29 December 2012


What a year!  As I recently told a friend, it's been really quite a good year for me.  Finances are stabilizing, I'm getting more exercise, the Center environment is vastly improved, I have an interesting dating life, my kids are good, work is fine, I have no complaints at all and lots to be grateful for.  In terms of practice, I can't say much except that I'm finding a greater degree of seamlessness about the whole thing.  In terms of feeling on my feet facing life head-on, I don't know that I've had a better year in quite some time.

Of course, all this could change tomorrow.  No time to rest in the past.  Onward.  Onward.

27 December 2012

Free Fallin'

It's hitting me more and more these days just how much of my life I've simply fallen into.  I suppose that's true for most of us.  Moves the parents made that put us in different schools, making the acquaintance of this person rather than that one, our place in the family birth order, our general level of academic or athletic aptitude, our dispositions and personalities – all these and more are so far beyond our control as to make the word, "choice," seem rather overblown.  To be sure, every moment presents a range of possibilities, some of which I will actualize.  But that range itself, the kinds of possibilities I take advantage of, and my ability to navigate them once entered into are for the most part not within my power to determine.

I'm thinking about this a lot these days as I find myself called upon once again to explain my entry into and continuing pursuit of Buddhist practice.

The truth of the matter is that I never actively went looking for Buddhism, or Zen.  A book of Buddhists texts was given to me to read as part of a team-taught course.  I began practicing at the Zen Center only after a friend moved back to Chicago and was herself looking for a place to practice.  I get no points for being on the cutting edge here. 

As far as the continuation of my practice goes, I'm not sure that there's a merit badge waiting for me on this one, either.  I'm not a natural at this, and it sometimes takes a great deal of effort to park it and settle down on the mat.  If I have had an ever-expanding job description around the Center, it's because I was given a job to do and did it reasonably well enough not to be fired from it.  Then another was added.  Ordaining was, for me and at bottom, a kind of standing offer to shoulder whatever other work needed doing to keep the practice alive, nothing more (or less).

Maybe that's the short answer I should just trot out: "I do this because I think it's worthwhile.  I don't know why I think it's worthwhile, and I don't know how I got here, but I do find it so, and, well, here I am.  I keep showing up because they haven't kicked me out yet." 

And in that, of course, my practice of Buddhism is no different from anyone's practice of anything else.  For is not that answer I just gave the answer any of us can give for whatever it is we happen to be involved in?  Do we all not find ourselves at pains to say (intelligently, and without mystification) something more than that?

It may not be the most satisfying answer, but it probably is the most accurate.

22 December 2012

A Yang Line is Added

In the classical Chinese representation of change that uses a series of full (yang) and broken (yin) lines, the winter solstice is pictured as six broken lines, the point of complete repose.  Today, a full line is added, as the sun begins its ascendency yet again.

I'm not one to get trippy with feng shui or mealy-minded with modern day renditions of ancient frames of reference.  I doubt I will ever consult a geomancer.  I do, though, understand the cycle of seasons, the hunkering-down of the wintertime and its movement toward the exuberance of summer.  I have watched my body-mind respond to the changes in light and temperature for enough years now to know that I, too, have my annual cycle of ebb and flow, of sloughing off and budding out.

Bring it on!  May I enter this new season wide open, unhindered, and non-reluctant.  And if there's flower and fruit, may I attend to that as well.  If there's but a flash and a fade, may I remember that all things are of limited lifespan, and it is not ours to set the length. 

18 December 2012

Between Endings and Beginnings

I'm finding myself these days very much between things, not quite here or there, not finished with the past entirely even as a new future or two is breaking.  When I don't feel like I'm in a steady state of vertigo, I find I am in wonder and awe at how uncannily seamless it all is all the same. 

The vertigo comes when  I think either end of the "betweeness" is somehow solid and I (as an equally solid object) am suspended unsupported over a wide chasm of nothingness.  But when I release that hold on past and present, on here and there, on this and that, and on me, it all becomes quite clear that all this, myself included, is nothing but this flux, this movement, this ceaseless, burgeoning, fascinating, intriguing whatever-the-heck-it-is.  And how wonderful that is!

The pain of an ending and the stimulation of a beginning are not mutually exclusive.  The fruits of my previous relationships are unquestionably (and in one present case I would add thankfully and happily) setting the stage for the new relationships.  For that matter, even the vertigo and the wonder find their place in this whole mess.

Yes, this day, like every day, is a good day.

09 December 2012

No Agenda

Here's one to chew on:
Jayata said, “I do not seek the Way, yet I am not confused. I do not pay obeisance to Buddha, yet I do not disregard Buddha either. I do not sit for long periods, yet I am not lazy. I do not limit my meals, yet I do not eat indiscriminately either. I am not contented, yet I am not greedy. When the mind does not seek anything, this is called the Way.”
Jayata's words were brought to my attention in teisho today.  I'm so glad to have heard them.

How many times have I kind of tossed an identity, an experience or something like that down the field and then spent untold amounts of energy and effort making it come to pass and feeling bad about myself when it didn't?  How many of us all construct identities – even "Buddhist" ones, for those of us who practice – and then think that fitting into them is the highest order of business?

Heck, just today I was catching up on some internet interests when it hit me: all these other traditions have priests and teachers that are founding centers, taking part in this that or the other thing, writing books, giving talks, etc., and here I am doing none of that.  I thought to myself, maybe I should set about accomplishing something, too!

But then I got a phone call from a friend and sangha member whose marriage came to its clear and definitive end over the weekend while I was in sesshin, and he wanted to talk.  So we went for a beer and a veggie burger.  He filled me in, we talked, we laughed, and then we went to get some of his grocery shopping done before he dropped me back off at home.

Without looking to make it so, I ended up being the priest and friend he needed me to be, despite any ideas I'd earlier entertained about what it meant to be a priest or a friend.  Funny how that happens.

To tell the truth, Dharma gates are opening wide everywhere all the time.  There is no end – literally no end – to them, and all I have to do is walk through them.  I cannot even begin to walk through the ones opening up in the present moment, let alone those that will open in the fullest expanse of time.  And here's the thing: all I need to do is keep moving, not looking for anything particular.  Whatever comes next is the only thing to attend to.  In the end, I may not have made much of myself, perhaps, but I will have done what was mine to do.   And who could possibly gainsay that?

02 December 2012

Not an Instant's Truce

So I guess there's been another established Zen teacher accused of sexual impropriety, and, as these things go, there's a buzz on the net and elsewhere.  Once again, (rhetorical?) questions to the effect of "How could someone who has practiced so long fall so low?" are popping up.

I don't get that kind of question.  At all.

When it comes to practice, you and I and everyone else are never ever anything but rank beginners.  Moreover – and this is very important – no one, not you, not me, not anyone else, is ever but a breath, a thought or an action away from doing something profoundly unskillful, deeply immoral, or catastrophically damaging.  Ever.

Thoreau remarked, "Our whole life is startlingly moral. There is never an instant's truce between virtue and vice."  Every instant can be a dharma-gate leading to great peace and joy.  Every instant can be a maelstrom that leads straight to depths of the most grotesque evils imaginable.  It may be that with practice one is increasingly unlikely to head quite so quickly in the directions indicated by greed, anger, and ignorance, but this doesn't mean that it is impossible to do so.  And since in this game a misstep can lead to kalpas of consequences with a lot of collateral damage, it's best to keep on guard and not bet on not slipping up.

29 November 2012

The Facebook Privacy Hoax or: Watch Your Friends Amply Demonstrate their Silliness®

I'm sketchy on the details, so don't press me on them, but it seems there's been this hoax connected with Facebook that has Facebookers scurrying to make explicit statements of copyright ownership over what they post to the social networking site. 

I don't know which underlying assumption has me laughing hardest: that Facebook would at all want to copyright the stuff that's on there, or that people feel that what they put up on there is so "theirs" in the first place that they, having already put their laundry out for all to see, should now pretend (in the old-fashioned sense of "pretend to the throne," for it's lordship at issue here) to reserve further exclusive ownership and distribution rights to it.

OK, I do know which, and it's the second of the two.

Look down at the bottom of this page.  See the copyright statement on what you have in front of you.  It's read like that ever since I started this, my own kind of silliness.  I might be a dolt, but I just don't see any other way of making sense of "copyright" in a context such as this, for here as in every other context, "this is not me, this is not mine, this is not what I am."(Maha-Rahulovada Sutta).

26 November 2012

Old Home Week

Seems my life these days is becoming repopulated by people I knew some time ago.  Former students have sent emails or commented on here, and a former fellow grad student also sent an email.  Someone I dated for a little bit months ago called me up to go to a movie this past week, and even my sister (I don't communicate with her often at all) was extensively texting me on Thanksgiving.

It's funny, really, since I tend to be the kind of guy who, once he's done with something or a situation or a relationship or whatever, just leaves it definitively behind.  "We're done here" is probably the phrase that most pops into my head in such situations.

But maybe one of the truths of conditioned existence is that we're never just "done here."  Seeds planted may come to fruition in their own season, even though we had thought them long dead.  Connections that simply lapsed can suddenly find new life again, almost on their own, as it were.

In my more "I am a rock. I am an island" days, I might well have dodged such overtures, ignoring them in the hopes they would just go away.  Not this time around, though.  Now, I'm curious to explore just what the staying power here is.  Now, I want to find out how the twists and turns of our very complicated lives have again led us to this point.  Now, I'm ready to see in all of this the gentle unfolding of one incomprehensibly wondrous reality.

21 November 2012

Bankei's Blistered Butt

I had occasion recently to be reminded of Bankei's blistered butt.  Seems Bankei, while wholeheartedly devoting himself to a particularly strenuous, long, uninterrupted period of zazen, literally sat his ass off, the skin becoming blistered and inflamed from all the butt-to-the-board contact.  And that was not all: he continued in his austerities, contracted tuberculosis, and found himself beyond the scope of anything a physician could offer to help.  It was at that point, near death, that he achieved deep realization, which he expressed as "All things are perfectly resolved in the Unborn."  From that point on, "return to the Unborn" was his constant homily.  To farmers he would say, "Just practice your farming and return to the Unborn."  He would not encourage them to do anything else.

Bankei's blistered butt is a mainstay of sesshin encouragement talks and teishos: "What puny efforts ours are by comparison!  Let us resolve to emulate the greats!  Sore ass?  Nothing!  Aching legs? Meh!  How will you drink from the deep well unless you dig?  Step it up!  Death is waiting!  Bankei was willing to die in pursuit of the Great Matter!" 

"But wait," the earnest but unclear practitioner says, "What happened to 'just do what you're doing and return to the Unborn'?"

Seems like a fair enough question to ask.

One thing I have always appreciated about Buddhism is its insistence, at every juncture, that the Dharma has to be met with in the place one finds oneself.  There is no underlying assumption that practice is a "one size fits all" sort of thing.

And why?  Because the particular mess of things I bring to my practice is not the mess of things you bring to yours.  John tends to be lazy, so taking his cue from Bankei may be good medicine.  You tend to be an overachieving workaholic, so learning to lighten up may be good advice.  I may be overly analytical and critical, so learning how to accept ambiguity may be a good thing to work at.  The karmic forces that brought me to this point are pretty singular.  The way I act out the defilements is as unique as my signature and fingerprint.  Only I can set the bar of my aspiration in this life.

There's room in our collective practice for advice of all kinds, but teishos and references to the great masters can only hit the most common points of our collective humanity.  For the fine tuning, there's dokusan, the place were the teacher can say, if need be, "I know I said that in teisho, but in your case...."  It's this one-on-one, custom-tailored approach to spiritual work that is probably one of the very best treasures Zen has to offer, and it is what keeps me suspicious of the practice of anyone who only attends public talks or listens to materials intended for mass distribution.  Without that personal, open, honest appraisal of where I am and where I need to go, I run the risk of entertaining just another constructed story line about an ego that is nowhere to be found.

And that, if nothing else, is precisely not what it means to return to the Unborn!

15 November 2012

The Minority Opinion

Currently we're reading David Abram's Becoming Animal: An Earthly Cosmology in the Environmental Philosophy class.  This is my first pass through his work, and I have to say, I am taken with his ability consistently to get to the heart of things.

At one juncture he describes
the discovery that I was palpably immersed in a field of unfoldings so much wider than myself and my intentions.  It was not just the resonant metaphors offered by stones and grasses and muscled creatures, but also the rightness, somehow, of recognizing mind as a broad landscape within which I was wandering, a deep field with its near aspects and its distances, its moods shifting like the weather. (122)
Further he continues:
[M]y encounters with other styles of sentience were loosening the conception of my own mind as a closed zone of reflection….  As though the leap and vanish of a deer into the forest or these other movements of shadows and grass and rain were not merely metaphors but part of the very constitution of the mind, of its real structure and architecture. (123)
Of course, this is no news to anyone hanging around Zen for any length of time.  "The oak tree," "the storehouse, the gate," and "three pounds of flax" are the gestures Zenfolk have made in the very same direction.  "So many moments of mind," as Dōgen so aptly put it, referring to walls, stones, and tiles.

I get it to some degree.  I know others get it, too, most no doubt better than I.  But what to do with a classroom of students who aren't at all convinced there's even an "it" to get here?  How do I begin, cold, to bring someone to see what Abram and Joshu and Tozen and countless other men and women have seen?  How can I speak of this, knowing that my words are being filtered through an upbringing and schooling in dualisms of every possible kind?

And the answer is "I can't."  Not in the least.  Because what it takes to see into it is a lot of time and stillness and patience and awareness.  Some find it in the zendo; some find it in the fields and trees and barren landscapes and mountains and shores.  Wherever one finds it, the strategy is the same: put the ego in park and shut off the engine.  Let whatever comes up and whatever is there kill you.  And not just once, but again and again.

It's the work of a lifetime, this inexhaustible field of practice, and there's just no room for that in a 3 credit semester course.  And so it is, and will remain, the treasure of only a few.

05 November 2012

Of a Nature to (Be) Disappoint(ed)

In a recent teisho on the Three Treasures, the comment was made that taking refuge in Buddha should not be construed as taking refuge in the teacher.  Teachers, as was pointed out, are human beings, and human beings are of a nature to disappoint.  Friends and acquaintances, lovers and spouses, bosses and co-workers and employees, students and teachers, neighbors and kin, have in the past and will in the future disappoint.  If it's refuge we're seeking, our fellow humans are not the place to find it.

I think there's truth enough in that, and I would certainly concur that Buddha, Dharma and Sangha are not of a nature to disappoint.  But I have to wonder if there isn't something else to be said coming at it from the other side.  It's one thing to say, "So-and-so disappointed me;" it's another to say, "I was disappointed in so-and-so."  In the first case, the issue is the other person and their failure to live up to standards; in the second, the issue is my standards, which may or may not be fair, attainable, etc.

Over the course of the last few months I have found myself confronting disappointment in connection with others in my life.  Students who don't participate in class, co-workers who don't pull their share of the load,  partners in relationships who don't dance to the tune I should like to play, etc.  Maybe there's room for disappointment in the case of the students, where the name of the game is that I evaluate their performance, but in the other cases?  The universe isn't broken because it fails to live up to expectations.  People aren't deficient because they fail to pass my standards. 

02 November 2012

Wanted: One Bodhisattva

There's a song getting a lot of play these days on the alternative radio station in town: "Kill Your Heroes" by AWOLNATION.  A frequently recurring line in the song runs "Never let your fear decide your fate."

I like that line.  I think it's right.  I also think it's hard to follow.

I've read that what makes a bodhisattva a bodhisattva is precisely the quality of fearlessness he or she possesses.  Bodhisattvas are fearless because they have realized the emptiness of anything fear would seek to protect.  For what do we have fear for, if not for ego-preservation?  And what is realization if not waking up to the essential nullity of the ego?

Which may explain why I'm not much of a bodhisattva most days!

22 October 2012

This Very Life

My daughter's been making the center her second home for over two years now, and so I asked her the other day, "What do you say when people ask you about Zen?"  She answered, "I tell them I don't know what it is, and that maybe my dad could tell them."  Funny thing is, I would answer just as she did (without the added dad part, of course), because, truth be told, I don't know what it is, either! 

Today in teisho I heard that, in the end, Zen means living this very life we have to the utmost.  I think that's right, and it explains why I can't tell anyone what it is.  All I can say is, "Live your life in all of its wonder and worry.  Live it all, every last bit of it, the pain and the pleasure, the ups and the downs, the flowers of springtimes and the dampness and cold of November rains."

That said, the longer I'm at this, the more I realize why something so simple and straightforward is so hard to pull off and why practice is so goshdarn important.  What is practice, really, except slowly – glacially, even – letting the weight of our self-styled self understanding move off the pulsing, beating, springing, exploding vibrancy of this amazing, astounding, life?  How much work there is to do just to be what we've been from the very beginning!  Well, maybe I need to rope that in: how much work there is to do just to be what I have been from the very beginning!  Others may be more deeply engaged in their life; I know I still have plenty of work to do.

So this week again I will put the day-to-day routine on hold and take my seat on the mat for another sesshin.  I will do it not to escape my life but to reenter it more fully, more alertly, more open to every possibility it holds.  I will do it for myself, for those I love, and for those I'm not too keen about, for those being born and those entering into the dying.  I will do it in the company of men and women of every generation who have ever set themselves to this very task.  I will do it knowing that 99% of the men and women who have ever walked this earth have absolutely no idea about this practice and what it entails. 

Most of all, I will do it because, well, that's just what I do, and it's part and parcel of this very life I have. 

20 October 2012

The Great Way Isn't All That Difficult...

...it just means being grateful.

Gratitude for what is, and for exactly what is, is the surest sign of having gotten beyond picking and choosing.

Gratitude for what is, and for exactly what is, is the surest sign of being beyond preferences, likes and dislikes.

The expression of gratitude puts us in our proper place: on the receiving end, on the lower end, on the receptive end.   I know I've found people I can respect when I consistently hear words of thanks from their mouths.  I know I've found people I cannot respect when I consistently hear whining and complaining from their mouths.

It really is that simple.

16 October 2012

A New Task Begins

Tonight during rounds I will go down, offer incense, do prostrations, take my seat in the doksuan room where the teacher usually sits, and ready myself to give daisan for the first time.  Maybe someone will come down, maybe not.  Even if they don't, the monitor will at least stop in to get the ball rolling, and I think that'll be strange enough.

I hope I never forget the feeling I have now, a feeling of utter inadequacy, inexperience and cluelessness.  I'm not nervous at all.  I'm just soberly cognizant of the weakness of my own practice, the lapses of body, speech and mind I all too easily fall into, the myriad ways in which I've lost sight of the Dharma.

And then I remind myself that it's not about me.  It's about my Dharma brothers and sisters seeing themselves.  If I'm doing this right, they should see nothing but their own best selves reflected back at them.  If I'm doing this right, what I have to say should strike them as something they have always known but perhaps had just forgotten about.

At least that's how I've felt in the daisans and dokusans I've gone through.  As I left the room, I always knew that what I'd just heard I'd always known, and that our little interchange was just so much remembering together the truth of the world and ourselves, the truth of dukkha, its origin, its cessation, and the path that leads to its cessation.  Never have I left dokusan with anything other than a "right as rain" feeling.  Never.  Not once. 

I sincerely hope that by some small unforeseen grace anyone who leaves daisan from here on out will find themselves feeling pretty much the same.

07 October 2012

Day is Done

I've said it before, and I'll say it again: I love this life.  I love this life.

Just this week I got to enjoy once more that wonderful scene of changed gold-to-purple ash leaves, brown-red spent soybean fields, deep purple asters blooming along the roadside, and the feel of a good crisp chill on a clear bright day. 

Just the other day I got to surprise someone with flowers.  Always nice to have someone to send flowers to. 

Just yesterday I was given the opportunity to put my money where my mouth is and to practice what I preach.  For that, and for so many similar opportunities, I am most grateful.

And just now I can't imagine a time when I've felt more comfortable in my own skin, more at ease with the world, more open to whatever comes my way.  I have nothing to lose, and there is nothing I'm looking to gain.

The sun is setting, and the day is just about done.

May all be at ease.  May their demons depart, their ills abate, and their burden lighten.  May their fears be allayed, their aspirations fulfilled, and their hearts soften. 

And, as always, may all attain Buddhahood!

04 October 2012

No Comprendo Santa Claus

My sister is seven years younger than me.  One of the many consequences of that fact is that I had to maintain the Santa story for her sake well past the day I knew better.  I didn't mind, exactly.  I mean, what's to complain about that extra little pile of goods under the tree? 

When we were in Germany, my youngest – three years old at the time – was informed by her Kindergarten that a) Santa Claus is not real, b) Saint Nicholas was real, but c) Saint Nicholas is dead.  Nothing quite like the German penchant for demystification!  All the same, we continued to keep the Santa routine alive for a few more years, the kids still seeming to enjoy setting out the cookies the night before and waking up to the traces of a middle-of-the-night visitor in the form of gifts and crumbs.

So there it is.  In the one case, the ruse was maintained with a lie.  In the other, the magic was maintained even with the truth known.

I think we often overestimate the effect that calling a spade a spade will have on people; we tend to anticipate the absolute worst.  I suppose one could say that this reflects prudence, discretion and concern, and that may well be right.  Sometimes truth is best digested with a sugar coating.

But in a case in which the facts are long- and well-known, reticence to call a spade a spade for an extended length of time strikes me as patronizing.  I'm given to understand that Japanese doctors would tell their patients they had an ulcer rather than deliver the news they had stomach cancer.  My guess is that word was soon out in the general population that "ulcers" were fatal all the same!  My ex-wife wanted to wait until school was done for the year to tell the kids we were getting divorced (= some three months away), because she didn't want their grades to suffer as a result of the bad news.  Turns out the kids found out about a week and a half (= some ten days later) after the divorce on their own and, since we hadn't said anything, had to keep a lid on it for the three months.  Their grades were fine.

I'm currently watching a scenario in which adults are keeping a kind of Santa story alive in the face of the known facts, dragging out with added procedures an outcome that is already known to all parties, in the hopes that – what? – the gifts will show up under the tree in the form of a different outcome? That somehow putting another layer of procedure on the matter will add just that much more sugar to get the pill down?  That with further committee deliberations the result will seem more authentic?

Stomach cancer patients can get on with treatment once the cancer is admitted.  My kids could have gotten on with processing the divorce earlier with an earlier admission of its reality.  All parties in the current matter can get moving on sooner rather than later once it is definitively – finally – settled.

I guess I hold that the truth is liberating, that it removes a logjam in the smooth flow of the universe, and that, even though it might require us to break out of our initial comfort zone, the comfort and release that awaits on the other side of its telling more than recompenses us for our efforts.

As far as Santa goes, I don't know.  I just don't understand.

03 October 2012

Going Filterless

A sangha member and good friend said to me recently that he has stopped trying to pass everything through what the called "the Zen filter."  He said that until now he would take anything he thought about doing, see whether it squared with "practice" or "Zen," and, if it seemed to, he went through with it, and if it seemed not to, he didn't.  He said that now he just acts, with the usual amount of reflection and consideration of course, but without making anything "Zen" about it.

Good for him!  I remember when I came to the same point myself – how freeing it was, how so thoroughly matter-of-course it was that I wondered why I hadn't stumbled upon it sooner.

That's the rub, though, isn't it?  Anyone who practices comes in with a certain level of expectation, a certain set of assumptions, a vision of what a "Zen life" must/could be.  But, if practice is doing at all what it's supposed to, the day has to come when all of that just gets dropped.  Then things begin to roll!  The vast heaven of boundless samādhi reveals itself when it is no longer "the vast heaven of boundless samādhi," awakening becomes possible in the absence of "awakening," etc. 

That dropping is the last act the small self needs to do.  That's it!  But oh how hard it is to believe that at the outset.  How very, very hard...

28 September 2012

Chicken Little Dharma

I think my father has started to lose his marbles.  He has listened to right-wing AM talk radio in his car for the last 25 years, but beyond that he's kept the expression of his social and political views limited to the occasional offhand comment and his vote on election day.  Now, he's joined the ranks of those who send out those alarmist emails that take a quote from a candidate or a candidate's spouse and blow it up into a portent of world transformation of the most negative kind.  How do I know this?  He's added me to his distribution list.

Everyone's got a hobby, and if he's now discovered the fun of using the internet after all these many years, that's fine with me; it keeps him busy in his retirement.  Both right- and left-leaning groups have their set of alarmists who bear more resemblance to Chicken Little than to Jeremiah or Isaiah; Chicken Little was frantic, but essentially harmless, and a right-leaning Chicken Little is no less harmless than a left-leaning one.  It's funny that he's got me on the distribution list, though.  I'm not at all sure what the point of that is.  Surely – surely – he knows I'm not going to read an email like that, change my political colors, and pound the pavement for his side with the zeal of a convert.  (At least I think he knows that....)

So what gives?

I have to wonder if the newfound shrillness isn't tied up with him getting older.  I know of a couple of other septuagenarians who also became alarmist email distributors, too, and as the son of one of them put it, "My dad is discovering that he no longer recognizes the world he raised his kids in, had his career in, etc.  Time has passed, things have changed, and he realizes he's powerless to stop it.  And he's fearful, since he can no longer find his bearings."

It's an interesting idea, and it has implications that reach far beyond the Medicare Plan B crowd.  Don't we all get frantic and shrill when we don't know our way clear?  Isn't one of the fruits of knowing the way clear, or prajña, the Brahmavihara, equanimity?

Fact is we are always bouncing along an ever-flowing stream.  Fact is there is no refuge to be found in the world of birth-and-death.  When we can't see that, we freeze, panic, reach for whatever we think we can hold fast to, and clutch for dear life.  For a while.  Then the bough breaks, and we reach for the next thing to grasp.  And on and on.

Until we finally stop grasping, and all is as it should be.

My dad's new hobby is a warning to me: do what you can before it's too late.  Age sneaks up on us all.  Death and illness, too.  Wake up!  Wake up!

24 September 2012


I'm in the middle of grading the first run of exams of the semester, and in two days' time I've discovered no fewer than three cheaters.  Whole passages were simply cut and pasted from online sources and passed off as the students' own work.

I always feel hurt when I find this out.  Do they think I'm really that stupid that I won't notice that the prose they are using is several orders of magnitude better than anything they could have ever come up with?  Don't they think I'll notice that they're dropping names and terms they simply would never have encountered otherwise?

Of course, it's not really about me, and when I calm down, I can see that clearly enough.  It's their own demons driving them to do this, their own falling victim to one or two or all of the three poisons.  I'm not sure what led them to this point, and I'm not sure how long they'll stay in this position, but it's not my problem to solve. 

I would love to tell them, though, that they don't have to do this.  It's not the end of the world if they fail at their Philosophy class, and it would serve them a lot better were they to fail it honestly (or at least withdraw) rather than cheat their way to a fake success.  It would speak more to their character were they to say they didn't pay attention, or didn't study, or simply didn't care (I can accept that!) rather than pretend they are better students than they really are.

But even that is not mine to do, and so I print out the pages they lifted from, staple them to their work, and write a nice big F at the top. 

May they be at ease.  May they find release.  May they, and all of us, attain Buddhahood!

13 September 2012

Une Sorte de Folie

I sometimes wonder at the patience of the Buddha, how it must have been to be entirely awake in a world of sleepers and semi-sleepers.  The canon recounts that he smiled a lot, and I have to believe that all those smiles were just so many expressions of patient bemusement.  He knew – he certainly knew – that all those sleepers and semi-sleepers were already fully awake.  In time (kalpas, maybe, but still...), they too would realize it for themselves.  He could smile knowing there was nothing to fix, nothing to change, and he had all the time in the universe to watch it unfold.

In his summary of the Abbé de St-Pierre's "Plan for Perpetual Peace" Jean-Jacques Rousseau pointed out that if the plan hadn't met with widespread acclaim and resolve to put it into action, it was not because the plan itself wasn't noble or praiseworthy; rather, it was because the political leaders responsible for putting it into action were themselves neither noble nor praiseworthy.  Still, even though the Abbé was above reproach, Rousseau went on to note that "it's a kind of craziness to be wise in the midst of fools" (c'est une sorte de folie d'être sage au milieu des fous), thereby suggesting that the good Abbé should have spared himself the trouble all the same.

We know the Buddha had similar reservations, since he was not at all inclined to speak of what he had come to know with his Awakening.  "How could they possibly understand?" he asked himself.  As the story goes, it took the heavyweights, Indra and Brahma, to get him off his keister and to start turning the Wheel, so understandably strong is the reluctance to roll up ones sleeves and say and do what needs saying and doing among those who don't understand, couldn't care less – or worse.  Buddha lived to a ripe old age; other persons of fortitude and resolve weren't quite so fortunate.

It certainly is a kind of craziness to enter the fray, all right, but it's a needed kind of craziness.  Without that craziness, the world remains in darkness longer than it might, longer than it has to.

In truth, however, it is really only a kind of craziness from the perspective of the small self: "They won't like me" or "I'll look like the bad guy" or "Someone's feelings might get hurt, and I don't want to be responsible for that."  I'd be tempted to say that even the Buddha's Enlightenment was not a done deal until he got up and sought out his former companions, for only then could he show he was not afraid of what might happen.  Shy of that, he may have had true and certain insight, but it was legless and therefore fruitless.

And who needs any of that?

12 September 2012

Don't Know Shit

I don't know shit about the Dharma.  I really don't.  I'd probably lose in one of those "Dharma Combat" sessions.  I have no doubt others could out-Zen me with Vegas-like odds.  I have a hard time remembering the names of the five skandhas; I get lost in the twelve nidānas.  I understand Nakagawa Soen Roshi's line, "If I had to take an examination in Buddhism, I would flunk," all too well.

I don't care, though, and the longer I'm at all this, the more I become convinced of one thing more than anything else: getting to know oneself, this fathom-high body-mind, in all of its wonder and worry, is the highest of all practices.  And the second highest of all practices stems from it: making sure that this fathom-high body-mind, in all of its wonder and worry, is not a burden to others or gets in their way.

If there's more to Buddhism than this, I'm not even sure I would want it.

08 September 2012

The Commentator Has Been Quieter of Late

When I think of the fact that I've not been posting much on here, it dawns on me that I haven't been running the commentary in my head as much these days, either.  Seems each day just moves right along, things to attend to just follow upon one another, and, as I attend to them, I'm not really making as much ado about them as I seem to have before.

I sometimes wonder if I've crossed the line from equanimity to apathy, from even-keeledness to utter indifference.  When the rubber hits the road, there really isn't much difference between the two, is there?   Letting matters lie is letting matters lie, no matter what one construes the reason for that letting to be.

I do know that there are some matters I've become sick to the death of, even as they themselves refuse to die.  Center politics heads that list, and on that score I will say with utmost certainty that I have moved beyond equanimity to simply not giving a rat's ass any more.  National politics is up there, too.  Workplace politics isn't far behind.

Mostly, though, I think I'm keeping myself just busy and active enough to not have as much stew time, and that's probably a good thing all around.

21 August 2012

The Summer Passing

The new academic year is now officially underway.  As people approach me and ask, "How was your summer?" I find that I'm smiling broadly and saying, "It was a great summer."  And it was.  All manner of good things seem to be going on now that weren't just a few months ago.  A sangha member noted to me just yesterday morning just how differently I was carrying myself, how clearly at ease I am in ways I hadn't been.  "You're really feeling it, aren't you?" he asked.  "Oh yeah," I said, "no doubt about it."

Just more causes and conditions, though.  Nothing to hold on to, nothing even to let go of.

10 August 2012

Orthorexia, Orthopraxis, and On and On

I know someone who will reveal every few weeks or so some new thing that either "is not good for you," "is made under the wrong conditions," "supports the wrong causes," "is made in China," "contains ______, which is also not good for you," etc.  This person will apologize for bringing to the Center food from this store rather than that one, non-organic rather than organic, and so on.  Vegetarian with a vengeance, organic with ardor, I'm never exactly sure if the person is striving for personal purity or just alignment with causes this person perceives to be the right ones to hang with.

Time was when people were grateful to have enough food to make it another day, enough shelter to stave off some of the elements, and enough clothing to stay modest and somewhat protected.  They went out in tears to sow, because they had to deny the grain to the family's mouths in order to plant the crop; they came in rejoicing bringing in the sheaves, because they could now make it another run of months.

Enter the late 20th/early 21st centuries, with innumerable choices laid out before those of us who live among middle-to-upper class humanity.  If you have cash enough, you can buy organic over non-organic.  If you have access enough, you can go to the locally-grown, sustainable-agriculture practicing farmer's market.  If you have time enough, you can research your products from source to sink, make your call as to the size of your ecological footprint, and purchase accordingly.  Things have improved dramatically.

Still, I think there's a difference between things being better and us being better.  We have access to arguably better things, but I don't know that a focus on them necessarily makes us better people.  Better people are brought forth when they don't have an easy checklist of do's and dont's, when they can abstain from abstention when the time is right, and – above all – when they never lose that sense of utter gratitude for drawing another breath and getting some food in the belly without at the same time feeling the need to pat themselves on the back for a job well done or money properly spent.

In my heart of hearts I think the Buddha said what needed to be said on the matter of diet when he set forth the model of begging one's food and accepting everything – everything – put in the bowl.  There was only one exception, that no animal was to be slaughtered expressly for feeding a bhikkhu, and the bhikkhu was not to accept the offering if there was any suspicion such had indeed happened.  Other than that, there was nothing further to be said or thought about one's daily fare.  Nothing at all.

People ask if I'm a vegetarian, and I tell them I'm not.  When I make my own food selections I follow the Mahāyāna and aim for the ease and comfort of all sentient beings.  When I am a guest at another's table, I appear as a beggar and eat what is set before me in gratitude and out of respect.  I get the veggie burger in the restaurant; I eat mom's baked chicken when I'm visiting, because that's what she has made for everyone's dinner.  As Robert Aitken put it, "The cow is dead; the hostess is not."  I may suffer a kalpa or two in some reasonably warm hell for consuming flesh food, but I will have been a good and grateful house guest, and that's not an unimportant thing to be.

Now that I think of it, maybe there's a lesson in that (though I didn't start out to make this point).  Rather than fretting about the food that comes into our bodies, maybe it's better to fret about becoming ourselves food for the life of the world.  Do we not affirm as much in the meal chant, remembering of course the toil of all beings (perhaps sometimes animals, too) that gave of themselves for us, but turning it around with the resolve to take the food, not as an indicator of our 'enlightened' state of mind, but as sustenance for the work of attaining the Buddha Way, the extinction of self and the liberation of all?  When we give in as good or better a measure as we've received we cannot be far from the Buddhadharma, can we?

07 August 2012

Utterly Beside the Point

I had a discussion with one of my colleagues at work some months back that worked itself to a point where I said, "Most of what we do in academics, particularly in the humanities, is utterly beside the point."  He took offense, but I would still stand by it.

On Sunday in teisho my attention was drawn to a NYT article, "The Busy Trap."  In it, the author, Tim Kreider, makes the broader point that the busy-ness so many in our whole society seem to suffer under is, at bottom, a self-imposed burden, brought about by toiling over the absolutely unnecessary:
More and more people in this country no longer make or do anything tangible; if your job wasn’t performed by a cat or a boa constrictor in a Richard Scarry book I’m not sure I believe it’s necessary. I can’t help but wonder whether all this histrionic exhaustion isn’t a way of covering up the fact that most of what we do doesn’t matter.
Most of what we do doesn't matter. 

I would stand by that, too, as well as by his observation that we do this as a way to cover up some deep-seated insecurity about our place on the planet, about our right to live another day, about whether in the end it will be said of us that we "made something" of ourselves.

I understand the anxiety.  Although I get decent enough annual reviews at work, I have to admit that I'm just waiting for them to sack me because I'm not up on the latest, or publishing at a steady pace (or really much at all...).  It's not that I don't do my job, and it's not that I don't do it well enough.  It's just that there's a culture there, as most everywhere, that "well enough" isn't "good enough," that the More and Better buttons need to be constantly pushed.

I'll go back in a week or two and admit that I wrote nothing at all over the summer.  Heck, I didn't even read a single book cover-to-cover in all that time!  While I'm hearing of others' accomplishments, I'll own that I spent almost two weeks total staring at a wall, for instance, or that I killed a lot of time getting more exercise than I had been.  I did do some gardening, but that doesn't register on my service report.  I will confess that I spent a lot of time doing nothing of consequence at all.

But, if Tim Kreider is right, this will put me on precisely the same footing with my colleagues and everyone else who did not enjoy their summer because, even though they were so goshdarn busy, they didn't accomplish anything of consequence, either!  It's just that I will have gotten a lot more fresh air and sunshine and time with people and places I love than they did.  And I'll be all the richer for it.

04 August 2012

The Dating Game

A few months ago I signed on to an online dating site.  I had it in my head that I needed to get out more, meet more people, have some good times, get to know a few people better, and maybe (hopefully?) settle into working on a new relationship.  Since living as a home-leaver wasn't really working out, I figured I'd take a shot at being a householder for a while.  The jury's still out on the success of the experiment, but a few things have happened along the way.

My wardrobe has improved somewhat.  I've moved from two shirts for work and two pair of pants, one pair of jeans, one sweatshirt and a stack of 6 blue or black or gray T-shirts to including a few things I can go to dinner or a play in.  I got an early instruction in how Wal-Mart jeans really don't cut it in the dating market, and I've made amends.  I was gifted some nice shoes, and I'm actually grateful not to have to be worried about having passable footwear any more.  (I used to fret it even for nice functions at work, so this isn't just about being all trendy, etc.)  It all still falls within Rochester-lineage ordained wardrobe specifications, of course, and any new shirts I've purchased have quickly made their way to the seamstress for collar removal.  (OK, maybe I've inched across the "avoids ostentation" line by a hair, but not by more than a hair!)

I'm getting a lot more exercise these days, and I'm down a notch or two on my belt and about 10 lbs on the scale.  I tell myself that it's about more than just trying to look better, and I have some justification for that in that my blood pressure has moved from mild stage 1 hypertension back down into the normal range, and my resting heartbeat is now in the "excellent" range for men my age.  Nothing wrong with that, really.

I'm certainly learning about myself again and the personality items that (alas, still) fall into the "too much," "too little" and "just right" categories ("just right" being the least populated set).  I see the promptings of my insecurities, the tugs of my hopes and the ease of my distractions ever more clearly.  Living at the center and working at the university, with a limited range of personalities to deal with in accordance with rather clearly prescribed modes of engagement, was, I think, giving me a sense of being more on top of things than I really am.  Negotiating past a first or second date is, was, and, I'm seeing, always will be newfound territory, since the person on the other side can't but be bringing an unknown set of issues, wants and the rest into the picture.

And I suppose that is what has me sitting here after 9pm on a Saturday night, content to have a quiet evening at home.  It's the first Saturday night in almost a month and a half that I am not in a sesshin, coming back from one, or having my daughter with me.  No matter what fun I have out on the dating scene, I do know this much about myself: I need occasional alonetime, and not just by the hour but by the whole day.  Far from lamenting the lack of something to do tonight and someone to do it with, I'm grateful for the solitude, the quiet, and the lack of structure. 

Who knows, though?  Maybe next weekend I'll be out until all hours!

03 August 2012

From the Dukkha Diary

As of two days ago I no longer need corrective lenses, both eyes having undergone cataract surgery within the last week and a half.  The one eye is corrected for reading, the other for distance, and between them I just open my eyes and see what I need to see.  Over the course of some 43 years I've gone from glasses to contacts to contacts with reading glasses to glasses with progressive lenses to – this!

But last night, toward evening, I had this irrepressible urge to "take my contacts out" (I knew there were no glasses perched on my nose).  It was as if I was somehow saying, "OK, enough with the clear vision.  Back to the nighttime blur routine."  My hands actually felt drawn to my eyes, and I have to wonder whether in some lapse of memory or wit I might not have actually tried tugging at the corner of my eye again and again, hoping to pop out the phantom contact lens.

I used to speculate about the people in the miracle stories in the Gospels, how it was for them post-healing, whether they ever "wanted their money back," so to speak.  Plato, of course, went to lengths to describe how those who were accustomed to the "Cave" neither wanted to leave to begin with, nor were particularly interested in staying out in the light of day once they had been dragged there, either.

Seems there is always something comfortable about business as usual and something uncomfortable about change, even if it's an improvement, and particularly if it's permanent.   How many habits and addictions did I hold on to, just because I didn't want to be without them ever again?  How enamored have I been of one kind of rut or another, just because it was well-worn and part of who I thought "I" was?  How funny is it that, even now, I would find myself drawn to blurred vision, just because it was my blurred vision?

How I love this goofy, always unsatisfactory, life!

26 July 2012

The Source of our Troubles?

[Shodhin ascends soapbox]

Maybe it's the result of a little too much time spent doing philosophy.  Maybe it's my own lack of interest in certain kinds of philosophy (epistemology, metaphysics).  Whatever it is, I've been finding a burr under my saddle recently in the point I frequently hear being made that the source of our ills lies in our (attachment to) concepts.  I just don't think that's right, or, better: I don't think that goes far enough to the heart of the matter.

Concepts mark the line that separates us from stupidity.  When I hear exhortations to free ourselves from concepts, I immediately envision a group of people milling about with no frippin idea of who they are, where they are, what they are doing, what needs to be done or how best to accomplish it.

I do not believe the Buddha's Dharma ever enjoined us to stupidity.

I do believe the Buddha's Dharma enjoined us to freedom and release.

No one's asking, but if the question were posed to me I would say that the greater source of our troubles is habit, and "habit" here would include habitual thought processes, habitual use of certain concepts, but also – and I think this is important – habitual actions, modes of speech, behaviors, responses, etc.  "Habit" covers body, speech and mind, whereas "concept" only belongs under mind and possibly speech.   Habit creeps in when direct engagement with the moment is lost. 

Drugs will wipe our concepts away.  Only diligence, effort and all the rest of the most Noble Path can begin to root out habit.

Have a nice day!

[Shodhin gets down from soapbox]

24 July 2012

From the Department of Non-Weights and Measures

Over the years I've come to be suspicious of things I happen to feel or think or seem to understand as a possible "result" of practice.  If nothing else, no matter what it happens to be, I know at least that it's not the essential, since – and I think this can only be right – attainment, nirvana, release or whatever you want to call it is never itself an effect produced by a cause.  Still, though, it's hard to discount perceived differences in my comportment with the world that come on with a sense of rightness and urgency I can only see as stemming from practice on the mat. 

Here's the latest, phrased as best I can:

Nothing requires my leave, my permission, my sign-off.  Nothing.  

Protagoras was wrong; man (at least this one) is not the measure of all things.  

23 July 2012

Where It Starts

In one of his short encouragement talks during sesshin this past week, Bodhin Roshi drew everyone deeper into their practice by referencing some lines from an interview Mother Teresa once gave.  The interviewer asked Mother Teresa, "What do you say when you pray?"  Mother Teresa answered, "I don't say anything.  I just listen."  The interviewer then asked, "Well, what does God say to you?"  Mother Teresa replied, "Nothing.  He just listens, too.  And if you can't understand that, then I can't explain it to you."

Just listening is how Avalokiteśvara came to awakening and, in so doing, came to relieve the suffering of the world.

There's suffering enough to go around these days.  I came out of sesshin to hear about a movie theater massacre and poverty levels in this rich land again hitting historic highs.  

I also came back from sesshin to be reminded in teisho here of just how very important everyone's practice is in relieving the suffering of the world, not in a fix-it-up kind of way, of course, but in that subtle and profound way of being a point of awakened non-suffering in that net that binds us all to one another. 

May we all be at ease!

And may those of us who can make best use of the place where our deepest ease begins: sincere and wholehearted practice.

14 July 2012

First Sesshin All Over Again

Tonight I start a 7-day sesshin with the Rochester Zen Center crowd.  While I'm expecting much of the same, being in a new environment, in a different zendo, with a different cast of characters, with different food and length of rounds and all the rest, I'm sure I'll get to taste again something of that sesshin beginner's mind. 

And if not, then not either!

10 July 2012

Low, Lower Yet

I am moved by images of Muslim men perfroming sajadat at prayer.  I am moved by the members of my sangha doing prostrations.  I am moved by the moment in a Roman Catholic ordination ceremony when the priests-to-be lie prostrate on the floor.  I am moved by the Tibetan preliminary practice of the 100,000 prostrations.

I don't care what anyone says, if you can't bow, if you can't bring yourself to put your head to the floor, then you've missed something profoundly essential about this human life.

09 July 2012

A Little Too Much Bling?

So a friend of mine is a scout of sorts for a major online shoe company.  His job is to scan the lastest mens' shoes from all makers, make selections, have a small army of guys test drive them, then make his recommendations for what the company should carry.  As part of his compensation he gets a number of shoes for free.  Some are headed my way.

We're not talking about the stuff you'd find at the average mall; we're talking high-end shoes, the kind that you can walk into Nordstrom wearing and not get snickered at, the kind GQ magazine has full-page spreads of.

I've generally been one who tends to the utilitarian in clothing.  Most of my stuff comes from Target.  Between not having much cash and not having much opportunity to wear it, I've shied away from anything particularly nice.  The one thing I don't skimp on is my running shoes, but that's because of the particulars of my orthopedic disposition (a flat footed pronator carrying more than average body mass) more than anything about fashion.

I told my daughter about the new shoes in the mail, and she looked at me funny.  "What?" I said.  "How's that fit with being a Zen priest?" she asked.  "I don't know," I answered, and I don't.

In this, as in so very many things, I keep on stumbling upon the fact that there is no road map here, no guidebook, no Manual for Successful Priestly Living.  I suppose in the end it comes down to something like "some days you get a gift of nice shoes, and some days you don't."  As long as those days can be lived without attachment in either direction, I'd probably say that's just fine. 

03 July 2012

Those Lazy Hazy Crazy Days of Summer

Time these days feels long.  The day feels long, rounds of sitting feel long, the weeks feel long.  It's that time of year when I have the least on my calendar, the fewest commitments, and the shortest to-do list.  It feels as how I imagine it would feel when the plane heads straight up and then stalls at 0g for a little bit before firing the engines and heading back down. 

The garden is done, and all I have to do is set the sprinkler and deadhead a few things now and then.  A friend invited me to come along tomorrow to hang out with him and his family for 4th of July festivities (parade in town, barbecue at his in-laws, etc.).  In a little over a week I head to Rochester for a 7-day sesshin with nothing so much to do as face the wall.  I'll come back to a couple of weeks of being somewhat laid up with cataract surgeries punctuated with a 2-day sesshin.  When I'm not driving or sitting or doped up under the knife, I'll get a little reading done.  I couldn't imagine a more open, relaxed calendar for the next 4-5 weeks.

I cherish these days.  They help me recalibrate my dials, as it were.  I have the mental and temporal space to do some clearing out, to gain some perspective, not in an active way but in a settling out way.   A real vacation, as it were.  

30 June 2012


About fifteen years ago I went through a kind of "menopause" as my testosterone level dropped from somewhere in the normal 250-850ng/dl level to 48ng/dl.  I didn't know the numbers at the outset.  All I knew was that my body, my mood, my sleep, and all kinds of other things were out of whack.  My interactions with the world, my bodily responses, and my disposition were not at all what they had been.  I was, in a very significant sense, not myself.

It took a lot of convincing to get the doctor to draw blood for the test.  "It can't be hormones," he said.  (Male denial?)  But when the results were in, there was no getting around the fact.  After a few missteps in finding the best delivery method, I began fortnightly injections.  Life returned to normal.

I continue to be grateful for that lesson.  It showed me that who I think "I" am is in good measure a product of internal chemistry and genetics and whatever environmental modifications have been made in those along the way.  It showed me that who "I" am is irreducibly male.

I have male pattern baldness.  I have male pattern emotional responses.  I have male pattern sexual responses (yes, even as a gay guy).  I have male pattern priorities, and I have male pattern sensibilities.  I see the world through a male's eyes.  I process information through a male's template. 

The truths of mathematics are not contingent on gender, but the truths of our embodied involvement in the world are.  This is nothing to apologize for, nothing to overcome, nothing to combat, and nothing to seek to temper.

Yes, there is a history of prejudicial, bigoted gender inequality in every human culture.  Yes, women have been on the short end of the deal.  I have three daughters.  I see it even today.  I get it.   I heard stupid gender-debasing commentary from practically the moment they were born.  We ended up shopping in the "boys" section of the store to dress them in something besides pink and white and hearts and flowers when they were toddlers, for goodness' sake.

The solution, though, is not to dismiss gender difference but to acknowledge it appropriately.  The fact is that I have, not merely three children, but three daughters.  I am convinced that my relationship with my children would be different if they were all sons, or some mix of sons and daughters.  To tell the truth, I have no doubt that my relationship with them is not straightforwardly parent-child, but utterly father-daughter, with all the particular joys and travails that brings.

I think Buddhism has always been pretty good about this.  The Buddha didn't create two categories of adult practice: householder and home-leaver.  He created four: male householder, female householder, male home-leaver and female home-leaver.  Each opens wide a particular field of practice unlike the others.  Each gives on to dharma-gates that are gender-coded.

So, yeah, I'm a guy.  And that's just fine with me.

27 June 2012

A Fixer-Upper

When I walked into the waiting room at the opthamologist's yesterday, I thought to myself, "What, is this the Retiree Benefits Office?"  I was the youngest in the room by a good 20 years.  As the tech was doing the metrics on my eyes, she commented, "You're kind of young to be in the situation you're in."

I'm scheduled to have cataract surgery on both eyes within the next five weeks.  The left eye had gotten really bad; the right is well on its way.

Seems every few years or so I'm in for some kind of repair job.  Systemically, my health is pretty good.  Mechanically, well, things seem to kind of fall apart and need some patching up.

I'm not complaining at all.  In fact, I find it fascinating going through all this.  Certainly there's the recognition of just what it means to have the kind of body we humans have, and that is schooling enough in the practice of non-attachment.  But what cooks my grits most is the recognition that the kinds of procedures I've had done on me require materials, skills and technologies not even imaginable a mere century or so ago.  The (quality of) life I enjoy today is a direct outgrowth of the mental and material leaps of the 20th and 21st centuries.  In all honesty, had I been born 50 years earlier I would have died from the cancer I had when I was in my late 20s.  Even had I averted that fate, I would have become palsied, lame and well on my way to blindness by now.

In each case, what has preserved me another day and another year was the honing of the surgical arts.  Whether it was the orchiectomy that managed to get the testicular tumor out intact, the discectomies that cleared out three shot dics and fused a few vertebrae together, or the cataractectomies I'm about to have, in each case it is the unprecedented precision of the modern surgeon that makes all the difference.  

So once again I find myself brimming with gratitude to the men and women – bodhisattvas all – who did what it took to perfect their medical skills.  May they, and all who make their work possible, be at ease!

24 June 2012

Two Kinds of Zen

The longer I'm at this, the more I think I'm beginning to see the contours of what boils down to two different kinds of Zen.

The first kind of Zen is essentially an affair of the head.  It focuses on thoughts and ideas.  It would have us not be fixed to concepts or viewpoints.  It is suspicious of anything – anything – that is not resolvable into some kind of rational form, linguistically mediated, which it can then yea or nay based on its approximation to being rigid or not.  It tends to be somewhat antinomian and tradition-bucking, if not in word then at least in deed.  It asserts little but questions a lot.  It is profoundly psychological or epistemological.  It resembles nothing so much as good old fashioned 17th century European skepticism now conveyed in 21st century Buddhist lingo. 

The second kind of Zen is essentially an affair of the heart.  It focuses on action and presence in the world.  It would have us surrender ourselves before the smallest of critters, before the demands of the moment, before the needs of the times.  It doesn't worry about concepts, ideas or anything like that; instead it focuses on service, attention, patience and dedication.  It does not question anything; rather it answers calls from every corner.  It acts in silence and oftentimes obscurity.  It is good old fashioned egoless compassion in its utter timelessness and formlessness.  It is profoundly moral and ethical.  No one would think of it as particularly "Buddhist" or "Zen."

The lines are somewhat overdrawn here, but not by much.  And it isn't that the two aren't somewhat related, either.  After all, the latter accomplishes wordlessly what the former only talks about.   But therein lies the rub, right?  One does, the other only talks/thinks.

In teisho in sesshin this week we heard about a guy in India who for the last 30 years has been planting seeds.  It all started when he was brought to tears seeing myriads of snakes stranded on an island, perishing in the sun.  After a little consultation, he did what he could: he started planting vegetation that could provide moisture and cover.  Thirty years later, the island is now a lush forest of well over 1300 acres.  Tigers and elephants now make it their home.  He didn't set out to lure large fauna.  He just started doing what he could in response to need.

I had heard a similar story before, but one that was purely fictional: Jean Giono's The Man Who Planted Trees (L'homme qui plantait des arbres)Instead of an island in India, this tale was set on a barren Alpine wasteland.  Year after year the man – saying nothing the whole time – planted acorns – thousands of acorns.  In due time, as the trees grew, flowing water, lush vegetation, and all manner of creatures began to populate the previously stony, cold, lifeless landscape. 

Designations such as "true-to-life" or "purely fictional" don't much matter here.  What matters is that spirit of dedication, resolve, patience and care that all of us – all of us, whether European or Indian or Peruvian or Inuit – know deep in our bones to be the height of human expression.  It is that spirit that brings life where there was none before.

To me, that is what Zen is: the coming to the end of dukkha by quickening (in the very old sense of the word, meaning "springing to life") the spirit of dedication, resolve, patience and care where it had been dead or dormant.  Time on the mat translates not into a conceptless mental state but a spontaneous, outflowing, active life of selfless service.  I am always amazed at just how seamless and fitting my actions are after a chunk of time on the mat.  I see it in others, and others have commented that they see it in me.  This isn't the stuff of mere mindgames.  It has eyes and hands and legs and feet all over in the world.

Maybe it's just me, but I'd rather hear tales of tree planters than a discourse on not being attached to concepts any day of the week!

20 June 2012

Summer Solstice Sesshin

Today is the solstice, and tonight we start a four-day sesshin.

It's at this point, in the ancient Chinese reckoning, that a yin line is added to the hexagram.  From this point on, for the next six months or so, the light fades, receptivity sets in, the hustle and frenzy of the growing and breeding time eases into the nurturing and the tending and – if all goes well – the harvesting. 

Still, for the moment, all is in its fullness, the sun is high in the sky, and everything is in plain sight. 


18 June 2012

Heat Wave

The hot summer weather has finally hit, and since there are a good number of new plants in the garden, I've had the sprinkler running a lot today.  Everything is looking good, except the new achillea plants, which are the last to have gone in, the least established, and so the most susceptible to the heat and dryness.  Now that they're getting water, they're perking back up.  I'm sure they'll be fine.

Here's what's funny.  No sooner did the heat hit than I found myself wondering, "When is it going to break?"  Not that I'm sweltering or suffering at all.  Far from it, really.  I do enjoy this kind of weather.  But it's curious that as soon as something relatively new arrives, I start anticipating its going away.

There is a skillfulness to that attitude, of course.  Whenever I find myself needing to reroute because the president is in town (why couldn't he be from Montana or something?), or standing still in a traffic jam, I tell myself that I'm not going to be in this position tomorrow, that sooner or later it will settle out, and things will continue apace.  Impermanence is one of the marks of conditioned existence, and there's every good reason to take solace in that from time to time.

But what gets me in this case is how quickly my mind not only accepts the transitoriness of phenomena but seems downright driven to move on to the next batch.  How strange, really, how very very strange, this hunger for the next – whatever it happens to be.

This is why gardening is such good practice for me.  The achillea is droopy, so it's time to water.  While I'm standing there with the hose, feeling the cool of the spray, squinting in the late afternoon sun, watching the robins eyeing for worms, I know without a doubt in skin, flesh, bone and marrow that there is here no yesterday, no tomorrow, no today.

13 June 2012

A Decision in the Making

I had a very good conversation today with a sangha member who is both well-tempered and wise, who who has a great big heart, and who, I'm given to understand, knows something of the ways of the human spirit.

The topic was the structure of sangha leadership.

He said something that stopped me in my tracks.  He said, "It's a form of wrongdoing to be complicit in a lie," and he called on all players to man up and do what needs doing (they're all men, so no one is being sexist).

He's right.  It is wrong.

So I have a decision to make.  I need to decide whether and, if so, to what degree I'm going to continue to play along, or whether I'm going to absent myself from participating in it until the lie is corrected.  Sometimes a strong, principled stand is called for; sometimes, particularly for the sake of others, minimally cooperative accommodation is as far as the demands of upāya will allow.  

Ugh.  How to navigate this one...?

12 June 2012


There is a difference between acknowledging that a particular detail may be rather insignificant and having a generalized disdain for details of all kinds.  It's a takes a goodly measure of discernment to see the former; it takes a goodly measure of confusion to fall into the latter.

Details keep us humble.  They prod us toward greater ego-attrition as their own needs and timetables and characteristics move into the forefront of our awareness.  I recently heard a teisho on chocolate making in which I became aware of the fact that there is a one degree window of workability to chocolate.   One degree.  Whether one feels like it or not, once that particular temperature has been reached, it's time to act.  At that moment, it doesn't matter if your friend calls or nature calls; the chocolate has called, and that's the only thing to respond to.

Of course, some details may well be beside the point.  Whether I use a plain paper towel or one printed with a flower motif matters not in getting up the spill.  Whether Tuesday or Wednesday is a better day to do laundry is not an arguable point.  Whether I get the oil changed at Duke of Oil or JiffyLube doesn't make the least difference.  But whether I wipe the spill or not, whether I do laundry or not, and whether I get the oil changed or not – these are not up for grabs without significant consequences.  Even though wiping up a spill is not a Nobel Prize winning activity, at the time of the spill, it the most important thing in the world.  The smallest, here, is the largest, too.

So I find myself suspicious of someone who shrugs off details as if they were all so many trivialities, particularly if that person tends instead to a large-scale, rather grandiose, perspective.  Administrators and CEOs oftentimes fall into that camp, and anyone who has ever worked for such folk knows how frustrating it can be to know just how much grit and determination and effort is required to get something small but important done, only to hear it poo-pooed because it doesn't register on the big picture radar.  I have watched homes, institutions, and relationships fall into ruins because the lowly details were left unattended to while the big picture cosmetics were given pride of place. 

One of the best translations of prajña I've heard is "discernment."  Discernment requires a nose for detail.  Far from being the sign of a small mind, right attention to detail is a mark of awakening and the only sure basis for effective compassion. 

07 June 2012

Follow the Bouncing Ball

Hekiganroku 80 concludes:
The monk later asked Tosu, "What is the meaning of a ball bouncing on swift-flowing water?"

Tosu said, "Moment by moment, it flows on without stopping."
Just try to keep it still, and you'll go nuts.  Try to keep an eye on it, and you won't have much success, either.

What to do?

Bouncy bouncy bouncy, on and on and on it (all) goes, and where it stops, nobody knows.

02 June 2012

Wait Wait… Don't Tell Me!

I do not know how the next bite of food I take will taste.

I do not know what sound I will hear in 30 seconds.

I do not know the next person I will be introduced to.

I do not know what illness I will get next, or how severe it will be.

I will never know which breath is, in point of fact, my last.

A dharma brother was fretting to me the other day about where Zen practice will take him.  I pointed out that he didn't even know where his feet will take him next, but he's not fretting about that.

I get it, though.  I used to be a planner.  I used to sketch out the broad outlines of my life for the next five, ten, fifteen years.  Looking back, I can say without hesitation that had I stuck with any – any – of those plans I would be a miserable man today. 

So what is this wanting to know what's next?  What is this drive to seek comfort in something that can only ever be a fiction?  What is this satisfaction we seem to get from thinking we actually do know what's just around the bend? 

Better yet: what is this, about which I can know nothing?  What is it?

28 May 2012

A Wedding in the Works

Yesterday I received a call from a Dharma brother telling me he was getting married.  I've known him for about 10 years now, and I met his fiancée last fall.  I couldn't be happier for the two of them, and I have every reason to believe they are going to make a great couple together. 

He asked if I would officiate at the wedding, and I couldn't have been more honored.  I asked if this meant I had to say something, and he said he was counting on my sarcasm and wisdom to make the occasion special.  Great.  Nothing like being put on the spot!  Fortunately all eyes will be on the two of them, and whatever I say will get borne away on the afternoon breezes out in the garden where the ceremony will be held.

Still, what is there for me to say, really?  What they are about to say to each other is about as absurd and ridiculous as the vow to liberate all beings.  And in saying that, they will have said it all.

26 May 2012

Becoming Who We Haven't Really Been Yet

For the past four or five years certainly (but in all honesty long before that even) I've made it a personal practice to aim low on the "I want" list.  In fact, whenever anyone would put the question, "What do you want?" to me, I would 9 times out of 10 be at an utter loss for words.  It's not that I didn't have rather definite opinions about how things ought to be done or something like that (ask my students about writing, ask sangha members about zendo etiquette).  When it would come to my personal preferences, though, I found myself taking a pass.

It hasn't helped at all that I've fallen in with religious viewpoints that take seriously the business of ego-attrition.  As with most things, however, there are healthy and skillful forms of that, and there are unhealthy and unskillful forms of that. Turns out, I've been rather unhealthy and unskillful, putting up with things I really didn't need to put up with and keeping myself from doing things I would have really liked to do, all in the name of cultivating "not picking and choosing" to the point of absurdity. 

What rot, made even stinkier by any association it could possibly have with practice.  New leaf turning time for this, too!

24 May 2012

A World of Wounds

I oftentimes find myself musing over the words of the great American ecologist, Aldo Leopold:
One of the penalties of an ecological education is that one lives alone in a world of wounds.  Much of the damage inflicted on land is quite invisible to laymen.  An ecologist must either harden his shell and make believe that the consequences of science are none of his business, or he must be the doctor who sees the marks of death in a community that believes itself well and does not want to be told otherwise.
Leopold limits himself here to ecological matters, but the alternatives presented appear to be the same for anyone who discerns suffering in any context: batten the hatches and leave the suffering to itself or go out and try to fix it, despite any and all resistance.

But maybe things aren't so either/or.

The first duty of a Buddhist is to discern suffering.  The second duty is to find its causes.  The third is to realize that non-suffering is real.  The fourth is to do what it takes to make non-suffering real. So far, so good.

But "making non-suffering real" has never in the tradition been equated with "eliminating the conditions that give rise to suffering," at least not as far as I can tell.

What's the difference?

"Making non-suffering real" is achievable any time, any place.  I used to think Thich Nhat Hanh's line, "If you want peace, peace is with you immediately," was borderline hooey, simplistic Dharma drivel.  Now I find that I understand, in however small a measure, what he means when he says that, and he's right.  "Making non-suffering real" does not depend on anything at all except one's mindstate.  "Nirvana is openly shown to our eyes," is Hakuin's phrasing of the matter.

"Eliminating the conditions that give rise to suffering," however, is not so immediately attainable.  It means selecting out of the many, many variables in play at a given time which ones to remove and which ones to encourage in the hopes of creating a specific outcome.  In the process, further suffering, however unintended, will no doubt emerge as conditions pitch and fade.  The outcome is uncertain, and the means to achieve it are oftentimes draconian.  Like a kaleidoscope, the picture may change, but the pieces haven't gone anywhere. There is no success at this kind of game.

So somewhere between hardening the shell and making things different is the Middle Way of neither clinging nor rejecting.  To tell the truth, I don't know what that looks like.  I would even go so far as to say it can't be represented or described.  That doesn't make for great reading, but it does make for the sane navigation of life's course.

19 May 2012

Road Trip!

Yesterday I drove from Evanston to Washington, DC to pick up my daughter from college for the summer.

I've come to cherish a full day on the road every now and then.  It provides a contained environment, just the car and I, in which to do whatever non-zendo-related mental clearing I need to do.  Sometimes I've made the whole 12 hour trip in silence.  Yesterday, I cranked up the major-chord-sing-along-driving-drum-beat-feel-good-to-be-alive music wherever I found it on the radio (not that it was always easy; that one strech in PA after Pittsburgh yields nothing but Christian and country programming for a 60 mile stretch, but even Bedford, PA has a decent rock station after that).

I was so into it, I got a speeding ticket as my jamming to the music translated into overly heavy metal on the pedal.  I didn't even care.  After getting a ticket on this very trip in August 2010, I  actually inflated the "Fetch Kid" and "Drop Kid" lines in my personal budget in anticipation of further tickets (who knows which jurisdiction is going to have a speed trap set up just when I'm passing through?). From where I sit, I'm not even out the money.

My Dharma brother loaded me up with 3 CDs of Thanissaro Bhikkhu's talks for the trip.  "It's a long one," he said, "You'll need them."  I listened to two of the talks on one of the CDs in the Pittsburgh-Bedford radio desert.  There will be time enough for that.  For now, I'm bowing in homage to the bodhisattvas Journey, Smash Mouth, Queen, the Fray, the Police, Green Day and all their ilk for their particular unfolding of the Dharma.  Theirs, too, is medicinal salve for the hurts of the world.

17 May 2012

Becoming Who We Are

I feel I owe all kinds of people a sincere apology, and that "all kinds of people" includes myself.

It is only this week that I've begun coming out at the Center.  While my family and close friends have known for about six years now, when it comes to the practice environment, I only ever told my first teacher, and he appears to have kept a pretty tight lid on it.  

On the one hand, it doesn't matter.  On the other, it makes all the difference in the world.  Not the being gay part, but the being open about it part.  What was I afraid of?  Who was I afraid of?  What took so long?

Of course, I was somewhat afraid, and, as with so much else, these things unfold in their own good time.  I'm not going to beat myself up over it, but I'm not proud of the way I behaved, either.  Time was lost.  Opportunities were lost.  Parts of life were lost.

I take great consolation in the fact that this is exactly how it is with everything connected to practice.  What is practice, if it is not overcoming the fear that comes with a carefully-maintained ego-identity by letting go of that very ego-identity?  What is practice, if it is not slowly, sometimes painfully, yet always rewardingly (if that's a word), coming to be exactly who we are – without gloss, without veneer, without pretense? What is practice, if it does not yield that great ease and joy that comes with knowing that none of the nonsense was ever needed in the first place?

Sir Ian McKellan commented that people said he was a better actor once he had come out.  I'm hoping this might just make me a better priest.

15 May 2012


Benedict, that mastermind of structured religious life, acknowledged that one might well choose to live as a hermit, but he pointed out that a hermit would be exposing himself to psychological and spiritual danger if he did not first become firmly established in the cenobium.  Without having come to understand deeply his participation in a wider community, without having internalized the cadences of contemplative life, the alonetime the hermit enjoyed would quickly become the stage on which all manner of fantasies, temptations, unhealthy mind states, and the like would make their appearance.

And why?

Because, shy of deep and great awakening, we need to have our arrogant asses kicked and our fearful egos comforted every once in a while.  If no one is around to do that for us, we'll get crazy, stupid, envious, depressed, odious, despondent, etc.

It's certainly no accident, then, that the Buddha left two lifestyle choices to those who would practice the way: either become a renunciant in the community of fellow renunciants or become a householder in the company of a fellow householder.  Both provide a context in which one is held accountable for the precepts.  Both provide a structure of support and encouragement.  Both provide a means to see oneself reflected in the lives of others.  Both provide a wide open field for the cultivation of the pāramitās.

It finally dawned on me this past week that part of the reason I'd been going stir-crazy and getting crabby of late is because I find myself neither a renunciant in a community of fellow renunciants nor a householder in the company of a fellow householder, and I'm so far from deep and great awakening that I'm nowhere near in a position of being able to live a healthy hermit's life.  If I'm going to live up to service to all beings, I'm going to have to take a little better care of this vessel of the Dharma.

You'd think I'd have figured that out by now!

10 May 2012

Right Bemusement

I had a student from the sitting group on campus come up to me yesterday asking me about makyo.  He didn't use the word, but that's what he was talking about.  He seemed utterly bemused by what kept coming up for him (it was some kind of visual thing, if I remember right) whenever he began to sit, and it was his bemusement that caught my attention more than anything.

I can't imagine a better approach to all this.

Somewhere between "we're already enlightened" and "we need to scratch and claw our way to the other shore" is "wow, this is a pretty curious thing, this mind, and just look at what funny things it kicks up."  It's an attitude that has just the right amount of "touch" to it (for lack of a better word): a picking up but not a grasping, a letting go but not a chasing away.  There's enough "mind candy" about it to entice to further practice, but also enough of a "you've got to be kidding me" quality about it to see that it needs to be gotten past as well.

If there were a contest for adding a ninth factor to the Eightfold Path, my submission would be Right Bemusement.

06 May 2012

About What Cannot Be Otherwise

A lot of the time I find myself coming up against situations or conditions that I wish were otherwise than they are. These aren't the kinds of things for which there is a quick fix, as in "My car's dirty, I wish my car were clean."  If I want a clean car, I can wash it.  No, these are the biggies, the kinds of situations and conditions that involve other people, whether a few or a great many, or that involve my own life on so many different levels, I can hardly begin to count them.

Here's one:

The other day I was going to pick my daughter up from school.  To get there from here, I usually go down Ashland Ave., a major north-south artery in Chicago.  It was one of those wet and chilly spring days, and the wind was stiff enough to make being outside for long downright unpleasant.  As I was stopped at the light at Division St., a woman with a cup in her hand came waking between the cars begging.  She was slight of build and looked old enough to be a grandmother, a babushka if ever there was one.  What got me right then was that, grandmother or not, she was, or at least had been, someone's daughter.

I looked at the passenger seat next to me knowing that in a few minutes my own daughter would be sitting in it.  She's in high school now, doing really well, running on the track team (proud papa moment: she and her teammates took 1st place yesterday in the 4x800s in the city championships), keeping up with friends, and all the rest.  She has her whole life ahead of her, and she has dreams she hopes to realize. But she also has choices to make and conditions to navigate, and it's not clear how anything will turn out.

Maybe the woman had been kind of like my daughter once.

As much as I wish the begging babushka didn't find herself out on the street that dreary day, as much as I wish there were a net that would catch her and everyone else before things got to that point, her situation is the consequence of many choices, large and small, and many circumstances, most of which she and I and everyone else are utterly powerless over.  I can no more fix her situation than I can watch over every decision my daughter will make or shield her from everything harmful or arrange conditions to always turn out according to my idea of well. 

I expect everyone over the age of, oh I don't know, 14 to be able to sense something of the incredible complexity of the world, of our relationships, of our own lives, something of the sheer number of decisions made by this group of some 7 billion of us, each of whom is held sway by the root defilements of greed, anger and ignorance.  I think we all do sense something of this complexity as soon as we look past the ends of our noses.  The question is what to do in the face of it, since, truth in advertising here, it can't be made to respond to my (or anyone else's) bright idea of how much better it would be "if only…."

Here's a possibility: don't look for the fix, but look ever more deeply into the suffering.  See no one's particular fault in it, whether it be the fault of a God who could have done better or the fault of an evil genius who might have done worse.  Don't blame the victim, but don't blame the perpetrator, either (we're not talking a criminal case here, so no need to play prosecuting attorney).  Rather, see all of this as just the state of the world, but be sure to see it as the state of the world with the right eyes.

In the Lokavipatti Sutta, the Buddha taught that the world spins round and round as things give way to their opposites.  Gain follows loss follows gain.  Status follows disgrace follows status.  Censure follows praise follows censure.  Pleasure follows pain follows pleasure.  On and on they go.  Over and over and over and over, sæcula sæculorum.  Such is the world, and it cannot be otherwise without the world not being the world any longer.

But I can change my attitude towards it.  Knowing the conditions of the world to be marked through and through with impermanence, unsatisfactoriness and non-self, I neither have to look for my fulfillment in it nor see it as a threat:
Gain/loss, status/disgrace, censure/praise, pleasure/pain: these conditions among human beings are inconstant, impermanent, subject to change. Knowing this, the wise person, mindful, ponders these changing conditions. Desirable things don't charm the mind, undesirable ones bring no resistance. His welcoming & rebelling are scattered, gone to their end, do not exist. Knowing the dustless, sorrowless state, he discerns rightly, has gone, beyond becoming, to the Further Shore. 
Then, since I am no longer bound to it as before, I can respond to it with compassion for the first time.  The babushka comes by my car window.  I give her a buck.   My daughter hops in the car.  I give her a fist bump for a job well done. 

And that is enough.