events may also call a particular perspective into question.

Second, there can be a blissful pig-headedness to stupidity -- a kind of I'm-getting-by-so-I-can't-be-that-stupid assurance. As a corollary, there can be a real unwillingness to revise approaches, even in the face of painful, factual evidence.

And third, the person who recognizes stupidity in others can exemplify an unwillingness to learn from the very stupidity they observe: Is there anyone so smart that they do not likewise possess blind spots and bias? British TV comedies are often based on this premise and there are guys with shotguns hanging in the rear window of the pickup truck who can survey the academic or literate scene and point out appropriately, "He's so dumb he can't even grab his own ass with both hands."

Pointing out the stupidity of others -- as in the film clips -- has a kind of delicious arrogance: "Lookit me! I know better than that!" It can make you laugh. It can make you cry. But I wonder to what extent it will make anyone think.

Stupidity, as far as I can figure out, has no definitive boundaries -- no lines or edges. And the same can be said for a format considered intelligent. There is no demarcation beyond which anyone is smart or stupid, no matter how hard any academic institution or beer-guzzling good ol' boy might try to suggest otherwise. There are circumstances and what we bring to them.

Can we help? Maybe so ... so let's share whatever wealth we may possess, not with an eye to standing taller, but rather with an eye to informing the scene. When did ego-tripping ever improve much? But information can be useful ... right information, wrong information, all kinds of information. There is no demarcation line: To recognize stupidity is to recognize intelligence; to recognize intelligence is to recognize stupidity. It's a package deal and each of us has his or her own package.

I see nothing wrong with having a good laugh and shedding a few incredulous tears, but in the end, I think it behooves everyone to lend what assistance they may and set aside the intelligence or stupidity they may perceive. If I help you, I also help me. If you help me, you also help you...and a little at a time, the need for "I" and "you," the demarcation lines we draw, no longer carry their compelling force.

Monday, May 24, 2010

experiment du jour

Today, just for fun:

Try to do or say or think something that is completely original.

Alternatively, try to do or say or think something that is completely unoriginal.

Just for fun ... it might make you laugh.


A front page article in the local newspaper today says that the Catholic diocese will trim nearly 50 jobs -- reducing staff positions from 138 to 89 on July 1. A multi-million dollar deficit is laid at the feet of parish inabilities to meet their financial obligations. Catholic schools and programs cost money. Sex abuse payoffs were not part of the local squeeze, according to the diocese.

What were once rock-solid and soaring certainties are worn away by newer realities. In Buddhism, the observation is made more poetically that whatever has component parts is bound to come apart. Naturally, such wisdom may invite nods of intellectual approval, but there is often an underlying assumption that everyone else's ox may get gored, but mine will not ... my sand castle is secure.

Whether politically or personally, things do come apart. It's not some threat from on high and it's not some encouragement to "Repent! The end is nigh" although there are spiritual and other persuasions that can use such an observation to instill fear and compliance. It's just an observation of what actually happens and those who ignore or camouflage it do so at their peril.

Things come together. Things come apart. Isn't this true? I think it is, not least because I seem to visit an increasing number of doctors as age advances. There is no bulwark against what actually happens, or, if there is, it too is bound to come apart, shape-shift into a revised reality.

Everyone makes peace with such a reality in his or her own way. Some shield their eyes, some build churches, some make promises they cannot keep, some party all night ... the ways are endless.

But I think the subject is worth studying, worth investigating, worth tuning in to. Everything that comes together comes apart, over and over and over again. Now ...

What principle is this and is there a way I can stop whining about it?

Sunday, May 23, 2010

the fires

When the crisis is upon us -- physical, psychological, whatever -- there is a usefulness to stepping back, to finding the voice of reason that assesses and points and has an unflustered approach.

Yes, attachment won't do.

Yes, your responsibilities are not someone or something else's responsibilities.

Yes, there is a time to stop crying and do the best, most sensible thing you can think of.

And sometimes that cool and calm arbiter of crisis seeps over into less stressful times until, perhaps, it becomes a habit of cool distance ... a believable technique with which to address all of life's unforeseen incidents ... a way to assure your own happiness and ease, a way to fend off despair.

Only of course wisdom is only as wise as the one in need of it. And sometimes the wiser course is to simply despair.

Lately, it seems, I have been peppered with wise opinions about human conditions that are frightening and perhaps frightful ... the wisdom of Buddhism brought to bear in thimble-sized sentences that reek of wisdom and parry all fear.

A shrink friend of mine once told me that his dog had died and his children and even he was very sad. I asked him if he planned to get another dog. "Not just now," he said gently. "First we need to grieve."

In Buddhism, the bodhisattva Jizo enters into the fires of hell to save all sentient beings ... beings in torment, beings riven with ignorance, beings captured and overwhelmed by despair. Such is the wisdom of the bodhisattva Jizo and such deserves to be the wisdom of any serious Buddhist.

Thimble-sized sentences of wisdom when the fires of uncertainty and despair leap up on every front ... this is not Jizo. Jizo enters into the very flames of ignorance and sorrow and despair to be among those he as vowed-without-vowing to save. And so too must Buddhists enter the flames and feel the heat and see their own skin blister and boil. It is their strength and their fervent promise ... to shy from nothing, to extend their wisdom that does not fit into thimbles or holy texts ... to be there ... to be here ... here where the fires are hottest, to go where "wisdom" does not reach, to forsake everything -- everything -- for THIS.

If you cannot give it all away, at a moment's notice, how can what you strove for be worth the effort?

None of this is some goal or Boy Scout badge -- some pie-in-the-sky, top-lofty virtue. That's just encouraging bullshit. It's just that there is no other option ... literally, no other option. It has nothing to do with kindness or compassion or freedom ... it is just like breathing ... a sine qua non ... free and compelling and having nothing to do with any second thought.

Ignorance and uncertainty are our very home ... and we would be well-advised to be at home and stop worrying wisely about whether the dining room should be blue or mauve, whether the arbiters of tasteful wisdom will be pleased or displeased, or whether some omnipotent god will hit us on the nose with a rolled up newspaper.

Go where the fires burn brightest.

Go home.

baby girl

Jeff came to practice zazen this morning. It has been a number of years since he last came and now he has a nine-month-old baby girl.

Diapers and shit and bottles and throw-up and smiles and lack of sleep and wondering if you will ever survive with your sanity anywhere near intact. And the hardest part may be that there really is no time to wonder if you will survive with your sanity intact because there are diapers and shit and bottles and throw-up and smiles and lack of sleep ... all of it keeping you too busy to wonder.

Sounds like zazen to me. :)


A few minutes ago, there was the sound of a woodpecker about his/her work. But it was incredibly loud ... not the tick-tick-tick that you usually hear, but a kind of mini jackhammer of a sound.

It was loud enough to make me go outside to look around.

I couldn't find the bird or source of sound, but a woman across the street had likewise come out to see. Where was it? Neither of us could say for sure, but the woman said, "I love stuff like that." And I did too: Nature going about its business.

The other day in the baseball stands, Dan, a fellow father whose son was likewise playing, told me that one day as he was roaming the woods, cutting trees that had been marked for the lumber yard, he came upon the head of a deer. Just the head, no carcass. And nearby there were cat tracks ... big cat tracks ... in the snow. Dan commented, "They say there are no mountain lions around here, but I can't imagine what else could have done that ... chewed off the head and dragged the carcass away."

Nature ... why is it somehow such a relief in the world that man creates and inhabits?

support staff

I was talking with Tom on the peace picket line yesterday. Tom is a 76-year-old Korean War vet who has not yet found an adequate defense against the nightmares and memories that wake him in the night. Dreams are so naked, so undefended, so raking and wracking in their power.

Because Tom had been around several Buddhist blocks in his life, we could talk about names and people and Zen centers we knew in common. Tom interspersed his conversation with references to the interconnectedness of all things and similar truths that, when issuing from the lips, are often little more than encouraging dreams...something to be naked with and yet, with luck, defended and unthreatened.

There are things in people's lives that are so piercing, so powerful, so grinding. Who wouldn't need some staff, some aid, some purchase point?

Again and again, lately, I come back to the story of Gautama Buddha, who extended a closed fist to a weeping child, pretending there was gold within. The child, entranced by the thought of gold, stops crying. And when the fist is opened ... well, it is empty. But there is no jumping to the empty fist before the charade is played: Tom has searing nightmares and they are no joke or philosophical talking points.

And so I said to Tom what I honestly feel -- that it is important to assist people with their support systems ... even going so far as talking about the interconnectedness of all things, if necessary. My feeling was that in meditation, a good staff, a good support, a good bit of gold was breath-counting ... counting the exhalations from one to ten and beginning again. It may be annoyingly simplistic to the nightmare-filled mind, but it has a concrete feel to it, focused and supportive and as strong as Gautama's fist. Just take the time to sit straight and still and count the exhalations, over and over again.

Bit by bit the nakedness comes home and nightmares lose their power. Bit by bit the interconnectedness of all things is not so important ... it's just true and the need to turn it into a staff or a bit of gold recedes.

Things are OK.

And it's enough.

Saturday, May 22, 2010

getting it wrong

Maybe the whole difficulty with spiritual endeavor is that we can't get it wrong. What a revelation! What a scary thought!

Here we are, many of us busting our asses to get it right and ... and... and along comes the understanding that there is no way in hell to get it wrong.

The harder we try to get it right, the more we get it wrong.

And we can't get it wrong.

How about them apples?

a comfortable lead

The fifth inning turned into a hitting festival.

First the home team, the baseball team on which my younger son was playing, racked up seven runs on top of the one run they already had. Everyone was hitting. It was a bonanza of satisfaction. On the home team bench, I could hear one of the players say "we've got a comfortable lead."

But when the visitors came to bat, they too racked up five runs in quick succession. The sand began to run out of the "comfortable lead" -- this was a real threat to the victory that had seemed, just a half an inning ago, to be within a kind of ho-hum reach. Optimism and smug assurance on the home-team bench turned to wavering doubt and, perhaps, a kind of fear.

Bank accounts, love, employment, religion, hearth and home -- how nice to have a "comfortable lead" -- to feel the heart rest and relax in an assured assumption. I'm a winner and it is no less than my due since my dreams were directed to this moment, this smooth and easy victory.

For those old enough to have seen victory come and go, there can be a similar assumption -- what is gold today is lead tomorrow, what was joy in this moment turns to edgy uncertainty in the next. As the one heart assumes an assured certainty, so another assumes and assured and perhaps jaded, uncertainty.

And the assumptions seem to have a force of their own, as if, well, we are built for assumptions and expectations and who would we be without our dreams and hopes, our nightmares and despair? Don't we have to think something or feel something about things? In what way are we human otherwise?
Wouldn't it be robotically cold to set such matters aside and walk through life serene as a peacock feather?

But if certainty is not enough and uncertainty is not enough, what is enough to assure the peace of mind that will meet-and-greet the circumstances that arise in life ... the actual-factual stuff that comes along irrespective of certainty or uncertainty? Where is the resting place to which, somehow, we feel (or even know in some part of our being) entitled and yet eludes us at every turn?

Self-help books and ancient texts and wise gurus cannot reveal such a place or state of mind. Their truths may be inviting or consoling and yet somehow we are not consoled. We demand peace of mind and life seems to giggle at our demands, as if it were saying, "sling all the certain or uncertain bullshit you like, you can't catch me ... I'm the Gingerbread Man!"

If you bang your head against the certain/uncertain wall long enough, there may come a moment when you realize how good it feels when you stop. It takes some investigation and some willingness -- not commodities that anyone can talk you into. You either investigate or consent or you don't ... your choice, your life.

But what's the payoff for the one who does investigate and does consent?

Well, today has the makings of a beautiful day. It's cool, with some cloud cover, but ... what a nice day. Nothing added, nothing missing. Laughing ... just laughing.

Friday, May 21, 2010

forget-me-not Buddhism

Roughly speaking, Buddhism bases itself on the Four Noble Truths and the Eightfold Path. The Four Noble Truths are: There is suffering. There is a cause of suffering. There is an end to suffering. There is a way to end suffering.

The Eightfold Path consists of: Right View, Right Intention, Right Speech, Right Action, Right Livelihood, Right Effort, Right Mindfulness, and Right Concentration. The word "right" is sometimes translated as "complete" in order to create a wider context than a right-wrong dichotomy. The Eightfold Path offers the suggested steps anyone might take as they pursue a way to end suffering.

Today it occurred to me: Suppose that a dedicated and practicing Buddhist visited his or her favorite Buddhist temple or center. And suppose that after an hour or two of meditation or chanting or bowing or whatever prescribed ritual, s/he walked out the front door of the temple with the intent of going home. And suppose, on that walk home, all of a sudden, every jot and tittle of "Buddhism" were erased from his or her mind. Gone ... just gone ... all of it...a major brain fart ... a catastrophic Alzheimer's moment.

Buddhism ... all gone and there was no recollection of having forgotten anything.

Would the truth of suffering be any the less true? Perhaps it would be more true? In either case, Buddhism or no Buddhism, suffering does not take a holiday or rely on any -ism whatsoever.

Sometimes I am happy to call myself a Buddhist. :)

Buddhism is the forget-me-not of persuasions precisely because you can forget everything you ever learned or thought or concocted about it and it would still be true ... perhaps even true-r.

No one needs Buddhism in order to be a Buddhist.

unintended consequences

A homosexual couple in Malawi were sentenced Thursday to 14 years at hard labor for their 'gross indecency' and 'unnatural acts.' It could have been worse -- they might have been executed.

Africa in general does not take kindly to homosexuality, a fact that fundamentalist Christians from the U.S., among other places, have encouraged and taken advantage of.

But now exponents of an anti-homosexual persuasion have proclaimed themselves horrified by the cruelty of the punishment meted out according to anti-homosexual feelings that they themselves helped to fan.

The law of unintended consequences.

Who does not want to take credit for the good that they do in the world and yet shrink back when that same good produces bad or cruel results? Wall Street bankers and brokers were gratified when the money rolled in, but have been less quick to admit their role in the worldwide economic collapse. In the Gulf of Mexico, an off-shore oil rig that produced gasoline for the car I drive exploded and is now gushing pollutants far and wide ... and yet, suddenly, no one is responsible, no one will shoulder the blame. Islam is not responsible for the group called Al Qaida -- one of the latest enemies of the United States and other well-to-do countries -- and yet this group twists the Qu'ran to its own uses and finds a following. The Catholic Church is not responsible for its sex-abusive priests.

But it is at less-exciting or headline-worthy levels that the law of unintended consequences takes a more insidious toll, I think. Everyone wants to think they are doing 'right' or 'good,' and yet shies from the fact that 'right' is not somehow unconnected to 'wrong,' and 'good' contains within it the seeds of 'bad.' The fact that such connections can be observed emprically over and over and over again is not surprising or unusual. What is interesting is the unwillingness to shoulder the responsibility for fallout from what in other circumstances can produces gold stars and victory parades, a tingling sense of virtue and hand-clapping hosannas.

Yes, I too would like to think well of myself, imagine that some good will come of my actions or typewritten words. I too have focused on the missteps of others while ignoring my own carefully-closeted contributions to error.

It's not enough to point the finger at 'them.' Pointing to 'them' is not especially stupid or bad, it's just not very accurate or true. And I don't think anyone can be happy in this life without some honesty ... some shouldering of the responsibilities they cannot evade. I cannot do much about what 'they' do or say, but I can do something about what 'I' say or do.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

doing time

Yesterday, I got a note from a woman who is serving the tail end of a two-year jail sentence. She said she would be out in September and did not name the crime.

She wrote asking about the zendo here, saying she had begun her practice in prison and intended to continue it. So, she was snooping the zendo from afar ... and probably bucking up her spirits: No one is ever entirely sure at the beginning of a spiritual adventure that the whole thing isn't complete hooey.

I wrote her back. And as I did, it occurred to me that this had turned into an inescapable reflex ... when someone asks for a hand, there is just no other choice. Always, that's the way it is -- no escape. Even if I had not responded, still there is no way not-to-respond.

What an odd habit.

world of whispers

Pay attention to the whispers -- they aren't lying. It's no good pretending to be gooder than good: Listen to the whispers and embrace them for what they are -- your own.

The bookish, historical observations in spiritual endeavor about clashes between orthodoxy and mysticism do not interest me much. There are plenty of examples which I am too lazy to look up and bring to bear here.

But the frictions in the human heart between the contrived and the experiential, the orthodox and the mystic, do interest me. This is a world of whispers and I think they are worth heeding.

What is orthodox has rules and regulations. It is formatted and particular. It may claim a lofty aim and yet forget that aim in its exercise of rules and regs, of format and style. In this world, the church is elevated and God becomes its servant; imposing and authentic texts are revered and enlightenment comes in a distant second.

What is mystical spreads its arms wide and lays claim to what cannot be regulated or limited. It will not sit still for mere piety. It sings and dances and imagines itself to be singing and dancing.

All of this has historical exemplars, which, as I say, don't really interest me as much as the fact that this is the world of the human heart -- mystic longing for an unconstrained limitlessness and then hitting a brick wall ... the devil is in the details; the orthodoxy adhering tightly to its manacled directives in pursuit of ... and then waking up one day to find that what is sought is not clear at all and the staleness of what is called good is enough to choke a horse.

The orthodox heart builds spires and castles and then longs to break free. The mystical heart lays claim to freedom only to find itself hogtied by a lack of skill.

George Fox (1624-1691), the founder of the Society of Friends or Quakers is quoted in his Wikipedia space as saying,

... he heard an inner voice saying, "Thou seest how young people go together into vanity, and old people into the earth; thou must forsake all, young and old, keep out of all, and be as a stranger unto all."

A stranger unto all. It made me think of The Dhammapada's approximate lines,

If you find no equal or better
In life, go alone.
Loneliness is preferable
To the company of fools.

Perhaps wrongly, this struck me as a theme across experiential persuasions -- the enormous fear (orthodoxy) and yet deep longing (mysticism) to "be as a stranger unto all."

The whispers may not be couched as I have couched them, but I do think they are whispers worth heeding.

the middle way

Strange to think how many may imagine the middle way as some kind of revised and elevated compromise in their lives -- another negotiated settlement in which both sides leave the walnut-paneled board room and proclaim themselves satisfied with some juiceless peace.

To my mind, this is crap. The middle way is uncompromising. Better to stop treating it from a position of some mewling merchant, scuffing a humble toe in the sand and promising to be ever-so-good. Bullshit!

Imagine ... day and night for years on end, there has been one compromise after another, one deal after another, one go-along-to-get-along maneuver after another, one socially well-coiffed posture after another ... forever meeting life, kissing its hand and murmuring, "let's make a deal."

The middle way is uncompromising ... and, if I had to guess, you wouldn't have it any other way.

if I were a Christian

If I were a Christian, perhaps I might pray:

Lord God,
I come before you wordless,
Seeking without syllables
That you ask and answer
The deepest questions of my heart.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

maple syrup

When I was a kid, sometimes we would trudge along in the left-over snows of March and gather maple sap. We would walk behind or ride on a sledge pulled by a couple of horses. On the sledge was a gigantic vat into which we would pour the sap that came from buckets attached to the maple trees. Once the vat was more or less full, it would be taken to the sugaring house where it could be boiled down and eventually become maple syrup.

As we gathered the sap, occasionally we would become thirsty and take a long swig out of one of the sap buckets. The sap itself was thin and cool and vaguely sweet -- a good thirst-quencher. But once inside the sugar house, there were long rectangular metal troughs into which the sap would be poured. Someone would stoke the wood fire beneath the troughs and eventually, the sap would boil. And as it boiled, frothy grey-ish bubbles would appear on the surface -- bubbles that would be skimmed off and thrown away. These were the 'impurities' in the sap.

It took hours to make maple syrup, to boil down the sap enough to create the viscous confection that went on pancakes and French toast. By the time it was done, sometimes the kids would grab a small, hot cup of syrup, go outside the sugar house, and pour it on a bit of March snow, allowing the syrup to cool down and create a kind of gooey, taffy-like candy. It was delicious.

Skimming off the impurities ... sometimes I think spiritual endeavor is like that. Boiling and boiling and skimming and skimming until ... deeeeelicious!

But as I look back now, I wonder if the important lesson was not more apparent in the sips of sap we would drink ... direct from the tree, impurities and all, vaguely sweet, but always thirst-quenching. Concocting something deeeeelicious is not so much the point of spiritual endeavor, I think. A nice cool drink is enough.

losing it

A longtime Zen friend sent me an email this morning asking if I could make suggestions he could pass along to a parent whose son was writing a high-school paper on Buddhism. Frank said he knew I was well-read in Buddhism, so....

And I was caught utterly flat-footed. First of all, although I have a hundred or so books on Buddhism gathering dust on the shelves, I really haven't read very much. I pretty much blew my reading wad when I studied Vedanta. Not that I haven't read some, haven't been wowed, haven't been encouraged by some Buddhist books ... but none of them really spring to mind. I feel like someone who OUGHT to know where a favorite shirt was ... but just don't. Where did it go? It really was a wonderful shirt ... but it got away from me somehow.

How would I write a high school paper on Buddhism? Buddhism is something that has consumed a considerable amount of time during the past 40 or so years. A school paper ought to be like falling out of bed ... no problem. But the fact is I feel as dumb as a high-school student assigned to write a paper on Buddhism. An a-b-c ought to be a piece of cake and, well, I can't find the cake mix.

Someone else will have to go the supermarket and get the mix and set the oven and bake it for 24-26 minutes -- someone who knows about Buddhism.

A part of me feels flummoxed and vaguely sad. What the hell was all that energy for if you can't even write a five- or ten-page paper? But another part is content: If someone asks me a direct question, my friends and acquaintances will tell you I can talk the hind leg off a dog. It's in there somewhere ... at the back of some memory closet ... together with my favorite shirt, I imagine.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010


Posted this on Zen Forum International in response to a question about "death," and thought I would post it here as well:

Voyager -- Everyone meditates on death. This is because they meditate on what is alive and compelling. It may sound spooky or pessimistic (in The Dhammapada, Gautama was reported to have said, "All fear dying./All fear death."), but really, the more you investigate this moment, this life, the more natural it becomes ... this moment is gone (or dead, if you like) before anyone can get a handle on it. Simultaneously, of course, something new is born. Every moment is like this ... it's just up to us to bring our minds into accord with what happens all the time.

Intellectually or emotionally, this is easier said than done. But in practice, it happens without any real effort ... just like birth, just like death: Things begin (so to speak) and they end (so to speak). Emotion and intellect can never comprehend or be at ease with this flow, but Zen students can.

Just my take.


Gulf oil spill solution

These good old boys seem to be onto something serious when it comes to cleaning up the on-going oil spill fouling the Gulf of Mexico.

Monday, May 17, 2010

faux Mondrian in the making

Workin' on a shed door:

And the kids, whom I seldom get in one place:



If, as some suggest briefly and aptly, "life is a smorgasbord," isn't it amazing how many people get a stomach ache?


As a soporific, I watched a little TV last night before bed. There were movies I had seen before, channels with laugh tracks, things for sale and religious encouragements for Christians. Each channel had its ads.

Finally I settled on a public television show about a detective-like character in the just-after-World-War-II UK. What it lacked in slam-bang action and simplistically-imagined characters, it made up for in its attempt to portray human beings with motives and hopes and shadowed conflicts. Watching it made me wonder why, on all those other channels, human beings got such short shrift. There was so much space in which to imagine and depict the human condition and yet everything seemed to be reduced to potato chips and sweet drinks.

I wasn't feeling critical -- I like action-adventure or romantic comedies as well as the next person -- but I like to be interested in the people-y part of people -- the quirks and contrasts and decency and impertinence that give people some dimension. I wasn't demanding that everything be 'important' or 'profound,' but wasn't there something to be said for the interesting stuff?

I guess TV is built to fulfill the longing for a "because." Things can happen in a tidy way that never seems to be the case on the street. "Because" means you don't have to think and in that thinking feel the wisps and tendrils and inexplicable confluence that led up to this action or that. Things are in control when you can say "because," and life has a way of laughing at the controls that human beings bring to bear.

"Because" -- what a very strange word. It asserts connections even as it denies the connections that exist and nag and leave us feeling out of control. A strange word -- human in its hopes and ridiculous in its applications.

Sunday, May 16, 2010

20 good men

May 16, 1:33 PM (ET)

VATICAN CITY (AP) - More than 100,000 people filled St. Peter's Square on Sunday in a major show of support for Pope Benedict XVI over the clerical sex abuse scandal.

Benedict said he was comforted by such a "beautiful and spontaneous show of faith and solidarity" and again denounced what he called the "sin" that has infected the church and needs to be purified.

Citing estimates from Vatican police, the Vatican press office said 150,000 people had turned out for the demonstration organized by an association of 68 Italian lay groups.
Complete article

In the army, a chaplain giving a lecture to those of us required to attend said, "If a man stands up and says anything -- anything at all -- there will always be 20 good man to stand up behind him." It was the only part of his lecture I remember.

Twenty good men. They may be right or wrong as rain, but still, twenty good men. Agreement is not enough. Disagreement is not good enough. Twenty good men is enough.

meanwhile, on the Christian front. ...

Lately, probably because a lot of what appears on internet Zen bulletin boards strikes me as same-stuff-different day, I have taken to snooping on Christian bulletin boards on the BBC. I live in a Christian country, so it doesn't hurt to have some familiarity with the predominant religious environment.

But lordy ... what a lot of tail-twisted angst and fervor. The Bible seems to be a major reference point, but all I can think of when I read this or that which cites the Bible as the arbiter of one discussion or another is the tale of Vedanta's Sri Ramakrishna, who once invited a disciple to take some holy text, place it in a room with barred windows, lock the door on the way out ... and then come back in a couple of days and see if anything had changed.

To anyone entranced by authority and authenticity, such a suggestion is anathema...too horrific to take seriously. It's not much different in some Buddhist realms, though it does strike me as less shrill ... probably because Buddhism brought me up.

Funny how you simply cannot dismiss the love of authority and authenticity...the willingness to rely on someone or something else. The best anyone can do is to work with it, embrace it, and point out a thing or two along the way...not that that always has much effect. Messing with "God" is messing with trouble, though I can find similar examples among those who are mercilessly hog-tied by the Tripitaka or the Vinaya.

It's just a human trait, I think, the reliance on others or the Other. Not worth criticizing.

But definitely worth investigating ...

And outgrowing.

past into present

Yesterday, my older son and I went out and changed a shed door. A neighbor had a new front door put in, so I took the old one because the shed door was withering in the weather, the wasps were having a field day, and because doors cost quite a lot.

Anyway, my son and I changed it. Not a major chore or a perfect result, but I was happy for his help -- it built a fire on what can sometimes be my tired old body. Along the way, we fretted and cussed about one aspect or another and chatted in between about the upcoming prom, the suit he would rent and wear, what sort of suit he should probably own, and whether psychology still interested him as he heads off for college next fall.

Now the door is more or less in place and today, since the sun is shining, I will try out my idea of painting it in a sloppy rip-off of a Mondrian color pattern ... paint tends to ward off critters that gnaw and burrow. Mondrian is not someone whose works I like much -- too chilly and perfect -- but for a shed door, it could be fun.

And today, I can feel the aches and pains that are yesterday's efforts. But it's OK -- without aches and pains, nothing gets done...the past always has a word or two to say about the present, even when it is unasked. The past is a chatty cuss. Good thing the present is so patient. :)

Saturday, May 15, 2010

against the grain

On the peace picket line this morning, a fellow with a loud and insistent voice stopped to argue against the thrust of our gathering. "If it weren't for all the veterans," he said so everyone could hear, "you wouldn't be standing here now."

Another fellow engaged me directly: Why was it, he said skeptically as he looked at my robes, that so many young people think they have to adopt the cultural trappings of another country ... robes, mala beads, etc.? What's the matter with what you wear on any day of the week?"

I told him what I thought and, although he was still somewhat irritated with the Buddhist establishment with its formalities and fripperies, he seemed to calm down a little. And he told me conspiratorially about asking a Zen teacher at the center across the street from where we stood why it was that she seemed to have a stick up her ass ... why she seemed to adhere so rigidly to the calling she had made her calling.

It's nice to run into people who go against the apparent grain -- the agreements of one gathering or another, the sometimes-becalmed majority-vote ambiance ... someone who will ask the questions that anyone with a firm conviction and an open mind will ask of him- or herself in quieter or less convincing times.

It refreshes the scene to rethink what you think you have thought -- reexamine old and sometimes stale conclusions, start from the beginning and work things out all over again.

Anyway, I am grateful to people who challenge and say between the lines, "don't bullshit me!" Agreements are nice and supportive, but they really can be nothing but laziness.

setting sail

A sixteen-year-old Australian, Julie Watson, sailed into Sydney harbor today after a seven-month, round-the-world trip in her 34-foot boat, Ella's Pink Lady, and became the youngest person ever to circumnavigate the globe non-stop and unassisted.

In completing the trip, she silenced a host of critics and skeptics:

"People don't think you're capable of these things - they don't realize what young people, what 16-year-olds and girls are capable of," Watson told the raucous crowd. "It's amazing when you take away those expectations what you can do."
(Emphasis added).

The feat defies the imagination -- defies the rational mind, defies emotion, defies expectations. All that -- all the reasonable, rational stuff -- is left gasping for air. The "unlikely" and "impossible" and "irrational" are things of the past.

How many people begin a spiritual life to a chorus of critics and skeptics. The most important of these lie within: Rational spirits like Richard Dawkins or besotted intellects like Christopher Hitchens are small potatoes compared to the doubts that arise within... advising, criticizing, pointing out the foolhardiness. And, as often as not, those dubious voices claim the day ... and religions around the world flourish.

And yet Jesus walked into the desert ... alone, unattended and clearly 'insane.' And other, less spot-lighted individuals have done the same -- set aside expectations and simply done what they set out to do ... so to speak.

"I could not do that," a reasonable voice within counsels... sail around the world unassisted; walk into the desert alone.

And that's right -- no one could do what another did. But anyone can do what they do -- the impossible, the irrational, the insane. The limits of the past -- and the sages who point them out -- are not so much the point. It is the limits brought to bear on the present that count and are daunting and nourish mere religion. A million expectations may natter and nag, but still there are small voices that ask, "What would it be like without the expectations? without the sages? without imagined limits?"

Rationally the answer resounds, "Scary" or "delicious" or "scary-delicious."

But reason cannot still the dream or question.

I guess anyone, at whatever age, who sets sail in the world of spiritual endeavor is aware of the vastness of what they do not know. Sharks and storms and waves to fill a (wo)man with dread. A mighty chorus of sane voices sings lullabies of doubt and reason and religious wisdom. And yet, and yet ... how long can anyone nourish themselves on the expectations of others? How long can they feast on their own expectations? Since being in control has proved half-baked in its promises of security and kinship, the only option is to turn to the sea of the unknown if peace is the goal.

Yes, it's nuts. The world is flat, after all, and setting sail means you might just fall off the edge of the earth ... into ... into ... into ... the great I-don't-know.

Yes, it's nuts.

The only thing nuttier is not setting sail at all.

Friday, May 14, 2010

if at first you don't succeed, fail anyway

An interesting koan is this:

Where is the line between an issue -- any issue -- and what I may think of that issue?

On the one hand, there is the issue itself -- the bomb explosion, the jammed parking meter, the love affair, the starvation and death in a dry land -- and it is important to consider the issue on its own terms if you want to do anything about it. On the other hand, the moment you start considering it, the issue is muddied by what "I" see it as being.

What makes all this a 'koan' is the desire to encapsulate or control circumstances.

Have you ever listened to anyone who is hell-bent on telling you how touching or offensive some aspect of life is? On and on they may go, emoting, explaining, delving for meaning, expressing belief ... and it can get a bit tiresome: Yes, there is something worth considering, but what you or I might think about it tends to diminish the importance.

On the other hand, have you ever listened to someone who assumes a cool and collected distance from the topic at hand. It has a cold and somehow inhumane feel to it ... people are being affected -- sometimes hurt -- and people are not cold and distant entities. They live, they think, they feel, they get hurt and looking through the wrong end of the telescope seems somehow heartless.

As in journalism, there is no such thing as "objectivity." Nevertheless, journalists try to keep their feelings and wisdoms to themselves and report, to the extent possible, the facts ... just the facts, just the issue, just the events. It never works perfectly because how the story is shaped is always personal, always limited ... no matter how many others may share that limitation. Nevertheless, they do their best because opinions and thoughts tend to blur what may be a quite important issue, something worth fixing or avoiding or employing to good ends.

What is more important -- peace or what anyone thinks peace might be? war or what anyone can expound about war? love or what all and sundry may agree love is?

It is impossible to find the line between the issue and what "I" think about the issue. This observation cannot elevate great gushing appreciations to the level of useful fact but it also cannot elevate a distanced appreciation to anything close to the truth.

All I can think is, if at first you don't succeed, fail anyway.


Today I learned a new word -- a word I had never heard before. The word was "hawala," a word defined briefly in wikipedia as:

an informal value transfer system based on the performance and honour of a huge network of money brokers, which are primarily located in the Middle East, North Africa, the Horn of Africa, and South Asia.

The word came up in connection with the investigation of a recent attempt to blow up a car bomb in New York's Times Square. The question arose, who bankrolled the effort and how was the money made available to those who wanted to carry out the unsuccessful bombing.

Something new, something previously unknown, something that delights the intellect ... tasty as the first potato chip. As it came to me, it was much more interesting that some aspect of spiritual endeavor, a topic I tend to beat to death.

And yet there was no getting around it -- the wonders of a new word, a new taste, a new crunch between the intellectual teeth, a new set of associations ... well, you know what they say about potato chips: You can't just eat one: If one's good, two's better ... just like heroin.

Of course, there is no reason not to enjoy some new-found treasure or toy or intellectual improvement. But over the long haul, the habit is worth examining, I'd say. No one can live on potato chips...or the beer needed to wash them down.

"Hawala" -- what a neat word. And how nice it is, whether true or false, to encounter something based on "performance and honour." Hawala has the scent of something both convincing and dangerous ... no one screws around when it comes to money.

But when it comes to intellect and emotion, well, there seems to be endless possibilities for screwing around. Hawala is based on "performance." Intellect and emotion are based on ... on what, I wonder.

Thursday, May 13, 2010

guessed it in our imaginations

On a BBC Buddhist bulletin board, in a thread asking "what was the source of Buddha's wisdom?" one fellow, who describes himself as a "peaceful Muslim" posted this:

Do we have anything written by the Buddha himself; or you have guessed it simply in your imagination?

I purely love the question because I purely love the answer that I come up with, i.e., yes, we have simply guessed it in our imaginations.

Of course there is nothing written by Gautama Buddha himself any more than there is anything written by Jesus himself or, for all I know, Mohammad himself. Everything was written after the fact, usually out of a strong oral tradition, by disciples and friends and adherents. So it's all second hand at best.

And even those who get the word straight from the horse's mouth -- who heard some exalted poo-bah uttering one pearl or another ... STILL we "guessed it" in our imaginations. And so it goes in all spiritual endeavor. Anything called "authentic" is not yet authentic because the one hearing it has not yet put it to the test.

I think this small bit of information should be mandatory in all classes or temples purporting to disseminate so-called religion: The teaching may be very fine indeed, the pointers may be very fine indeed, the wisdom may be very fine indeed ... but it's all second-hand stuff in a world where people yearn to live authentic and peaceful lives ... you know, living first-hand, so to speak.

Calling teachings second-hand stuff is not an insult. It is just an observation. Second-hand stuff can have wonderful pointers and directions. But it needs to be admitted that, yes, we guessed it in our imaginations ... right up until we put it to the test. No more second-hand lifestyle!

Guessed it in our imaginations ... I love that.


After driving my son to school in the bright sunshine, I return homeward past the Buddhist monk waiting on the other side of the street, ipod earplugs apparently in place, and I catch a snippet from the radio ...

"Stupidity has a gravitational force."

With little or no thinking, I find myself in agreement.

But is it true?

Whose stupidity is this?

without wanting

If the ordinary way of relating to others is based on mutual or dissimilar wants and desires, then what is the way of relating when wants and desires are laid to rest?

Perhaps it is close to what some may claim to admire -- peace and love ... two much praised and much maligned qualities that know nothing of the separation inherent in 'relationships.'

What would happen if you didn't want anything when consorting with others? OK, it may be spooky, but maybe it's also worth considering.

mixed messages

Lie down with dogs, get up with fleas. It's an old saying.

I once heard of a Zen monastery that took a $100,000 donation in illegal drug money. "We will purify the funds," was an explanation at the time.

Yesterday, Wal-Mart announced a plan to increase its donations to food banks in a country where millions rely on food stamps. Wal-Mart has been accused of manipulating the poor and disenfranchised. Do the hungry care where the food comes from?

In Hingham, a small town about 100 miles east of here, a Roman Catholic school has revoked its acceptance of the son of two lesbians, arguing that it was ill-equipped to answer questions the boy was likely to raise.

In Washington, the U.S. president Barack Obama met with his Afghan counterpart, Hamid Karzai and then warned the American public that America's war in Afghanistan was likely to get worse before it got better.

The French writer, Honore de Balzac, was reported to have said, "Behind every great fortune lies a great crime." But is there any bit of good fortune that does not partake of some disquiet or anguish and, alternatively, any horror that does not bring with it some element of good fortune?

Like cinnamon bread, this is woven with that and the goodness carries with it some bitter stories. This, I suppose, is called "yin and yang" by some -- the intertwining of all things. It's a slick description, but naming the name has a tendency to diminish the impact of horror or delight. To see things intellectually or emotionally is not to see things clearly, I'd say.

The only way I can see to find some peaceful ground is to take responsibility -- pay attention and take responsibility for the cinnamon and the bread, the bread and the cinnamon. In this way, the heart can find some peace -- a peace that will never take root in the realms of praise or blame, elevation or diminution. Virtue and wisdom are not so much the point. Peace, clear as Windex, is the point.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

getting away from things

All we knew was that we had to get away. We drove down the highway towards Carmel, Calif., with the Pacific Ocean on our right, and away from Monterrey where both of us were attending what was then called the Army Language School, a place where, for six hours a day, five days a week, both Joe and I memorized more and more and more German in what felt like a pressure cooker of endless attention. But today was a Saturday, the sun was shining and we needed to get away ... anywhere that was away.

We were, I suppose, 20 or 21 and were better equipped to hate things. The language school was something we could hate volubly when we found free time to hate in. Most weeks there was neither time nor energy for any perspective -- the learning was intense and stifling and, like some Chinese water torture, drip-drip-dripped onto our foreheads and into our minds until ... until Saturday when we could flee and could stop thinking and reciting and forgetting and then learning some more. It was 1962 and we were much better quipped to hate things.

We were in Joe's red MG-B -- a small, sleek sports car that could make anyone feel good. Like Joe's love of Jack Daniels, an up-scale whiskey that privates like us could hardly afford for long, the MG was one of Joe's statements that the poverty he had grown up in in Tennessee was no longer a part of his life. He had gotten away from that and now had a sports car, a love of fine liquor and opera that could make him cry, and a longing to return to the place he had escaped ... because that was where Jinx lived. Jinx -- and I never did find out how she came by such an unfortunate name -- was more than twice his age and Joe yearned to marry her. She too was a way to escape the lock-down of a hard-scrabble life. On nights when we drank in local bars, Joe would slip away from the bar and into the nearest phone booth to call Jinx and then return to the bar with tear streaks on his face. He wanted to get away then too ... but getting away just made him more aware of where he was ... not with Jinx, not with the woman he loved.

On this particular Saturday, though, the MG's top was down, the sun was shining and the language school receded in the rear-view mirror. We were getting away and the further away we got, the better things seemed. We could not see the future, but we damned sure could see the immediate past ... the studies that even the army conceded in one of its welcome-aboard booklets might make anyone consider committing suicide.

I suppose Joe and I debated whether to go into Carmel, the wealthy community that would one day have actor Clint Eastwood for a mayor. But we had been before and rejected the notion in favor of a left turn that headed east into the scruffy mountains. We didn't know what lay down that road and not-knowing somehow compounded the feeling that we were getting away. The road went straight for some distance and then, abruptly, turned left at the base of the hills. Turned left and turned to dirt.

And shortly after that left turn and the initial ascent into the hills, there were peacocks in the road ... strolling casual and confident from one side to the other, their luxurious and brilliant feathers trailing out behind them. A farmhouse to the right identified their owners, but the bizarre nature of our discovery -- peacocks, for Christ's sake! -- was the perfect fodder for a couple of guys trying to get away from things. It was, for an instant, like entering some deliciously inexplicable dream ... peacocks and beautiful and enfolding and ... well, this was 'away' for sure.

Beyond the peacocks, the road became a pedestrian adventure in avoiding ruts and rocks. Higher and higher the road snake through the parched land. Scrub trees, sandy soil, occasional drop-offs. It was dry and hot. Up and up we went. Up 5,000 feet, I later learned. At the pinnacle of our ascent, there were signs telling us to check in with the forest ranger, an older fellow who inhabited a tower that could see far and wide and keep an eye out for forest fires. All the tourists checked in with him so that he could know who, in an emergency, was lost or had met some misfortune.

"What do you boys do?" he asked laconically. And when we told him we were in language school in Monterrey, he observed more as a statement than a question, "Gonna be spies, hunh?"

The statement caught both Joe and me flat-footed. The idea that we would become spies had never occurred to us. We could not see into the future as the forest ranger could. Joe could not see that he would serve out his army time, return to Tennessee, marry Jinx, mourn her loss in a car accident, come out of the homosexual closet, become a librarian at a college, get hooked on heroin and become the scourge of the male students on campus. I could not see that I would get out of the army, work for a book publisher, become a newspaper reporter, get involved with Zen Buddhism, get married, have three kids and find myself remembering a time when we wanted to get away while sitting at a keyboard that didn't even exist at the time. We were dumbfounded, but the ranger was serene. It all seemed so unlikely ... spies? Us? No way, Jose!

From our five thousand feet ascent, we descended three thousand -- further and further into the mountains until, at last, we came to a dead end. Tasajara Springs was a destination for people who came for the curative waters among a group of rough-hewn houses and cabins. There was a boccie court and a swimming pool and the phone number was TA-sajara 1. Nestled among all those arid hills, it was a true get-away and we had gotten away.

The first thing I did after leaving the car was to run full tilt at the swimming pool that beckoned in front of our parking spot. It was instinctive in all that dry, hot heat and it was only as I leaped over the rim of the pool and was halfway towards the cool, blue waters below, that I caught a glimpse of the watch strapped to my left wrist, a watch I had forgotten to take off in my mad dash to get away from the heat. It was worth the loss, I thought as I descended into the cool water. Gawd, it felt great, clothes and all.

People were welcoming and friendly and we stayed for dinner and then took a couple of bunks in one of the cabins. At dinner, there was an old piano player, a guy who had come to California in 1898 and had slept in San Francisco parks with newspapers tied around his shins to keep out the cold. He played old-time-y songs and when the evening wound down and it was time for bed, he called all the visiting children around him and gave each of them a penny ... a way of saying that he too had gotten away from a time in the past when he didn't have a penny.

Early the next day, I walked out of the cabin and surveyed my surroundings. Nestled as the houses were among the hills, it felt like an oasis. A small brook chortled through the grounds and, given the sere surroundings, it was like a blessing both in its life-giving potential and its smooth advance to some point beyond the populated grounds. It was like the pennies the old man had given away -- drawing the attention and delight because there was so little else that was gentle in that land. Tasajara was somehow a blessing through and through in my mind. It was quiet and inviting and sustaining. There was something careful and caring in it and I swore to myself that I would return one day ... somehow I would come back and feel enfolded again.

I never did go back, but when I heard in later years -- years in which I studied Zen Buddhism back on the east coast -- that Tasajara had become a Zen center, I knew it was the right thing. A perfect perfection that was not 'away' from anything. Studying Zen, I realized I did not have to go back to Tasajara, though I often wanted to. Tasajara came with the territory, came with the land, came with this life ... even on the east coast 3,000 miles away.

I was happy Tasajara became a Zen center, but in the back of my mind there was some niggling, nibbling thought that turning it into a Zen center was too blatant somehow, too over-the-top ... too much like saying the sky was blue when the sky was blue. The blessing of the place was too apparent, too clear, too inescapable to warrant being gussied up with something called Zen practice. The brook went about its business, the air was dry and hot and I will always associate the place with a piano player who gave pennies to the kids.

No one can get away from Tasajara.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

something from Groucho

I’d never join a club that would have me as a member.
- Groucho Marx

Aside from the wit, maybe it's a thought worth considering.

uncushioned horrors

I posted this elsewhere, but I will post it here as well. It is so easy to consign the horrors of this world to a white-whine box marked "horrors" where they can be forgotten.

In today's Huffington Post, an opinion piece takes on the long-running sex abuse scandal in the Roman Catholic Church. Thousands of articles on this topic have come and gone, each discussing the topic from a cushioned journalistic distance. This was the first article/opinion piece I had seen containing direct quotes from the 2,600-page report by the Irish Commission to Inquire into Child Abuse (CICA).

It's the kind of testimony that, whether true or false, makes you want to close your eyes, so be forewarned ... and notice that the report is 2,600 pages, and not just several grisly paragraphs, long:

7.129 In relation to one School, four witnesses gave detailed accounts of sexual abuse, including rape in all instances, by two or more Brothers and on one occasion along with an older resident. A witness from the second School, from which there were several reports, described being raped by three Brothers: 'I was brought to the infirmary...they held me over the bed, they were animals....They penetrated me, I was bleeding'. Another witness reported he was abused twice weekly on particular days by two Brothers in the toilets off the dormitory:

One Brother kept watch while the other abused me ...(sexually)... then they changed over. Every time it ended with a severe beating. When I told the priest in Confession, he called me a liar. I never spoke about it again.

I would have to go into his ...(Br X's)... room every time he wanted. You'd get a hiding if you didn't, and he'd make me do it ...(masturbate)... to him. One night I didn't ...(masturbate him)... and there was another Brother there who held me down and they hit me with a hurley and they burst my fingers ...displayed scar....


7.232 Witnesses reported being particularly fearful at night as they listened to residents screaming in cloakrooms, dormitories or in a staff member's bedroom while they were being abused. Witnesses were conscious that co-residents whom they described as orphans had a particularly difficult time:

The orphan children, they had it bad. I knew ...(who they were)... by the size of them, I'd ask them and they'd say they come from ...named institution.... They were there from an early age. You'd hear the screams from the room where Br ...X... would be abusing them.

There was one night, I wasn't long there and I seen one of the Brothers on the bed with one of the young boys ... and I heard the young lad screaming crying and Br ...X... said to me "if you don't mind your own business you'll get the same". ... I heard kids screaming and you know they are getting abused and that's a nightmare in anybody's mind. You are going to try and break out. ... So there was no way I was going to let that happen to me.... I remember one boy and he was bleeding from the back passage and I made up my mind, there was no way it ...(anal rape)... was going to happen to me. ... That used to play on my mind.

At the end of the article is a request that others join and help fund an organization to which Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens have lent their support, a Project Reason. As turned off as I am by the testimony given, still the notion of joining an organization that revels in its reason and may turn a conveniently blind eye to to the human heart leaves me cold.

But I am happy to see the introduction of direct testimony (which may have been introduced in places I did not see it) into the world of cushioned horrors.

stock in trade

In the Philippines, there is the story of an election success:

May 11, 6:38 AM (ET)
MANILA, Philippines (AP) - Philippine Sen. Benigno Aquino III, whose parents fought to topple a dictatorship, promised Tuesday to fulfill his campaign promise to fight corruption as he headed for a landslide victory in the presidential elections.

"I will not only not steal, but I'll have the corrupt arrested," Aquino, 50, told a news conference in his first comments since Monday's polls. Massive corruption has long dogged the Philippines, tainting electoral politics and skimming billions of public funds in a country where a third of the population lives on $1 a day.
Full story

Imagine that -- a politician, who is often in the business of praising his own stock, is reduced to saying, "I will not only not steal...."

Theft is thus elevated to a politician's stock in trade. And it is so pervasive that even the electorate knows it.

marvelous stuff

Anyone who has involved themselves seriously in spiritual endeavor -- who has applied a determined, long-term and constant effort -- may be surprised to wake up one morning and realize that what may once have seemed pretty extraordinary is really pretty ordinary stuff.

Yesterday, at my son's baseball game, I was chatting with another dad who is a National Guard maintenance chief at a nearby airfield. The airfield, which was once a smallish support center, has grown in the last few years to be one of the front-line hubs when it comes to defending the United States. It is from Barnes, for example, that F-15 jets scramble when an airborne danger -- from attack flights to shoe bombers -- is detected over the Atlantic or elsewhere. And Todd and his men are responsible for keeping the base in shape -- buildings, aircraft, runways, etc.

Todd and I were chatting idly about the changes at the airfield over the years (it used to be that he knew everyone by name, but not any longer since the mission at the airfield was revised). We would chat and then splice in applause for the batter or defender who had made a good play on the field. Naturally, as dads, we kept an eye out for our sons ... that's what dads do, among other things.

And in the midst of our conversation in the sunshine, Todd remarked that the sun and rain were a maintenance man's enemy. "The very stuff that is necessary in order for us to stay alive is also a danger ... and a downer." Rain and sun crack the runways. Sun blisters paint. Mud can create all sorts of havoc.

What is absolutely essential to life can pose life-threatening dangers. What is good is also bad. What sustains and even ennobles can be the stuff of our undoing.

Poets and others inclined to notice things may see and wonder at the dichotomy.

So, in the Libyan fable it is told That once an eagle, stricken with a dart, Said, when he saw the fashion of the shaft, "With our own feathers, not by others' hand Are we now smitten."
-- Aeschylus

And listening to Todd made me wonder why anyone would fret and struggle and spend years with a discipline like Buddhism when any ancient Greek playwright or maintenance chief can see what is so obvious.

That which was good becomes bad; that which was beloved becomes a source of anger and distress; that which was reviled is revealed in a new and positive light; what was famous becomes infamous; what was strong becomes weak and what was weak becomes strong.

None of this is rocket science: If a poet or maintenance chief can see and marvel at it, how difficult or complex could it be?

But the crucial point is not the marveling, however delicious marveling may be. Does marveling create peace of mind or a wiser life? No, it cannot and does not, though many may make quite a profession out of marveling themselves or others with their keen observations. Marveling simply calls the attention in wonderful or horrific ways. Are wonder and horror enough? I doubt it.

So as I wondered why anyone would fret and struggle with spiritual discipline when even a Greek playwright or maintenance chief can observe the obvious, it occurred to me that when it comes to peace of mind, steps need to be taken to get beyond the marvelous ... to go further than wonder ... to examine with care what anyone might imagine they have examined with care.

Is the two-sided nature of things enough to see, enough to live by, enough to honestly answer anything? OK, the two-sided or limitless potential of all things is a marvel. But what does such marveling imply? Doesn't it imply that the one marveling has got a skewed view of things? The obvious is just the obvious ... why should it be a matter of wonder?

And the answer that strikes me as obvious is this: Things are a matter of marvel or wonder simply because my view is skewed and mistaken. And if this is the case, marveling is not really enough to assure peace and happiness. Marveling requires examination. The marvelous after all does not say it is marvelous ... the marvelous is simply a fact; it is simply obvious to a Greek playwright or a maintenance chief or anyone else who cares to take a look. The wowsers quality of what is marvelous or surprising refers to me and my perspectives. And if that is the case, some examination of this "me" and "mine" could use some rethinking and, it seems, some revision.

And it is here that spiritual endeavor can be of some use. Spiritual endeavor, when it is serious, does not rely on the marvelous ... it looks more and more and more closely and what creates marvels and what creates horrors and what invariably seems to link the two sides of one coin.

Rain brings life. Rain brings death. Sun grows crops. Sun kills crops. Love fills the scene with joy. Love fills the scene with sorrow....

It's marvelous stuff, but running around mindlessly calling it all a "blessing" or a "curse" ... well, does this really work, does this really assure peace?

Patience and courage and doubt -- and perhaps fretting and sweating and straining at some disciplined endeavor -- tell a marvelous tale. But marvelous? It's just ordinary, isn't it?

But it goes to the heart of what a Greek playwright or a maintenance chief or some exalted religion might cast in a marvelous framework.

The heart of things ... isn't that worth the extra effort?

How else could anyone enjoy a son's baseball game?

Monday, May 10, 2010


I know quite a number of people who are inclined towards visualization techniques. I am not one of them and I really don't know very much about visualization. I've got enough on my plate with Zen practice as I understand it.

But, without disrespect towards those who find it useful, I did have had one exercise suggested to me that might be useful to others:

Sit down, close your eyes, rest your hands on your upper thighs, and call to mind that which is disturbing your life at the moment. Don't fixate -- just call it to mind. Then, with your eyes closed, visualize a great mountain as you inhale. Then, with the exhalation, just smile. Inhale with the mountain, exhale with a smile. Keep a strong focus on both inhalation and exhalation.

After three or four or five times, exhale one last time and then pat your upper thighs gently with the palms of your hands... eight or ten times.

And that's it.

"first honors"

The newspaper reports that my older son was among those receiving "first honors" as a senior at the high school he attends. Naturally, I am pleased as punch and proud of him even if I am not entirely sure what "first honors" may mean. Good marks, I imagine.

I congratulated my son and then I asked him if it was hard to achieve "first honors." He replied with a terse, "No." And I am not sure exactly what that 'no' means either. Immodest modesty? A statement of fact? A skeptical eye on the yardsticks used to measure achievement? I really didn't know.

But that didn't change my congratulations or pride. Within his particular realm and measured within that realm, he had done well ... and I was glad for him.

Interesting -- whether it's a Nobel Prize or a high-school "first honors," it doesn't matter so much what you know. What matters is, what will you do with what you know?

Once upon a time several years back, the Dalai Lama came here and lectured at a local college. The tickets were pretty much sold out and I didn't really have the energy or desire to try to scrape one up, so I watched a bit of his talk on TV.

Again and again and again (until I finally turned to TV off) he encouraged his audience to put their intellectual achievements to good use. Given his robes and his twinkle-y delivery, I imagine some in the audience might have imagined he was talking about something spiritual or something holy.

But I doubt that's what he meant. I don't think he was out to make a bunch of lock-step little Buddhists or a bunch of sappy, serene saints. Rather I think he hoped and encouraged the good use of good tools: Look in the tool box, see what you've got; imagine what you might do ... and then do it. If you make a mistake, correct it. That's all.

Everyone has "first honors" tools at hand. It's just a question of using them for "first honors" ends.