Sunday, October 31, 2010

easy conveniences

To execute the murderer does not end murder.

To incarcerate the robber does not stop robbery.

To call out the liar and hypocrite does not eradicate lying and hypocrisy.

To crucify the savior does not erase salvation.

Perhaps this was some of what Gautama had in mind when he suggested that "It is not what others do and do not do that is my concern. It is what I do and do not do -- that is my concern."

The easy convenience of good deeds and virtue may deserve some respect, but it cannot be allowed to pass for a truth that will assure peace.

autumnal music

In the orchestra pit of autumnal skies, the crows and jays (with an occasional tenor interruption from the Canada geese) seem to have taken over. Stilled, for the moment, are the sweeping, interwoven melodies of I don't know how many spring and summer species.

But the well-oiled door on winter's tomb has not yet clicked shut. No snow has fallen. The hardy mums still blossom. And my neighbor's Japanese maple, always the last on the block to go bald, has not yet given up the ghost.

Still, the furnace kicks in now and then, yesterday my son fired up the wood stove and last night I turned on the electric radiator in the zendo.

Preparations are in the works, but when have preparations ever assured the high notes or low?

It's coming, but the question is, what is it and how could it vary -- or not -- from the summer symphonies?

Saturday, October 30, 2010

the past rises up

Past, present and future may be a snare and a delusion, but there is something touching about the ways in which the past can rise up with the force of a tsunami.

In California, a man was arrested Friday and charged with beating a Catholic priest whom the man accused of  sexually assaulting him and his brother 35 years ago, when they were 7 and 5.

Horrific allegations.

Horrific truths.

How does anyone make peace with the real horrors in their lives? How does anyone make peace with the horrors they see in the lives of others? Even second-hand, there is something viscerally repugnant ... and that's just second-hand.

The past has its horrors.

The past has its delights.

How does anyone make peace with such things?

Certainly it's not as easy as mouthing the words that say past, present and future are a snare and a delusion.

the fine print of spiritual life

This morning I was reading a contemporary description of monastic life in Japan. It depicted a very-strict atmosphere, a very-strict discipline. It was almost inconceivable ... the longing for kindness and release coming head-to-head with the fine-print of practice. Why did the situation seem so filled with unkindness and rigor and lack of smiles? Couldn't anyone get where they hoped to go in an atmosphere that was more 'compassionate?' As someone who had flunked out of an American monastery, I read with interest the description that included the following:

I couldn’t believe my ears. The man had broken his leg! Was it necessary to go so far? That was when it finally sank in. This was indeed Eiheiji -- the premier Zen training center in Japan, famed down the centuries for the rigor of its discipline. Nothing here, including meditation, bore the least resemblance to the fanciful pictures my mind had painted before coming. I was forcibly reminded that once a man sets foot in this holy place, he must devote himself to the discipline truly as if his life depends on it. At the thought my blood buzzed, and sweat trickled down my back.
From: Eat Sleep Sit: My Year at Japan's Most Rigorous Zen Temple
 The book's descriptions aroused all sorts of feelings of rebellion and denial and horror. It was all so unkind. Spiritual endeavor wasn't unkind, right? Weren't all of the monks and nuns and talks and books filled with an utterly magnetic aura of living a smiling, compassionate lifestyle. Wasn't it that aura that drew people in and set them on a path to a revised life and a more clear-eyed way of seeing? In general, the mind fills this arena with hugs and kisses ... a kind of firm and unflinching joy. There were a hundred arguments as to why what the book described was masochistic bullshit: This isn't spiritual life or, if it is, it's a crock. I think a lot of people who take up spiritual endeavor would like to be nice guys ... and the book's description etched a world that was filled with unkind martinets.

But what occurred to me this morning was that no matter how unkind the training ground may be -- no matter how the psychobabble-mind dissects and reproves it -- still there is an unkindness and uncertainty and confusion within that is tougher and more resilient than any boot camp. With or without a trip to a monastery or some distant and dank cave, there comes a point where each individual has to put up or shut up. This is w-o-r-k and it is work that some understanding within acknowledges. A top-sergeant from the outside is nothing compared to the top-sergeant within ... the one who feels the unhappiness or uncertainty and is determined to overcome it. And trying to fend off our own uncertainties with powder-puff charities ... hell, that doesn't work either.

I'm not trying to excuse or elevate or even deride the hard-ass monastic approach. What I am trying to say is that each person will have to confront the fine-print of his or her own aspirations. It may feel good to read about or describe or dissect the directions required by those aspirations, but the hardest part is to actually do something ... whether monastic or lay ... that will assure some actualization.

Serious students are, in one sense, screwed. Entering a spiritual endeavor from the kindness side invariably leads to a need for razor-sharp clarity; entering a spiritual life from the clarity side invariably leads to the need for kindness. Of course all of this depends on determination -- the willingness not to stop, the willingness to keep going, the willingness not to nest in the precincts of kindness or clarity.

And where does that determination come from? It certainly doesn't come from the hard-ass top-sergeants or warmly-avuncular saints of spiritual endeavor. It comes from within and it is unremitting. The toughest, kindest guy in the neighborhood is not some crack-the-whip instructor or some Dalai Lama. The toughest, kindest guy resides within ... and is worth investigating and worth taking instruction from.

No is not enough.

But then, neither is yes.

Friday, October 29, 2010


The penance of praise.

Vilified by praise.

I wonder at those who can can escape from or see through a stoning by adulation.

How painfully inviting.

I wouldn't praise it, but that doesn't mean I can't marvel.

don't lock the doors too tight

Yesterday, I received a beautiful card with a nice note from the 90-plus-year-old woman who for years has been the backbone of the local peace picket. She said she missed my presence on the Saturday morning vigils and hoped I would feel better. Her words made me think I should get my ass in gear and return to the picket line.

The card made my mind skitter back to previous times on the line -- a nice way to spend an hour. And for some reason my mind settled on a meeting I had had with a woman who runs a local Zen center. She approached me one morning together with a friend. She said she had seen my robes (passers-by pay attention to guys in dresses so I figure peace is worth getting dressed up for) and was curious about what lineage, what teachers, what Zen environment I had come out of.

I told her what I could and her eyes took on a pedagogic glow ... she was a Zen teacher and all situations deserved to be treated as part of Zen training. Our meeting, her tone and eyes said, was a ... wait for it! ... Zen event -- a time for her to tell me how meaningful lineage and teachings and our meeting were. It had a deeper meaning, a more impressive importance, than was obvious on the surface. Deeeep meaning!

Of course she was right, in one sense, but she was full of shit in a more profound way. Arm-twisting daily life is not the purpose of spiritual practice. The old teacher Ummon summed things up nicely when he said, "When you can't say it, it's there. When you don't say it, it's missing."

Naturally Zen students work pretty hard and encourage each other in a variety of ways. They make all sorts of mistakes before they can settle down and just ... well ... enjoy things. And one of those mistakes is to lock their doors too tight as they try to penetrate or fend off a universe full of suffering, confusion and uncertainty. Sweat and strain and ... I think it was John Lennon who coined the phrase, "Life is what was happening while you were busy making other plans."

Yes, discipline and practice can be fierce and fiery, but let's not lock the doors too tight.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

traveling far enough

Aldous Huxley once wrote approximately

If the intellectual travels long enough and far enough, he will return to the same point from which the non-intellectual never started.

I wonder if the same thing might be said for the spiritually-inclined:

If the believer travels long enough and far enough, he will return to the same point from which the non-believer never started.

Being a non-believer does not imply that agnostics or atheists would somehow get a leg up on believers. Agnostics and atheists have worked pretty hard on their beliefs. Maybe a non-believer is more like a daisy in the summer time, unconcerned with economic downturns, deep philosophies, and warring states. A daisy doesn't care and doesn't not-care. A daisy is just a daisy.

I thought of this when idly scanning the spiritually-linked books gathering dust on the porch bookshelf. How I loved them in their time. How they encouraged me. How they buttressed an interest in which I was not yet quite comfortable ... what if the whole thing is just a crock of shit? What if I followed this path and just drove myself crazy? I didn't want to end up in some rubber room and these books and the temples I visited and the lectures I heard and the practices I practiced all supported me and my uncertainties. Thank you very much.

But eventually, like some knitting or stamp-collecting fad, those books fell back to what they were before I ever needed and relied on them. Something I didn't really know about and something, more important, that simply collected dust.

I'm not suggesting that those books, those buttresses, are somehow bad or useless. They're not. But they certainly do collect dust and dusting is not my favorite hobby.

vote for me!

When I was a kid, a "million" was an extraordinary number, as mind-defying in its way as "ten thousand" once was to the Chinese who used it as a synonym for "incalculable." In the early 1970's, I can remember the newspaper I worked for stopping the presses in order to get a story on page one that the New York stock exchange had traded 16 million shares. Today, analysts consider it "light" if the number of stocks traded is under a billion and companies are bought and sold in the billions of dollars.

And this morning, in a news story, I read this: 
 "American households lost $14 trillion of their net worth in the recent recession," said survey participant Albert Niemi, dean of the Cox School of Business at Southern Methodist University. "The loss in wealth, plus tight credit, will depress consumer spending for the next several years."

A trillion -- that's 1,000,000,000,000. In a country of 307 million, not all of whom are taxpayers, $14 trillion works out to about $90,000 per taxpayer... many of whom never had $90,000 to lose in the first place. Those most clearly responsible for creating the debacle that is politely referred to as a "recession" are the Republicans. 

Mid-term elections are next Tuesday. People are so dissatisfied and fearful about the lack of employment and congressional foolishness that it is expected voters will stand up and vote heavily ... for Republicans.

Greed crosses party lines, of course, but the relative foolishness of such a vote stuns my mind ... much as the number 10,000 might once have stunned the Chinese. It's like a collective masochism ... yes, let's improve things by reinstating those most responsible for making them worse in the first place... and wave the flag while we're at it.

Clearly this is my own expectation at work -- being unable to credit the endlessness of greed, my own included.  However big the number, there is always one more number that can be added: One trillion becomes one trillion and one ... and two and three. 

A little bit of greed becomes a little more and a little more and a little more. And I, like a lot of others, will bust a gut trying to get others to believe that eating shit is the right thing to do, the patriotic thing, the thing that will make me look refined even when I am plug-ugly.  It is important that my needs, my greeds, be met and that others praise me for them.

Vote greed.

Vote for me!

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

certainty or uncertainty ... the mystery

I suppose discomfort and longing are the progenitors of mystery. If you can't explain something, you might want to find a way to explain it ... "it's a mystery," sounds good, or, "the Tao that can be spoken is not the true Tao." I am as much a sucker for awe and meaning as the next fellow, but really, how long can anyone keep up such a pretense? How long must anyone accede to uncertainty? How important is the certainty alluded to in a "mystery?"

When I worked as a newspaper reporter, the touchstones were "who, what, when, where, why and how." Opinions and sincerities were kept in check, though of course there was always bias in what words were chosen and in what order they were placed. As a reporter, curiosity and the willingness to dig into the mystery were the tools of choice. Eventually, having dug far enough -- or after the city editor had yelled at you to "get the goddamned thing done! -- you wrote the story and, because it was written, because it was printed, or because other people may have read it as authoritative, the mystery was solved, sort of. There was more certainty and less uncertainty.

It's pretty smart to look into the certainties of others or the certainties of our own. But if it makes sense to examine our certainties, what makes us think that failing to examine our uncertainties is sensible? Isn't uncertainty -- and the weaving of mystery that may follow on its heels -- just another expression of certainty that deserves investigation? Is there really much difference between falling prey to certainty and falling prey to uncertainty? Maybe what is called a mystery is just another form of laziness ... I don't know: It's a mystery.


Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Einstein quote

Quote I read elsewhere:

"The most beautiful thing we can experience is the mysterious. It is the source of all science and all true art. He who can no longer pause and stand rapt in awe is as good as dead."
-- Einstein

caution! coward at work

The forecast says the temperature today will get into the 70's F, a short, warming reprieve in the slow slide towards extra blankets and closed windows. Already there is a warmth along the damp streets and a quiet softness to accompany it.

Yesterday's posting of the documentary "Amongst the White Clouds," a rough-hewn film about Chinese Buddhist hermits in the mountains, intermingles in my mind this morning with an internet note that also had to do with Buddhist "teachers" and "students." I guess it may be the only option -- teachers and students -- given the uncertainties and attachments that can make people so unhappy, but it causes me to remember ....

How many times did my own teacher give me the option to set such things aside? How many times, from within my own uncertainty, did I refuse? Endless times, I imagine, but a couple of incidents stand out.

I once asked my teacher, Kyudo Nakagawa Roshi, if he'd like to go out to lunch. He agreed and we ended up in an Italian restaurant in Greenwich Village in New York. When the bill came, he asked how much his portion came to. I said I would pay. But he asked me again how much his portion was. And again I said I would pay. I ended up paying, but looking back I think I made a mistake: I didn't dare -- didn't really have the capacity -- to be friends with him.

And the same thing happened when he officiated at my wedding. How much should I pay him, I asked. He dismissed the notion immediately. Again I asked and again he dismissed the idea. I suppose this could be chalked up to a subtle humility, but I have a feeling it went deeper than that: What parent would not gladly do what a child requested? What child would not gladly do what a parent requested? What friend would not fulfill the needs of a dear friend ... without even thinking about it? In the end, I paid him some money.

Inequality clings like a leech sucking warm blood. Equality is frightening and excites all sorts of explanations and meanings ... the heart of inequality.

Practice takes some courage. You have to work through the cowardice. How long do you intend to rebuff what you long for ... or rebuff with your longings?

Monday, October 25, 2010

"Amongst the White Clouds"

.Documentary about Buddhist hermit traditions in the Chinese woods.

falling short

Yesterday, I went to my younger son's baseball game. The day was cold and grey.What might have been nothing special in past years -- the drive, the standing and sitting as the game progressed -- was made somewhat special by the fact that my heart problems have required a variety of pills, a variety of slowdowns, a variety of grudging changes.

On the sidelines, at one point, a missed ball came rolling to my feet. I reached down and picked it up. It was perhaps 50-60 feet to the player who had missed it and he looked at me expectantly. My mind was relaxed and assured in the hundreds or perhaps thousands of times I had made such a throw in the past. The habit and ability were in place. The scene was set in my mind -- past and present were one ... this was something I didn't even need to think about. Easy-peasy. And yet, when I threw the ball, it fell short by half. All my neurons and all of my past was prepared for a completion, but it didn't happen. The young man waiting for the ball looked at me briefly with something between commiseration and contempt. Once I had gotten over my own surprise, I had a similar look.

My Zen teacher, Kyudo Nakagawa Roshi, once said to me as he grew older, "I am getting weak." His mind was able to remember other times and places, but now those memories were just that -- memories much like throwing the ball 50-60 feet. The facts overcome the fictions. Old or young, I imagine that's pretty much the case for everyone. It kind of knocks the stuffing out of you, but it also brings on an imperfectly-enjoyed present. No need to taunt, "get real!" Reality just asserts itself without any effort or philosophy or bias.

I didn't like it much, but then, if I didn't have something to grouse about, how interesting would my life be?


Sunday, October 24, 2010

the wuss factor

My wife has fired up the wood stove and last night I turned on the heat in the zendo. It's 43F this morning -- not especially cold, and yet the older I get the colder it gets ... and the same goes for heat.

Once I was all for toughing such things out -- facing heat and cold as if somehow they could be overcome. Today, my younger son has a baseball game and, assuming my body allows it, I will go ... and be bundled up into the bargain.

What's wrong with being a wuss?

breakthrough to where?

It arrived under the email subject line "HAHAHAHAHA." It appeared to come from China and its first lines were these:
I understood! I finally understood!!!

There is no high, no low, no left, no right, no start, no end, no
better, no worse, no here, no there, no this, no that, no happiness,
no sadness.
And further along:
And like a rongxiang whose heart momentarily saw no human beings, and
no self either, and he needed his computer to email some friends,
imagine that they exists.

How exciting if true. How disheartening if false. How normal, assuming it's not abnormal.

A email friend in Mexico once sent me a note in which he mentioned in passing that his Tibetan Buddhist teacher had approved his understanding. "But let's not make too much of it," he added. To discover the wind on your face or a red rose or the laughter that accompanies a good joke ... let's not make too much of it.

Still, I am happy if it's true.

Saturday, October 23, 2010

George Santayana

Philosopher and essayist George Santayana is credited with writing, "Those who do not read history are condemned to repeat it." There are numerous variations of his words: Eg,
Those who cannot learn from history are doomed to repeat it.
Those who do not remember their past are condemned to repeat their mistakes.
Those who fail to learn from the mistakes of their predecessors are destined to repeat them.
It is such a nifty, quotable, intelligent, elevated and seemingly commonsensical remark. But how sensible is it where the rubber hits the road?

Those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it. But those who do learn from history seem to repeat it as well since what is learned depends entirely on the individual's attentiveness and outlook. Count the wars, count the famines, assess the fallout from various past kinds of greed, anger and ignorance ... someone must have learned something along the way, but I guess there was either not enough social consciousness of what needed to be learned or the appreciations of that learning were various and contradictory.

Learn or don't learn, read or don't read ... still the repetitions go on and the wiles of greed, anger and ignorance are best seen and dealt with after looking in the mirror.

who will remember?

In six months, who will remember that the Texas Rangers beat the New York Yankees yesterday and will therefore play in the upcoming baseball World Series?

Memory is an odd duck -- often inaccurate, often forceful, often compelling.

In six months -- or six seconds -- who will remember?

technicolor lies

More important than the lies anyone else might tell us are the lies we might tell ourselves. I mean "lie" in this case as a statement or formulation we are somehow unwilling or unable to investigate with care.

What's the matter with lies? Generally, I think it is only that they sow confusion and inflict harm. Confusion and harm upend the longing for some kind of stable peace or happiness. In this arena, lies are bad and the truth, never quite adequately defined, is good. And good is better than bad. Socially, this is an acceptable postulate.

I got to thinking about this yesterday during an enjoyable email to-and-fro with a friend who makes a good case for the inadequately-grounded notion of Zen Buddhist lineage and the elevation of direct transmission of Mind. This, he argued better than I am arguing here, has downside consequences for students and other followers: Fabrications and lies do not aid or unveil the core truths of Buddhism; robes, rituals, ornate disquisitions on meaning, power-mongering, etc. all point in incorrect and perhaps painful directions. Buddhism needs no additions and the sooner students learn that, the better off they will be... roughly, as I got it,that was his argument.

And I see nothing wrong with his efforts and analysis. He is better grounded in history than I am, so I listen with interest.

But what occurs to me also is that I cannot think of a better mouse trap. When it comes to spiritual endeavor, when you open your mouth, it is more likely than not that what appears is just a new and improved lie -- a lie that, with luck, inspires a willingness to investigate things right down to the core. Spiritual endeavor is important because I am important, but am I really important? Of course I am ... or at least of course I am for the moment. And that emotional and intellectual importance knows of no other way to investigate itself than through its own emotional and intellectual importance.

It is useless to yell the truth into someone's ear when, for the moment, they simply can't hear. So it is OK to point a finger, but it is really pretty foolish to expect anyone to follow the advice offered by that finger. Robes and rituals and philosophies and religions point ... in technicolor. That technicolor invites and perhaps consumes the onlooker. But it can also inspire investigation of the lie as a means of winkling out the truth (whatever the hell that is).

I suppose I could go on and on and on and on about all this. I just don't know another option than to immerse oneself in the lies we tell ourselves and vow to find out. Human uncertainty and suffering deserve the best tool they can find, the most effective tool. And what reason is there to believe that fabrications and wonders are not appropriate and useful ... and realistically the only real choice?

Martin Luther King, the American civil rights leader, once said, approximately, "It is not what's wrong with the world that really scares people. What scares people is that everything is all right."

Technicolor fears. Technicolor peace. Technicolor lies. They may spell trouble, but how else could anyone pierce these uncertain times?

Just muttering in my beard this morning.

Friday, October 22, 2010

a Christian prayer

A Christian friend once told me there was a perfectly legitimate prayer in Christianity that goes:

"Dear Lord, please give him/her a swift kick in the ass!"

I'm not sure about the legitimacy, but it certainly is soothing to hear.

shadow and light

Today, I got an email from my older son telling me that he had sent in his absentee ballot from college and thus voted for the first time in his life. Now he, like a lot of young people, is old enough to vote, old enough to drive, old enough to be conscripted and killed in the latest war, but not yet old enough to drink legally.

Another email described carefully the corrupted nature of Zen Buddhist lineage and the damage such corruption can do to its adherents. Teachers manufactured out of whole (or damn near it) cloth; lineage relying on gizmos and gadgets to fill in the historical gaps between today and the time of Gautama Buddha; the authoritarian proclivities of those chosen to guide this spiritual parade ... all offered in a factual, quiet tone that I enjoy. I like it when someone points out the nose on anyone's face -- the down side of what otherwise might be an up side in someone's life. Emotional whining or hand-wringing (like hymns and hallelujahs) never convinces me well. Careful examination does ... and I like it when someone upsets whatever apple cart I may have loaded.

Is there anything so good that it does not cast a shadow? Is there such a thing as a shadow that does not refer to the good light?

It's impossible to make anyone hear what they can't yet hear and still I like the words of some old Zen teacher:

Wishing to entice the blind,
The Buddha has playfully
Let words escape his golden mouth.
Heaven and earth are ever since filled
With entangling briars.
"Playfully" ... now there's a good word.

Thursday, October 21, 2010


Driving back from the blacksmith's yesterday, I picked up a hitchhiker whose father had taken up blacksmithing in his retirement. I liked picking this young man up: It was a kind of late-blooming payback for all the rides I had once gotten when hitchhiking across the country.

For all of our 10-mile ride, it was pleasant conversation. He was/is a musician who taught guitar and drums and seemed to make a living even in an economy where people are cutting back on various 'frivolous' pastimes. We got to talking about the world of art and its trends and drawbacks, all with the assumption that art really wasn't frivolous when it came to assuaging the soul.

I can't remember his name, but during the Depression, there was once a man who cast a variety of famous bronze doors and other artifacts and spent a considerable portion of his personal fortune employing novices who would keep his art alive during hard times. His cathedral doors and other public pieces still grace the land, but the fame and fortune were clearly not his only motivators. Beauty was not frivolous.

Funny how one (wo)man's frivolity is another (wo)man's life blood.

Is there any pastime which, if followed with patience and determination, will not take the student home? I doubt it. From ant farms to symphonies to changing spark plugs to profound philosophy ... how frivolous could it be?

Wednesday, October 20, 2010


Does spiritual endeavor require complexity? This is not a trick question.

By complexity, I mean the intellectual and emotional meanings that are hung around its neck in a hundred books and in a thousand sermons and in a million temples?

On the one hand, my mind digs its heels in like a balky mule when I hear the dulcet meanings that can be brought to bear. "In the moment," "compassion," "ultimate," "authentic," "enlightenment" ... that sort of stuff. On the other hand it would be blindness not to recognize that seeds need to be planted before the corn can grow: People need handholds. If they begin with "ego," then the ego needs a little help, a nudge, a kick in the ass.

And if this is roughly the case, then it seems to me that spiritual endeavor may be called the child of ego, of self, of greed, anger and delusion. Now the only question is, who gave birth to this child ... and will the child become an adult? Given the clouds of religion in the world, I wonder if we shouldn't build a bigger playground.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

political joke

A Politician's Take On Heaven And Hell

While walking down the street one day an American senator
was hit by a car and died. His soul arrives in heaven and
is met by St. Peter at the entrance.

"Welcome to heaven," says St. Peter. "Before you settle in,
it seems there is a problem. We seldom see a high official
around these parts, you see, so we're not sure what to do
with you."

"No problem, just let me in," says the senator.

"Well, I'd like to, but I have orders from the higher ups.
What we'll do is have you spend one day in hell and one in
heaven. Then you can choose where to spend eternity."

"Really?, I've made up my mind. I want to be in heaven,"
says the senator. "I'm sorry, but we have our rules."

With that, St. Peter escorts him to the elevator and he goes
down, down, down to hell. The doors open and he finds
himself in the middle of a green golf course. In the
distance is a clubhouse and standing in front of it are all
his friends and other politicians who had worked with him.
Everyone is very happy. They run to greet him, shake his
hand, and reminisce about the good times they had while
getting rich at the expense of the people.

They played a friendly game of golf and then dine on
lobster, caviar and the finest champagne. Also present is
the devil, who really is a very friendly guy who is having a
good time dancing and telling jokes. They are all having
such a good time that before the senator realizes it, it is
time to go. Everyone gives him a hearty farewell and waves
while the elevator rises. The elevator goes up, up, up and
the door reopens in heaven where St. Peter is waiting for

St. Peter says, "Now it's time to visit heaven." So, 24
hours passed with the senator joining a group of contented
souls moving from cloud to cloud, playing the harp and
singing. They have a good time and, before he realizes it,
the 24 hours have gone by and St. Peter returns.

"Well, then, you've spent a day in hell and another in heaven. Now
choose your eternity."

The senator reflects for a minute, then he answers: "Well,
I would never have said it before, I mean heaven has been
delightful, but I think I would be better off in hell." So
St. Peter escorts him to the elevator and he goes down,
down, down to hell. The doors of the elevator open and he's
in the middle of a barren land covered with waste and
garbage. He sees all his friends, dressed in rags, picking
up the trash and putting it in black bags as more trash
falls from above. The devil comes over to him and puts his
arm around his shoulders. "I don't understand," stammers the
senator. "Yesterday I was here and there was a golf course
and clubhouse, and we ate lobster and caviar, drank
champagne, and danced and had a great time. Now there's just
a wasteland full of garbage and my friends look miserable.
What happened?"

 The devil smiles at him and says, "Yesterday we were campaigning, today, you voted."


Strange to think: Whatever virtue anyone lays claim to or ascribes to others is limited and therefore unsatisfactory in the end. It simply cannot assure the goals it lays claim to.

But the same is true for that which lacks something called virtue: It too is limited and cannot stand the test of time. It too cannot assure the goals it can lay claim to.

Since leading a peaceful and happy life might be a goal sought by the virtuous and unvirtuous alike, virtue and its counterpart must eventually be understood as avenues that deserve investigation at best and are simply mistaken at worst. Leading a life of compromise is not the same as leading a peaceful and happy life.

I guess I think it's all sort of strange because virtue and lack of virtue are such popular pastimes.

fanning and banking the flames

A shrink friend of mine once observed, "No one ever got rich by being nice."

That popped into my mind associatively as I watched a bit of a public TV show about the events leading up to King Philip's War which started in 1675 and lasted little more than a year. The war evolved out of the British desire to expand and prosper on land inhabited by various Indian tribes in what is now southern New England.

At first, there was peaceful coexistence. But bit by bit, the British imposed rules and arm-twisted the tribal leaders. Bit by bit they encroached. Bit by bit they insisted on Christianity, a laying down of arms, and a handing over of tribal land as a means of paying for medical services made necessary in the face of the smallpox, measles and other diseases brought to America by the foreign settlers. When the more-populous colonists had backed the Indians into a corner, the Indians fought ... and lost. (These days, what is left of the Indians has created gambling casinos which have been very successful in taking money from those who may be the descendants of those early colonists.)

You can't make an omlette without breaking eggs, but the sometimes-smug and sometimes-just-unaware arrogance of those who are better off ... well, it is easier to point fingers than to look in the mirror. True, those with advantages of education and wealth and wreathed attachment can shine a spotlight on the difficulty, but I think it is a problem that everyone faces -- setting aside the needs of others in hopes of fulfilling your own -- perhaps worthy -- desires.

You can't make an omlette without breaking eggs, but you can reflect and pay attention and correct the mistakes you make. Greed is not just a rich man's peccadillo. As my Zen teacher once said, "Without ego, nothing gets done." And the upshot of paying attention and taking responsibility -- capacities sometimes miraculously under-exercised by those who are most advantaged -- comes down to what Gautama Buddha suggested:

It is not what others do and do not do that is my concern. It is what I do and do not do -- that is my concern.

Monday, October 18, 2010

mother of mediocrity

Productivity/multi-tasking is the mother of mediocrity ....

Or anyway, that's what my fortune-cookie mind just said.

TV sports

Lately, I have gotten a small education in sports programs on TV -- the kind of pastime that encourages couch potatoes to veg out and cheer.

In the past, I only had an occasional interest in sporting events, but nowadays, when I do watch TV, I like the fact that in sports, when the commentators finally shut up, something is actually happening... it's not stale or second-hand.

Even on sports shows, there are a lot of commentaries and opinions and speculations, but they seem to be fewer than on news shows. The creativity of a sporting event is comparatively refreshing: What can be more refreshing that something happening right now? TV dramas and sitcoms tend to lack the quirky uncertainty that life in the present tense serves up. But baseball or basketball or hockey or football ... in the playing, they are right-now. And through the miracle of TV remote controls, you can always mute the commentaries.

I doubt that sports on TV will ever turn into an addiction for me, but the alive-ness of play is refreshing when I do watch: No analysis can confine it; no commentary can compass it. It's just ... happening.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

clean zendo

Because I got an email from a fellow who said he and his wife were coming to do zazen this morning, I went out to the zendo last night and, for the first time this year, turned on the heat. It's nippy and the zendo is not much protection from the cold.

I also cleaned the altar and its statues, cleaned the incense burner, cleaned the cushions and cleaned the floor.

So even if the visiting teachers do not show up, still I will sit down in a clean and relatively warm place this morning.

pendulum swings

Somehow, this is where I came in -- weaned in part on labor protest songs at a time when unions were gaining ground and were not routinely beaten by the police who were controlled by business interests: 

Oct 17, 4:30 AM (ET) 
CHICAGO (AP) - Hundreds of Hilton Chicago Hotel workers started a three-day strike Saturday that union officials say is in protest of the hotel chain's efforts to "lock workers into cheap recession contracts."  Full story
I once ran into folksinger Pete Seeger at a concert he was part of. "I grew up on the Almanac Singers," I said to him. "Oh, you go that far back," he replied with a smile, letting us both know that a lot of water had since flowed under the dam. "Talking Union," "Which Side are You On?" and "Union Maid" were Almanac Singers songs that floated up off 78 rpm records in our living room. The songs were peppy and brash and probably overconfident, but what did a kid know about overconfidence? By comparison with adults, kids were second-class citizens, somewhat like the union supporters and their songs. As a kid, I hummed along and sang.

But now the spilled blood I never personally witnessed as a kid flows close to the surface. Survival is no joke. The business owners' complacence that once formed a flash point of labor strife and then segued into union acceptance and later an arrogance of its own now seems to have segued back, with banks and brokers hip-deep in bailout money that somehow does not 'trickle down' to the needy people required to pay it back.

Two or three days ago, I heard a news report that blithely suggested that "outside the volatile food and energy sector," the economy was doing pretty well. How is it that an assessment of the economy can credibly excise food and energy, the things that people need in order to live and travel and keep warm?

Tick-tock, the pendulum swings.

I think the government is wise to have in place contingency plans in case some sort of mass uprising occurs. But the government does not seem wise enough or to possess the balls to wonder about the need for such contingency plans in the first place. Such plans would be unnecessary unless there were some sort of underlying imbalance ... an imbalance requiring serious thinking.

Yes, the pendulum swings.

Internal memos at National Public Radio and the Washington Post among other news outlets have warned their news staffers not to mingle with the "Rally to Restore Sanity" gathering planned in Washington Oct. 30. The organizations appear to be relying on "objectivity" as a reason for the memos to news staffers. The somewhat smirky Jon Stewart has used his "Daily Show" on television as a springboard for the rally ... and the edged humor of the rally is likely to draw a crowd that news people should not, somehow, be interested in either personally or professionally.

Stewart's parody comrade Stephen Colbert's "March to Keep Fear Alive" has now apparently joined forces with Stewart's group. When all else seems unable to attract attention, parody may be a pretty good tool. Fear is an on-going tool of politicians and business interests just as sanity appears to be absent from the tool box.

But in these times, the definition of sanity is open to raucous and sometimes illiterate debate. Everyone longs to fix a problem and yet the problem is somehow amorphous: I know I don't like something but am incapable of describing realistically what I DO like.

I guess we'll see what happens, but I for one am sorry to be leaving this mess to my children.

Saturday, October 16, 2010

singing their comrades dead

Dr. Haddon Alderton was 74, if I recall correctly, when I met him aboard the Prince Yuri Dolgoruki in 1968, the 50th anniversary of the "glorious Russian Revolution." Although he never said so, I imagined he was an old-line socialist who had come to the U.S.S.R. to see for himself what he had only supported in his New Zealand homeland. We would meet from time to time -- usually at the dinner table -- during the three-week tour both of us had joined. Part of that trip included a 2-or-3-day ride down the Volga river on the Yuri Dolgoruki, whose namesake had founded Moscow.

Haddon Alderton was spry and tough and told me a number of tales that I had no way of verifying as we sailed down the river, but I later was able to broadly confirm them when I returned home. One such tale was the following:

As a young man in his 20's, his girlfriend had dumped him. "And what does a man do when his girlfriend leaves him," he asked rhetorically? "He gets drunk." So Haddon Alderton got drunk for three weeks. And when that didn't do the trick, he took a boat to Australia and rode into the outback on a horse ... by himself.

Eventually, he hooked up with a native tribe called the Arunta. He stayed with them for some time, learning their ways and lending his medical skills when called upon. He also learned some of their customs, among which was the habit of leaping into the small dust tornadoes -- small, swirling winds they called willy-willies -- that occasionally kicked up. These were evil spirits and the tribe's members would leap into them and bang pots and pans to dispel the impending bad luck.

But the most interesting tale Alderton told was of the tribal habit of "singing their friends dead." The whole tribe would gather around when a member was dying and sing as their friend passed from this life. Alderton thought this a wonderful ritual, with one exception: If someone was sick and if Alderton knew a way to cure what was not a fatal disease, still, no matter what he said ... if the tribe gathered around the ailing man or woman and if they sang, then that person, no matter how intrinsically healthy, would die.

I sometimes wondered in retrospect why a man with so many delicious adventures under his belt should bother with a trip to the socialist homeland. Alderton never commented on the wonders or failures of socialism as he saw them on his trip, so the whole socialist thing may simply have been my own over-active imagination at work.

Whatever the reason for his trip, he was a wonderful diversion at the dinner table where, invariably, we were served what seemed like a hell of a lot of cabbage. Cabbage is OK, but too much of something that is OK gets tiring after a while ... not to mention the after-meal flatulence that resulted. But Alderton made it all bearable with his tales. It beat TV by a mile.


Last night, as I watched the Texas Rangers and New York Yankees baseball game, the TV camera panned over the audience and then stopped for a few seconds when it encountered former U.S. President George W. Bush.

George W. Bush represents a lot of things I dislike: A guy who was born on third base and imagines he hit a triple; a front-man for the wealthy at the expense of those who provide that wealth; a man who insists on saying "nucular" where the word "nuclear" might be more appropriate; a man whose numbness always astounded and frightened me; and a man of little or no apparent honor.

Yes, I dislike him and his public accomplishments.

On another front, some time ago, a woman friend of mine -- someone who had a Ph.D. in philosophy and two daughters -- decided she wanted to write an article about abortion. She was a liberal and generally favored the accessibility of abortion, but she wanted to put a face on the actual procedure.

In the course of gathering information, she contacted Planned Parenthood, an organization that espouses the right of a woman to have an abortion. Planned Parenthood was more than happy to talk to her about its views ... right up until they found out she wanted to write about the physical and psychological particulars. Then they balked and proved more obstructionist than helpful. It was OK to make an omlette, but a discussion of cracking eggs was not in their playbook.

What Bush and Planned Parenthood have in common in my mind is the habit of running out of steam when it comes to one point of view, one bias or another. Isn't it the same for most of our most cherished opinions or beliefs? This is good. That is bad. How do I know? I know because I have collected a certain amount of information and decided that that amount of information is sufficient to forming a short-hand opinion or prejudice. There always seems to be a point where the energy/willingness to investigate runs out and there is a wall of unwillingness to think about it further. And in this way, I formulate and collate my opinions. I have 'proved' as much as I can, as much as I have energy for ... and here is my conclusion.  And that conclusion, that wall, is filed along with other conclusions to indicate who I am and where I stand. I may revise my conclusions at some point ... but not just now.

 The walls form a perimeter that makes me feel safe. Others will agree, so it is a sociable business. And for those who disagree ... well, they fortify my resistance, my willingness to fight ... or perhaps my willingness to change my mind and erect a slightly different wall.

Walls speak their own language. And central to their vocabulary is the word, "stop!" Within and without -- stop!

But what if my oh-so-satisfying assumptions and conclusions and walls ... what if there was no need for them? What if George W. Bush and abortion particulars and spiritual endeavor were unwalled possibilities that came and went as the need arose? Wouldn't that be easier? Wouldn't that be more in accord with the life we actually live?

Scarier, sure. But easier.

Friday, October 15, 2010


"Suffering," I once heard, "is the resistance to pain." Not a bad hip-pocket definition, I think.

No one wants to feel pain and yet pain comes calling anyway -- mental pain, physical pain, whatever kind of pain. Whole industries (pharmaceutical, for example) revolve around the human distaste for pain. And yet no industry has found the perfect answer, the perfect barrier, the perfect eraser of pain... or, if they have, the suppression of pain requires the suppression of other aspects of life that are pleasing.

"Feelin' no pain," says the drunk who cannot walk in a straight line or drive safely.

In sports and Zen Buddhism, I have heard the fortune cookie observation, "no pain, no gain," meaning you'll never get anywhere without some serious effort. But I always liked to turn that equation around: If "no pain" equals "no gain," then "no gain" must also equal "no pain."

With a little attention, I think that what is gained in life is also a matter of resistance. Gain implies something else can be attained ... and more important, held onto. When all things change, how does holding on to anything make much sense and in this sense is a resistance to life ... and suffering is bound to arise.

Pain ... I wonder what makes anyone (me to) assume that pain is bad or unnecessary or somehow not part of the picture. Anyone who suggests that another perspective on pain might be warranted is likely to run into a meat grinder of social dissent: "What are you -- some kind of masochist?"

But who is really the masochist -- the one who tries to escape from what is inescapably part of life or the one who makes some effort to accord with life? To accord with life doesn't mean people can't say "ouch!" when hitting a thumb with a hammer. It doesn't mean pretending to be immune from sadness. Ouch is ouch. Sad is sad.

In Zen practice, students sit down, often cross-legged, and focus their minds. Naturally, the body feels pain when confined to any prolonged stillness. Sometimes there is a howling thought or two -- "I can't do this! I can't stand this! I hate this!" But Zen students keep doing zazen, keep doing meditation, despite the yowls and despite the social skepticism ... "What are you, some kind of masochist?!"

The usefulness of this effort, however painful, is that it teaches students to address, rather than flee, what is clearly part of their lives -- pain. However much they might like to escape, still, when they do escape, pain comes calling in some revised form. And it is probably worth finding out how this endless fleeing into a 'better' condition simply never works perfectly, never assures a pain-free life.

Who is the one who hopes against hope that things will become pain-free? Who is the one who resists and resists what is clearly a part of life -- life in general and life in very-personal particular? No need to become a Stoic or some kind of gloomy Gus or some kind of zombie. But just to investigate what we long for without success ... well, it might be worthwhile. Suffering and uncertainty aren't much fun.

No gain, no pain.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

siesta olympiad

Siesta contest in Spain

Where napping is not a joke.

categories of questions

I was munching on why it might have been that Gautama, after being 'enlightened' under the Bo tree, wrestled with himself about sharing his understanding with others. Why not just let things alone and go about living his life? I think the usual answer is something like, because of his deep compassion ... etc.

Which led me to think about the questions that get asked and the thickets and thorns that arise from the answers, however accurate and true. Which led me to read this appraisal  ... which included the following observation:

The Buddha divided all questions into four classes:
  • Those that deserve a categorical (straight yes or no) answer.
  • Those that deserve an analytical answer, defining and qualifying the terms of the question.
  • Those that deserve a counter-question, putting the ball back in the questioner's court.
  • Those that deserve to be put aside.

Those sound like good prisms to me. And since those questions that deserve to be put aside are those which do not lead to the discovery and cessation of suffering ... well, I marvel that Gautama chose the course he did.

barefoot blues

A crispy, crunchy day today -- sky blue in the morning moment, leaves crackly in the driveway. Yesterday, like this morning, was one of those 'perfect' New England autumn days.

More perfection is promised on the weather forecast -- rain and soggy and leaden.

Soon enough there will be a need for the wood stove.

And, dammit, socks.

I wonder if anyone else has noticed or whether I am just making it up: People who do a regular, sit-down meditation practice have pinky toes that are straighter, less turned-in, than those who don't. Of course, those who go barefoot regularly also are less prone to malformed pinky toes.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

doofus time

At 70, I sometimes feel like a doofus when something comes along that honestly interests or moves me. Usually the sense of foolishness arises in contrast to other, more socially recognizable interests.

I am interested, mildly, in the news of the day. I am interested, mildly, in social solemnities or leanings. But generally these matters run out of pep in my mind. I am intellectually engaged ... for a while, but that 'while' seems to grow shorter with age. Been-there-done-that is a whisper in the back of my mind. Sometimes I think I am reverting to toddler-dom -- a time when one point of interest fades with the snap of the fingers and the pretty balloons are replaced by a passing dog which is replaced by a pile of swirling autumn leaves which is replaced by....

But then, all of a sudden, something that really grabs my attention comes along.

Yesterday, I went to the dentist to have my teeth cleaned. Going to the dentist is not something I like particularly, but I can do it -- been there, done that. But when the dentist came in to check to work of the woman who had cleaned my teeth, we chatted a little and she said she had had a baby boy three months ago and my heart became fully engaged. And for a few bright, conversational moments ... what a lot of fun!

What a lot of fun.

Earlier today, I read a spiritual-endeavor question on an internet bulletin board. The writer had had an experience in the past which blew him away... away from Christianity and towards Taoism or perhaps Buddhism, he wasn't sure which. He was still, after all these years, trying to digest it. What should he do? He was wrestling and fidgeting with the experience. And his words really got to me, made me remember and want to lend a hand. I seldom have that feeling with the delicate and filigreed difficulties of someone further along in their spiritual practice. This was fresh and touching to me. The ones who have begun and continue ... well, begin and continue. But how to touch what touches the heart and is full of uncertainty? I'm all ears.

 And yesterday, I was working on a maple staff I want to shape. I was sanding and whittling and smoothing and wondering if I still had the lamb bone I had added to the tool box so long ago -- a bone with which to smooth the sanded project. I was up to my ears in attention when suddenly I stepped back and wondered for a moment who else would give a hoot about the project. And the answer was, few if any. But I was somehow surprised to find that I was bedrock content to create something others might take to the dump. I am a sucker for what I think is beautiful and happy to have a role in its creation ... even when it's not anyone else's vision of what is beautiful.

Does any of this mean much? I suppose not. A second childhood is not so bad, though I do wonder at all the time I have expended while trying not to be that child... being serious and loving and spiritual and whatever all else in accordance with someone else's adult outlook.

Hell, chocolate is delicious. Do I need any 'supporting' evidence?

What a doofus.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010


When I was younger, I used to read a lot of books. When it came to fiction, the best way I could describe my tastes was, "Good plus bad equals good." No one ever asked me exactly what I meant by that and I was grateful they didn't ask since I was never entirely sure. The statement came out of my gut somewhere and made sense at that level even if it lacked the concreteness and edges that reason might provide.

There was the "good stuff" -- happy times, love, success, etc. -- and there was the "bad stuff" -- sadness, anger, failure and the rest -- and each had an imperative place in good fiction, a place that would not be true if one or the other were overlooked. Willa Cather, Leo Tolstoy and Isak Dinesen were authors who could make me feel I had read something true.

But even when I asked myself what constituted the good that arose as a result of the good and bad, I was stumped. Why didn't the equation come out good+bad = shitty? Was it a matter of wishful thinking, some hope that a sturdy goodness lay beyond consoling belief and cranky days? I really couldn't say, but something stubborn in my mind insisted ... you can't skip over the bad stuff; you can't skip over the good stuff and that's the only way to discover a meaty, happy ending.

Nowadays, someone will probably leap up and wax wise or paradoxical about there being no difference between good and bad, but that doesn't impress me much: Thaddeus Golas' "When you learn to love hell, you will be in heaven" is good advice but no one wants a life chock full of good advice. It's like living on a diet of fortune cookies. Advice is what is handed out in the realm of good and bad, but true good does not rely on any sort of advice: It just is ... like the sky.

Oh well, I still don't know what I was talking about in the days when I read a lot of books, but it still feels as if the equation, whatever it means, means something and blooms unbidden.

Monday, October 11, 2010

concrete creativity

This morning I visited a blacksmith. I wanted to know how much he might charge to create a small, wrought-iron circle I want to put at the top of a staff. I cut the maple wood something like 30 years ago, but only now am getting around to finishing it.

He gave me a rough price and then the two of us got to gabbing about the possibilities. It was such a pleasure to talk to someone who could enter my rough mental sketches and offer options, improvements, changes, possibilities. He heard me and I heard him and the two of us were like a couple of old hens. He could see what I wanted to accomplish and had the skills and experience to make concrete suggestions that were more than just salesmanship. He too loved the creativity at hand.

In a world that sometimes seems to be filled with people who can read and believe and go no further than a product's label (there's only one answer) ... well, all I can say is that it renewed my faith in humanity ... to find someone who could think with me ... although my son, who was waiting for me in the car, was a bit cranky when I finally climbed back into the driver's seat.

What a treat.

"fake heroes"

As if it weren't enough trying to pin down who a true hero might be, the U.S. Justice Department has taken on the issue of fake heroes.

A couple of excerpts from the story:

-- The Stolen Valor Act makes it a crime punishable by up to a year in jail to falsely claim to have won a military medal, whether or not an impostor seeks financial gain. 
--  The Stolen Valor Act, which breezed through Congress in 2006, revised and toughened an existing statute that forbade anyone to wear a military medal that was not earned.

"Stolen valor" ... wrap your mind around that. To claim there are fake heroes implies by definition that someone knows who the real heroes are at the same time that those considered "heroes" would be the first to dismiss any heroics. And suggesting that medals are the yardstick for heroism is the kind of thing only a chair-warmer could imagine.

And yet there is a longing and an insistence and a need to have heroes, whether or not those heroes agree: Somehow I am raised up by imputing heroism....

And maybe the same is true in spiritual endeavor: It is encouraging to assess and elevate those who are "holy" or "enlightened" or "compassionate" or ... well, pick a medal, any medal. To choose a hero is to encourage my own thoughts and actions -- to act better, speak better, live better. But does such an encouragement make the assessment true? How would the object of our praises and affections reflect on such instruments of valor?

I'm not saying that heroes and saints are a bad idea. But I do think they are only a good idea as measured by the thoughts, words and deeds of those who choose to name them. Other than that, it all strikes me as hot air and a consoling fraud.

But maybe I've missed something.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

"I hate koans"

The following link was posted on Zen Forum International, and I liked it so much, I thought I would steal it for use here: I hate koans.

Koans are the intellectually-insoluble riddles sometimes used in Zen practice -- things like "What is the sound of one hand clapping?" or "What did I look like before my parents were born?"

The text in the link is brief and to the point and, for my money, delicious in its honesty and implications:

By Jez Lovekin on Friday 8 October 2010
Filed under: General
I hate koans...
I hate the way they make me feel so uncomfortable. I hate coming out of my comfort zone. I hate having to sit in the dokusan line, full of fear and anxiety, waiting to go in and face the teacher. What if I make a stupid arse of myself, what if I get it wrong, what if I get to feel completely useless? Why don't I get a therapist instead, with a nice smiley face?
Why don't they get any easier? I hate not knowing. I should know, I've been practising for years but still can't see what is needed. Am I stupid?
Why don't I do shikantaza and talk about my painful knees? At least I don't need to show my ignorance with these stupid questions.
And when, sometimes, I manage to satisfy the teacher...
I get another one!!

That, to my mind, is both a wonderful whine and a bang-on description of Zen practice ... or living this life ... take your pick.

The posting reminds of one of my favorite 'Zen' tales: Stingy in Teaching

Saturday, October 9, 2010

no more leftovers

After one particular sesshin, or Zen Buddhist retreat, I remember talking to a fellow who had been doing the same thing everybody else has -- paying attention, focusing the mind, sitting still and addressing the flotsam and jetsam that floated up in the mind.

Anyone who has tried sesshin can tell you that it can get pretty intense -- pretty sad, pretty happy, pretty usual, pretty unusual, pretty clear, pretty confused. Sitting in silence facing your own life ... well, it can be pretty intense. Deeper and deeper the focus seems to go, more and more focused the focus seems to become and bit by bit there is less and less to hold onto.

And it was out of that frame of mind, the fellow I was talking to said, almost as a wail, "It's got to leave you with something!"

It's sort of funny -- but not much fun being there -- when things we have assumed and loved and hated and clung to seem to disappear and there's "nothing" left. A good friend dies and there is no way to speak clearly about it: The mind tries and tries to find meaning and solace but, well, everything is just wubba-wubba ... real as air but no where to find a handle. Or love wells up as big as a house boat and yet it cannot be contained or defined, no matter how sweet the poetry.

Somehow, what disappears cannot disappear. "It's got to leave you with something!"

I think of this when I think of spiritual endeavor. How beloved. How intense. How frightening. How enfolding. And during a time of great and good effort, there does seem to be something to it, something concrete and consoling and reliable. In Buddhism, there is Buddha, Dharma and Sangha. In Christianity, there is God. In Taoism there is ... well, Tao.

In practice it comes closer and closer, as it seems until it's still there, but it's too close for the eyes to focus. And then, it disappears but there is still a sense of loss and the willingness to reassert ritualistic praise or recitations. After all, it's got to leave you with something! It cannot just go "poof!"

It's got to leave you with something and of course it does, but like love or death, it cannot be named, whether by shouts or whispers. "Something" usually has a name, but where the names disappear ... what's that like? Maybe it's a little as if things disappear all the time and nothing can possibly disappear. Things cannot disappear, but I can. :)

And that's "something," right?

Friday, October 8, 2010

"The Gypsies"

Long before I 'discovered' Zen Buddhism, I read a book called "The Gypsies" by Jan Yoors.

Recently, I recalled my pleasure in that book and ordered it from Amazon -- a used paperback because I really did not want to be disappointed by something that had been so delightful in the past. The book was published in 1967 and I must have read it in the same time frame. So much changes in 40-plus years that I am skeptical of trying to relive old enticements. Amazon charged me $6-plus dollars that included shipping -- a sum I was willing to risk on disappointing results.

Today I sat on the deck in the sunshine and opened it up and read the introduction and a couple of chapters. I was well and truly hooked all over again. Here are the first lines of the introduction:

This book is written as a protest against oblivion, as a cry of love for this race of strangers who have lived among us for centuries and remained apart.

The Gypsies, seemingly immune to progress, live in an everlasting Now,  in a perpetual, heroic present, as if they recognized only  the slow pulse of eternity and were content to live in the margin of history. They are in constant motion, like the waving of branches or the flowing of water ....

The chapters tell the story of a 12-year-old boy, the author, who wandered into a gypsy encampment in Belgium before World War II and, off and on lived with them, with his parents' consent, for ten years. The writing and tale-telling lives up to the introduction, allowing the reader to agree or disagree with the broad-brush "waving of branches or the flowing of water." It is a quiet, literate tale, selling nothing ... just recounting without egregious adjectives or filler adverbs. Other books may speak of the "everlasting Now" and end up in the spiritual-endeavor section of book stores. This book is better than that.

I am wowed all over again -- a surprising and wonderful sensation. Who can think of something 40 years old that rekindles the delight it once induced?

OK ... enough public relations. I am just saying it makes me happy and I will try to ration myself as I continue reading: The book is only 256 pages long. I don't want to finish it too soon.

I would like to wallow.

first visit home

My older son reappeared on our doorstep last night after the first bit of his freshman year in college. It was his first visit "home."

Between his leaving and returning, all sorts of things had happened to him where he was and to us where we were -- things unconnected to each other as they had once been when he lived at home. I thought I could see it in his face -- a sense of being somewhere foreign ... a place he knew and yet no longer knew.

And I guess it was the same for those of us who had never left: He was a part of our scenery and yet the scenery had changed somehow -- the same but different.

But after all is said and done, it is nice to see his face.

the deliciousness of kindness

Sometimes they seem to postively ooze with goodness -- improvement or rehabilitation. Someone believes that something must be done, that the current situation is intolerable in one way or another and, like a swelling chorus, the notes take on a sweetness and force. End the war, end the addiction, revise the beliefs ... when you see the results of the current approach, well, it's obvious that something has to be done. And it may be so: Revision is called for.

What brought this to mind was a small discourse elsewhere on the intrinsic goodness of rehabilitation. A particular man had hurt a lot of others and showed little if any sign of reforming. There was always the possibility of rehabilitation, the writer argued, and rehabilitation was a method worth pursuing. It had a kindly or possibly compassionate ring to it.

The difficulty with believing in rehabilitation or improvement is not that it's somehow mistaken. The trouble is the belief anyone might bring to bear when making improvements. It strikes me as OK to offer whatever helping hand might be possible. But the baseline reality -- when helping others -- is that they will have to want to help themselves, be willing to revise, make their own best efforts. What anyone else thinks or does is secondary, no matter how 'compassionate.'

It is the deliciousness of kindness or compassion that deserves our attention, I think. It is one thing to offer a helping hand but it is quite another to imagine our helping hand is somehow good or necessary or praise-worthy. Social agreements may be pleasant, but it is better to have a clear mind when considering improvement or rehabilitation. Best, I think, is to offer a helping hand in words or action, without expectation, without praise, without blame. This is what I do when faced with these circumstances. Maybe things get better. Maybe worse. And still, this is just what I do. The people or circumstances addressed are bound to change, but whether they will change according to my bias ... well, who knows?

It's not easy to pay attention to goodness. But it is worth the effort.

Thursday, October 7, 2010

woof and meow

Sometimes, I think, the good-hearted and well-intentioned spirit is saddened by its inattention to the rest of the world ... the children starving, the dictators dictating, the wars (Afghanistan is 9 years old today) that never seem to produce much outside the next war ... the calamities of the world overlooked while I was going to the supermarket.

It's something to contend with, I'd say: Turning a socially blind eye to things won't do and trying to keep a socially-open eye is overwhelming and, finally, impossible. Like walking into an animal shelter, the requests for attention are all around and each cat or dog has a face that is somehow more deserving than the last ... it's almost impossible not to take one of these prisoners home. They are caged and at the mercy of those who claim dominion ... and they're going to be put to death.

But I can't take them all -- all the cats and dogs and war and starvation and political skulduggery and suffering and imagined-suffering.  I can't be indifferent and I can't solve the problem. Of course, I can white-whine about it and elevate my own excuses and understanding among those who are similarly flummoxed, but still, damage or death insists and reduces tender-heartedness to a foolishness ... a foolishness that persists and persists and deserves some resolution.

Spiritual endeavor points, perhaps, but without investigating what it points to, the whole exercise is reduced to comfortable niceties: "God knows what s/he's doing ... let us pray." It's not enough in the face of all the meowing and barking: Salving my conscience doesn't change the scene. It just saves my ass ... for a little while.

The only resort I can think of, the only effort that stands a chance, is to pay attention and take responsibility. Everything else, every other credulous effort, runs into a brick wall -- the peace placebo instead of the peace. It's not a comfortable effort because paying attention and taking responsibility is personal. No one can hold your hand. There is nothing to rely on. No holiness works where attention and responsibility are brought to bear.

Woof and meow. It breaks your heart. And yet without a broken heart, how can any of us expect to find a peace that is worthy of the name? Patience, courage, doubt ... and a broken heart, over and over again. It sounds pretty gloomy from the outside, but what other choice is there for the tender-hearted and the hopeful and the determined?

Going to the supermarket ... is it an escape-from or an escape-to?

I don't know, but I do need milk.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

midnight shopping at Walmart

No doubt some are feeling their financial pressures ease during what is politely called the latest 'recession,' but then there are those who line up at Walmart around midnight and offer us all a reality check

I seem to have run into a lot of people lately who, while not yet using food stamps, are feeling the middle-class crunch: A woman lawyer and her lawyer husband -- the former into estate planning, the latter into real estate; a phlebotomist whose husband's business took a hit so that now she is working full-time as a means of paying for kids and college; and a shop-keeper who is still surprised that, at 52, she has to work forty hours because her politician husband makes $67,000 a year and there are three kids and college payments. All of them, of course, are lucky to have some work when compared to those who can't find any, but the go-go years linger in their minds and wrinkle their faces.

It's not the Dust Bowl, but those worst hit seem to be flocking to the very Republicans who aided and abetted the current economic downturn. Short memory spans certainly assist those who lost so much a couple of years ago. Mid-term elections are a month away and the 9th anniversary of the war in Afghanistan will be noted tomorrow.

Daniel Ellsberg

It felt like finding an old pair of shoes at the back of a closet -- dusty, unremembered and yet reminding me that, yes, indeed, there was such a thing as honest comfort and utility ... and I was so pleased to be reminded.

A TV program last night profiled Daniel Ellsberg, a man who, in 1971, leaked the "Pentagon Papers" to the New York Times among others. The papers themselves detailed the lies told by successive government administrations as a means of bolstering the Vietnam war in which 58,000 Americans and 2 million Vietnamese were killed.

Ellsberg was not a knee-jerk liberal. He came to his anti-war views with the kind of difficulty courageous men always face -- the willingness to examine his own support of the war. It sounded hard and yet in the end, after following the yellow brick road that led from Washington to the bodies in Vietnam, he decided to take the responsibility for his own principles ... talk about balls!

And once having released the papers, whose first salvo appeared in the New York Times, he was forced to see that the American public, having been informed ... forgot all about it and needed to be reminded again and again and again. A lesser man might have bowed to cynicism... let the assholes drown in their own ignorance! But Ellsberg kept going. President Nixon resigned and the war finally ended and the Supreme Court affirmed free speech and, not without doubt and difficulty, America was better off. Or anyway, I think so.

The program reminded me of what America can mean and what its population can accomplish. It made me proud in a way that American flag lapel pins never can; in a way that sound bites never can; in a way that whining, feel-good demagogues never can.

Are there any men or women of principle around today? I suppose there are. Certainly there are those who pretend to principle .... but how many are willing to put their own feet to the fire, to think things through, to admit the flaws in their own arguments, and to press forward after having actually wrestled and thought and then wrestled some more? How many are willing to act because, on balance, it's the principle that counts more than the elevation of self; because facts a more important than face?

And it's not just the high-profile, very public versions of this sort of courage I admire. The same principle applies to people who never make the news ... testing, examining closely, questioning the results of a particular belief or philosophy. And then acting with a willingness to correct their errors where necessary.

Anyway ... it made me feel good to see that TV show and to think there was the possibility of greatness with substance. There was a kind of deep relief that the old pair of shoes, however dusty in current circumstances, was available at the back of the closet.

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

"it can't get any worse"

Using slogans such as "it can't get any worse," a Brazilian clown beat down other candidates and won a resounding victory in an election for federal deputy in Sao Paulo. He beat his next nearest challenger by close to a 2-1 margin. He is now being challenged to prove he can read and write before assuming his seat.

"What does a federal deputy do?" Francisco Oliveira Silva asked in one of his ads. "Truly, I don't know. But vote for me and I will find out for you."

The frustration and anger of electorates around the world -- and even the frustration and anger of those who do not elect representatives -- is something to experience. Hard times and bald liars seem to make it all happen. But of course cynical smirking is not enough. Sarah Palin and others of her ilk might actually win ... and who would that benefit, whose frustration and anger might be assuaged in reality?

It's all sort of funny. And after that, it is increasingly sad.

scrambled eggs for lunch

A shrink friend once told me about taking a vacation with his family. In the course of the drive, they stopped at a highway restaurant for lunch. All five of them sat around the table looking at the menu and deciding what they wanted.

The three kids, who were old enough to read, picked what might be called the obvious -- hot dogs, hamburgers and the like. Jack's wife picked a sandwich. But when it became Jack's turn, he ordered some scrambled eggs and toast.

The younger son spoke up: "You can't have eggs."

"Why not?" Jack asked.

And the boy replied, "Eggs are what you eat for breakfast. This is lunch."

From the boy's point of view, this was the universe as he knew it and he was going to announce it when someone crossed the boundaries of that universe: This is the way things are done; these are the rules; these are the imperatives. My understanding is the way I keep the world in control, the way I lead a happy life: No eggs for lunch.

The edgy part about freedom and peace is that they are free and peaceful. As the Christian St. Paul was quoted as suggesting, "Love God and do what you will." Fearlessly, with a willingness to correct errors, but no more tied down than "God" or "Tao" or "Buddha" might be.

Martin Luther King, the American civil rights leader, once said approximately, "What scares people is not what's wrong with the world. What really scares them is that everything is all right."

What's wrong with the world: Eggs for lunch.

Everything's all right: Eggs for lunch.

If I express an opinion or taste, well, what's the important part? Isn't the important part just to recognize it as an opinion or taste ... something ephemeral and yet perhaps useful in its time? Attachment to what is ephemeral -- what always changes -- isn't good or bad necessarily, but it sure proves itself to be stupid over time. Why? Because it doesn't work. What changes, changes -- is this something to get our knickers in a twist about? No, but it usually takes some practice to strengthen the mind so that it will accord with what changes. And there are tentative rules ... no eggs for lunch; love the God whose definition remains vague; find the fence posts that bring meaning to this corral I call my life; call out the errors of others.

Gautama Buddha was quoted as saying, "It is not what others do and do not do that is my concern. It is what I do and do not do -- that is my concern." Easy to say, harder to do and yet what other recourse is there?

Set up the rules and abide by them.

Until it's time to simply enjoy your eggs.

Monday, October 4, 2010

designer lifestyle

I was looking at an ad/news about "nine rooms designers" created.

And it made me think of the fashion runways where angry-faced, too-skinny women parade one kind of clothing or another.

And the same question arose in my head: Who actually lives in these rooms? Who actually wears these clothes? Not one of the rooms had bookshelves with books that had been read on them. Not one bit of clothing related to the daily life of anyone relatively sane.

No doubt someone will have a snappy response to my questions, but the thing that interests me is how much we rely on someone else's taste or persuasion or religion. Of course there are good hints in what others do and think and say, but I believe a morgue has more character than the designer rooms and a bum is more creative than the runway ads.

And that's the point, I think. Suggestions are suggestions ... just suggestions for you or suggestions for me. No need to rely on them. If you want to worship snakes, go ahead ... just be good at it. Relying on someone else's designer snakes or religion -- well, how much useful sense does that make?

Sunday, October 3, 2010

keep the banks and arms deals humming

As if pimping for the comedy (comedy?) rally to be, the AP provided us with this story today:

Oct. 3, 2010

 MADRID (AP) - A rare advisory for U.S. travelers to beware of potential terrorist threats in Europe drew American shrugs Sunday from Paris to Rome, but tourism officials worried that it could deter would-be visitors from moving ahead with plans to cross the Atlantic. Full story

And then there is the rally to promote the fear that keeps American running: