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?