30 December 2013

2013 Closeout

If there's one thing that's really settled into my bones of late, it is the realization that there really is nothing at all to say about this life and this practice.

When they ask, I just keep saying to people, "Just keep living your life, every last bit of it, full-on, without fear or anxiety or remainder. And above all, don't ever think you know what any of that even means."

That's all.

29 November 2013

Why Black Friday is So Important

Ever since Gmail decided to sort the Inbox into "Primary," "Social," and "Promotions" categories it's become easy to see just how much of what comes my way is advertising.  This morning, "Promotions" was chock full of ads and offers, a windfall of Black Friday specials of one kind or another.

Here's the thing: I look at them.   Yep, 50% off this, 40% off that with free shipping, buy one at 25% off get the next at 50% off – the list goes on. And I look at them.

I have to own that I'm as tempted as anyone to pick up another of my favorite things when some retailer is taking a good chunk of the price off and throwing in free shipping, too.  In this, I am no different from the door busting, wee hours of the morning purchasing, major artery jamming hordes that were out and underway as early as yesterday evening.  No different at all.  Even if I should like to think otherwise.

Just as Thanksgiving gives me occasion to exercise gratitude, Black Friday reminds me just how much work I still have to do.

16 November 2013

The Pressure to Say or Do Something

Two nights ago I was involved in a residence hall activity where I, the Buddhist, along with two of my colleagues, both Christian, but one from India so he spoke on Hinduism, had an hour with the students. We were each invited to talk for about 15 mins about the respective traditions, and then a Q&A followed.

It was fine enough, but I always leave such events with a bad taste in my mouth.  "If you say, 'Buddha, wash you mouth out three times" makes such increasing sense to me.  "Buddha" indeed…!

Would that I never had to talk about this practice again.  Would that henceforth and forever I could just say, "Look!" and let that be enough and more than enough.  Even better: to just smile Mahākāshyapa's smile and leave it at that!

15 November 2013

What if No One's in Charge?

Some people look at the relative order of the universe and are drawn to the conclusion that it must be the work of one single agent.

If I look at something like the city of Chicago, for instance, with its complexity and relative orderliness, I can be astounded that the whole thing functions just as well as it does (food comes in, waste is processed, there's water sent to every floor in the downtown skyscrapers, and on and on), but I don't jump to the conclusion that there must have been, and continue to be, some one mind, one agent behind it.


Because I know better.  I get that when you put a bunch of trifling decisions, personal goals, some group think and some time together you get a functioning metropolis.  I also get that when you put a bunch of trifling decisions, personal goals, some group think and some time together you get all the social ills associated with this kind of metropolis.

This works from the other direction as well, and I find that there is no captain to this ship I call me, either.  Sure, I can order coffee instead of tea or choose Star Trek over Dancing with the Stars, but I know that those choices do not come out of nowhere.  They are themselves conditioned by conditioned conditions, stretching beyond the grasp of comprehension. Some of my actions go on to become the context for other actions; some of my actions go nowhere, just gestures that appear and disappear without much trace at all.

Best part is, it really doesn't matter.  Whether all of this is the flowering of one single directing mind or not, my morning coffee is just as satisfying. My gratitude for making it alive and well to another day is not diminished in the least because I have no particular someone to thank.  And whether or not there is or is not a central command to this business I call me, I'll muddle along just as I've always done, sometimes skillfully, sometimes not.  

21 October 2013

Mu Rising

In the past few weeks I've had the opportunity to speak with several people one-on-one about their practice.  In each case, the person in question was finding renewed aspiration and renewed resolve to enter into the fray of seeing into what there is to see into.

What none of them understand is what their grit and pluck and wonder does for my practice.

It takes me back to my first halting attempts at the koan, to that initial sense that I was embarking on the task of a lifetime, to the fear and awe and frustration and strange sense of comfort that walking the same path as all Buddhas and bodhisattvas brought with it.

It brings me back to the present, to all the ways in which I still get stuck in the well-worn habit tracks laid down by greed, anger and confusion.

It bids me press on, knowing that the Dharma does not disappoint and that countless ages will not suffice to plumb it completely.

What a gift, this koan practice – so unlike anything else and yet so absolutely straightforward and plain at the same time!

20 October 2013

How Out of It am I?

I know someone who has it in his head that the bank around the corner is First Nations, not First National, Bank.  No amount of correction has been successful in getting him to come up with the right name on his own.

In getting my students ready for their first exam I drive home the point that it's an essay exam, and paragraph ≠ essay.  I will bet my last dollar that tomorrow when the exams come in, there will be at least one, and likely more than one, paragraph passing itself off as an essay.  I will have them rewrite the exam, and of the rewrites at least one (such is the track record) will still come back as paragraph.

These are somewhat extreme cases, of course, and I'm sure even more extreme cases likely exist. I could go on about "people these days..." or "some folks are so...;" but I won't.  What I find myself puzzling about is, well, myself: what am I missing?  getting wrong all the time?  calling y instead of x?

People don't correct me too often, but maybe they are just being kind – or merely reticent.  I've been told I can be intimidating, and enough people have said that in enough different times and places that it must be somewhat true.  Maybe I've built up a wall of intimidation that keeps my foibles and stupidities from being addressed.

Help me out, folks, and don't withhold spiritual and material aid.  Kick my ass!

09 October 2013

When a Eulogy Isn't Quite Right

My aunt died last week.

I do not believe I ever knew anyone so well who was so emotionally crippled, so thoroughly wrapped up in her own self-created miserable life. As I pause to remember her, I struggle to think of a single attribute of her life, a single personality trait, a single accomplishment that would prompt me to commend her to others as a model for living.  I cannot come up with even one.

She did not care for herself, and because she did not care for herself she was incapable of caring for others.  She never learned the simple joy of living contentedly in her own skin, of making something of the life she'd been given, of entering into genuine relationship with other human beings.

To be fair, she may not have even been capable of these things.  Some people are just dealt a poor hand.  She was never in good health, never possessed much attractiveness, and was plagued by mental health issues throughout her life (undiagnosed early on, I'd guess, and increasing in scope and severity until she could not but be treated or cease functioning at all competently).  Still – and this is the part I keep coming back to – she seemed hell-bent on sabotaging even what few things she did have going for her, opting instead for a life lived increasingly alone, surrounded by consumer products (yes, she was a compulsive shopper and hoarder), and in stubborn refusal to work with her doctors in matters of diet and movement and the rest.

She seemed to take a shining to me, though, and I never was on the receiving end of her fits and tantrums.  In fact, she was rather kind to me, and she took an interest in my life, though I never felt like I was at all at liberty to give her more than just the most cursory account of my goings on. For that, of course, I am most grateful.

If you are still reading this, do me a favor.  Send some merit in her direction.  A hungrier ghost you are not likely to find.

May she one day be at ease.  May whatever sufferings she endured in this life go some distance to making her subsequent burdens lighter.  May she one day find her True Home.

31 August 2013

Getting it Right? Forget It!

I'm often bedeviled by worries about authenticity or accuracy.  Part of it has to do with my line of work, but part of it has to do with my general disposition, I'm sure.  Now that I think of it, it's probably the case that I fell into my line of work because of my disposition!

For instance, I have non-philosopher colleagues who, when they teach a certain philosophical text, don't do a very good job with it.  They miss details and key points, overlook significant turns in the argument, and mistake the overall aim of the text as a result.  Drives me nuts.  No physics department would let me lecture on physics, no med school let me train people in neuroscience, so why do these colleagues get to talk about a philosophy text?  Surely there's a more and a less "right" here, no?

I find that this same perturbation arising in relation to the Zen world.  Surely not everything that bears the name "Zen" in the contemporary landscape is the real deal.  "Koan work" that isn't.  "Teishos" that aren't.  "Monks" who don't.  "Roshis" who won't.  The list goes on.  Surely there's a more and a less "right" here, no?

Then I remember what I have always known – always, before there was even an "I" to know it: This is not me; this is not mine.  Remembering that, I am reminded that it's not my job to manage the landscape.  In fact, it's no one's job! "Forget about it," I hear Bankei saying, "and return to the Unborn."

24 August 2013

"All Shall Be Well"

The longer I'm around the more it settles into me how the search for, and the attainment of, awakening is one.  And how could it not be?  Truth is openly shown to our eyes.  There is nothing Buddhist or Christian or Jewish or Muslim or Sikh or Jain or Hindu or Shinto or Zoroastrian or whatever in it, save as it includes all that is Buddhist or Christian or Jewish or Muslim or Sikh or Jain or Hindu or Shinto or Zoroastrian or whatever.

Julian of Norwich (c1342-c1416) claimed to have received the revelation, "All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well."  That phrasing was reprised by T.S. Eliot in "Little Gidding" in several places and here, at the end:
We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.
Through the unknown, unremembered gate
When the last of earth left to discover
Is that which was the beginning;
At the source of the longest river
The voice of the hidden waterfall
And the children in the apple-tree
Not known, because not looked for
But heard, half-heard, in the stillness
Between two waves of the sea.
Quick, now, here, now, always –
A condition of complete simplicity
(Costing not less than everything) 
And all shall be well and
All manner of thing shall be well
When the tongues of flame are in-folded
Into the crowned knot of fire
And the fire and the rose are one.
"All shall be well" is not prognostication.  It is declarative fact, true from beginningless time, present, though half-heard and as yet unseen, "now, here, now, always."  

To know this we need but go through the gate that is no gate because unknown and most certainly eventually not even remembered.  

22 August 2013

Just Fine, Thanks

A few years ago I set out on this priesting endeavor, and, I have to admit, I had it in my head I was going to become a good priest.  Of course, I didn't know what that meant, really, and I know I set up all kinds of projections as to what that could possibly entail.  I'm kind of embarrassed, really, to own some of the preconceptions I came to this with.


Along the way something better has happened.  I just became more… me.  Yep, the same old guy I've always been, but with one big difference: I'm less and less inclined to try to be something other (whether different, or more, or less) than what I am. 

I don't know that that makes me a good anything, but I don't care.  I wouldn't trade this for anything!

11 August 2013


This moment is not an add-on to what has come before, nor is it a warm-up or precursor to what comes after.  All the lapses of ages will neither augment nor diminish the morning calls of the birds I now hear, nor will it add or subtract any color from the sunrise out my window right now.  In this moment I, too, am ageless, and nothing of my senses will be in any way sharpened or dulled in hearing and seeing these birds and this sunrise, no matter how old I am or how long I live.

The two axes of time, if we need to talk like that, are not past and present, but now and forever.

09 August 2013

I Don't Have a Dream

On se prend parfois à rêver de ce que pourrait être les cultures, la vie littéraire, l’enseignement, si tous ceux qui y participent, ayant une bonne fois rejeté les idoles, se livraient au bonheur de réfléchir ensemble … mais ce rêve n’est pas raisonnable…
I find I keep coming back to the realization that each person sees what he or she can see – and nothing further.  I've always know that on some level, I think.  When I read the above passage in grad school it struck me like a ton of bricks; I even included it in the front matter of my dissertation.  I had the same sense when I read Mumon's comment on one who has seen into mu: "You are like a mute person who has had a dream – you know it for yourself alone."  No, it really is too much to expect that there is a universal, common, known ground on which we all stand and on the basis of which we can flawlessly understand and be understood. 

Unless, of course, that basis is no-basis.  In that case, we all – every last one of us – might proceed from a position of humility, deference and non-knowing.  Best to be "greatly enlightened about delusion" than "greatly deluded about enlightenment," as Dōgen put it.  But even Dōgen was no pollyanna.  There will always be Buddhas and sentient beings, flowers will fall in attachment, and weeds will spread in aversion.

Maybe it's advancing age (I doubt it's deepening wisdom), but I have less and less interest in hearing about how this group should think this way, or that company should act that way, or this person shouldn't say those things, or that country ought to treat its people better, etc.  I'm sure people are talking about me, too!  But until I see it for myself, all their talk will be so much noise and chatter, and I'm guessing the same is true for everyone else as well.

If someone is worried that means the world isn't as perfect as it might be, I would simply suggest that it's only 2013.  If all goes well, there are many thousands of years ahead of us.  Maybe things will shift a little after a chunk of that time has passed.  


(But don't bet on it.)

04 August 2013

"Paris is Well Worth a Mass"

The Huguenot Henri IV was willing to renounce his Protestantism and convert to Catholicism in order to secure the throne of France and the allegiance of his subjects.  Sometimes we have to give up something in order to get something.

It's safe to say that there is no coursing deep in the Dharma without leaving the moorings of self behind.  Sometimes we have to give up something in order to get something.

One can sit countless hours on the mat.  One can listen to teisho after teisho.  One can sign on for every sesshin that comes along.  One can talk all the Buddhist lingo and know all the right Dharma peeps.  But if one isn't willing to drop significant ego-attachment in the run of ones daily life, it really is a pitiful waste of time. 

That special quirk of yours – the one that has everyone saying, "Oh yeah, so-and-so, he never takes part in that" or "Oh, so-and-so?  Yeah, she has to do it this way...."– is the liberation and release promised by the Buddha worth giving that up for?

That knee-jerk reaction of yours – the one that everyone can imitate because you do it all the time – is that worth liberation and release?

That same old commentary – you know, the same paragraph of discourse you go into every time something is mentioned – is that worth liberation and release?

And what about the show you always watch, or the beverage you always have to have, or "the thing you do every Tuesday"? Are those worth liberation and release?

And what about the scary places you keep refusing to head into, the parts of your life you keep putting off, the tough decisions and the surrendering to vulnerability and embarrassment you refuse to take on? Are those worth liberation and release?

And then there's that story line by which you define yourself – the one about your parents or your upbringing or your kids or your ex or your boss or the times or your finances or the government.  Is that worth liberation and release?

How many times have you heard "When preferences are cast aside the Way stands clear and undisguised" and still don't get that truer words have never been spoken?

(And lest anyone think I'm getting on my high horse here, know well that the "you" in those questions refers to me as much as anyone else!)

The universe is one, and the Dharma is of a consistent flavor throughout.  Take the plunge!  It's well worth it.

31 July 2013

Beyond the Saved and the Damned

It has become a commonplace among those who believe in an afterlife that everyone goes to heaven.  I have yet to be at a funeral where the assumption wasn't held that the deceased had now entered into his or her eternal reward and that that reward was a pleasing one.  Not one. 

I'm not one for pre- and post-life talk at all, and yet there is something intimated by it that is, all the mystification notwithstanding, spot on.  It's the idea that what we see and hear and feel as ourselves and our lives are but momentary glimpses of a bunch of processes and forces that stretch out endlessly before and after.  The mistake, of course, is to think that this glimpse is definitive and exhaustive, perduring, and on some level unchanging.  A correlative mistake is to think that at the end of this brief glimpse enough is known for it to be given a final reckoning and assessment.  And since no one wants to be mean, I suppose a further mistake is to just to assume everything was just fine and that the balance sheet shows an overall positive sum.

Without wanting to throw the issue completely to the other side, I have to say things were probably closer to the truth when one approached death with a bit of fear and trembling, when the survivors prayed for mercy on the deceased, when the "Dies Irae" was sung.  At least then there was some acknowledgement that the deceased wasn't really all that angelic after all. 

I won't speak about others' faults, but I do know this about myself.  On the day I die there will have been work left undone.  On the day I die I will still be making lapses in body, speech and mind arising from those primal tugs of clinging, aversion and stupor.  On the day I die the "ancient twisted karma" I had acknowledged time and again in the Repentance Gatha will have just gotten another day older in a span of kalpas of kalpas of kalpas.

Positive balance sheet?  Ha!  I hope beyond hope that those who survive me will be kind enough to throw some merit in my direction.  I will most certainly stand in need of it.

18 July 2013

The Four Vows 2: Uprooting Endless Blind Passions

   Another time Joshu said, "I can make one blade of grass be a sixteen-foot golden Buddha, and I can make a sixteen-foot golden Buddha be one blade of grass.  Buddha is compulsive passions, compulsive passions are Buddha."
   A monk asked, "For the sake of whom does the Buddha become compulsive passions?"
   The master said, "For the sake of all people Buddha becomes compulsive passions."
   The monk said, "How can they be escaped?"
   The master said, "What is the use of escaping?"
It's not hard to enter into the monk's confusion.  After all, he no doubt recited, like us, the second of the great Bodhisattva Vows:
Endless blind passions I vow to uproot.
Surely he took those lines seriously, and perhaps he did his level best to fulfill them, but Joshu won't let him go where he wants to go with them.  Why?

The monk's first question, "for whose sake?," creates a split between two kinds of people.  Some, he's probably thinking, don't need Buddha to become compulsive passions.  In his mind, they might be so far beyond that kind of stuff, so not in need of the red dust of the world, that they can find their way without Buddha needing to sully or lower himself for their sake.  The others, benighted as they are, need Buddha to do precisely that.

Joshu counters that such special folk don't exist anywhere. We are – all of us – very much in need of the stuff of our lives, the tugs and pulls and prods and pokes that move us along.  In Zen, we represent Buddha as Shakyamuni, the flesh-and-blood one, the one who walked and shat and ate and fathered a child and knew all too well and then some the thick and thin of embodied existence.

"OK," we can hear the monk thinking, "but surely this comes to an end, doesn't it? Isn't that the point of the exercise? Didn't even the Buddha escape them in the end?"

Joshu's answer to this question can go in a couple of directions, depending on where one lays the emphasis.  "What is the use of escaping?" is not the same as "What is the use of escaping?"  In the same way, "Endless blind passions I vow to uproot" is not the same as "Endless blind passions I vow to uproot," and the parallel relationship obtains.  If I'm worried about getting rid of the passions to be in some passion-free place, then it's the endless blind passions that I'll focus on, and I won't be content until they're gone.  "What is the use of escaping?" is then Joshu's observation that one is never going to be free of them.

If I'm focused on the uprooting in the vow, however, I'll see that escaping is beside the point.  I don't need to hope the passions will go away, I just need to quit giving them a toehold in either my attachment or my repulsion.  They will come and go as so many clouds on a summer's day but won't have any more solidity or holding power.  "Escape? Wrong verb," Joshu tells us, "Just uproot." 

11 July 2013

On Coloring Like a Second Grader with an 8-Pack of Crayons

I love seeing kids' pictures where they color the top inch of the paper blue to represent the sky.  Since the sky is "up there," they represent it "up there."  It marks an important milestone in the child's development to bring the blue all the way down to the horizon and to know the sky is not just "up there" but "all around," too.

It's so easy to be doltish in much the same way in all areas of life.  How much of our personal and collective suffering is based on a much-too-simplistic rendering of reality?  How many times do we fail to see the spread of things, their fullness, their complexity, all their detail and nuance and shading? 

I find I can grab hold of one aspect of a situation, one facet of someone's personality, some tiny detail of an issue, and work it like a puppy with a slipper until it's utterly unrecognizable and rendered into shreds.  Only much too late do I realize that that aspect was one of many, the person wonderfully complex and interesting, the detail trivial.

The 64-pack is not even enough to capture the wonder and awe and worry and ache of the world, of our lives, of each other, much less the 8-pack.  And forget about coloring skills; it's already been laid out in magnificence right before our eyes.  All we need do is look.

08 July 2013

Empty Nest, The Void

There are only three more overnights here for my daughter in the next couple weeks before she heads off for some time abroad at her aunt and uncle's before starting college.  As of July 17, I'm done with day-to-day life with a kid in tow, and the process begun almost 21 years ago with the birth of her sisters will have come to its inevitable conclusion.

Wow.  It really is amazing to begin to see just how much of my self-understanding has been wrapped up with being a parent all this time.  As I'm looking forward on the calendar, I'm realizing I no longer have to plan around school events, track practice, karate lessons and sleepovers.  It's dawning on me that I don't need a Plan B any more for when a kid is sick.  I won't be running to the store for those foods the kids like but I don't when we unexpectedly run out.

I can easily see how couples who have defined their marriage around the kids can find themselves at this point looking at each other like total strangers.  I've had a lot of things besides parenting going on in my life, but even I'm looking at myself in the mirror now and wondering, "Well, what's next?  Who else are you?  What have you become after all this time?"

And I don't know the answers to those questions, but I know a different answer to a very similar question.  What is the way to Taishan?  Straight ahead!  Straight ahead!

04 July 2013

Do Your Thing, Just Don't Make a Fuss About It

I think there's a common enough tendency to think that the world would be such a better place if everyone were more… like myself.  If only everyone voted… like me.  If only everyone practiced… like me.  If only everyone recycled, composted, bought organic, espoused the proper social policies, had the same artistic, architectural, culinary or design taste, cheered for the same sports teams, held views on life, child rearing, family relations and international trade… like me.

What is that, really?

The biggest argument we have why someone should to something is that we do it ourselves.  Funny thing is, I don't even know why I do what I do, truth be told.  I find I'm a person who likes this kind of music, that kind of food, this kind of vacation spot, this policy perspective or that dating partner.  I discover predilections in me, propensities to this activity or another, an attraction to personalities of this kind rather than that.  Concerning those things of which I seem to exercise some choice, I have to admit that the range of choices I'm at all willing or likely to entertain is itself not chosen my me; there are all kinds of things it will never occur to me to do.  In the end, I could make up some story about how all of what I do is the product of sane, reasonable consideration, all sides having been weighed, all alternatives explored, but deep down I know it's not true for me, and I'd bet my bottom dollar it's not true for you, either.


I'm finding it more and more congenial to not say much about what I do or why I think it's a good idea.  I find it frees me from the mental chatter that accompanies my actions.  I find myself less defensive, simply because I have no prepared defense at the ready.

I'm also finding myself tuning out ever more quickly others' talk about their actions and why they think they're such good ideas.  I find it frees me from biting the bait and getting hooked into their discourse.  I find myself on the offensive less, simply because I have nothing to gain by entering the fray.

Are these good things for me to think and do?  Beats me!

24 June 2013

What to Do?

I recent came across a notice for an article in The New Yorker about a Buddhist monk in Japan who is doing good Dharma work by meeting with suicide planners and helping them open up to the possibility of actually living.

It resonated with me because here was an ordained doing something concrete at the point where people are suffering, and I have of late been contemplating ways in which I might do exactly the same.

It's one thing – and a very important one, of course – to work to make a practice center possible.  There is no getting around the paucity of places where one can show up and do the serious work of seeing into one's true nature.  Helping to keep a practice center's door open is a task I am all too grateful for and eager to perform.  I can honestly say I love the sangha here, warts and all, and I'm heartened to think I can be of service to them in however small a measure, with my warts and all.

But the sea of suffering is great, and the those who present themselves at our door are going to be few, few, few in number, indeed.  Can I not do something to be the voice of the Dharma among people who will never spend time on the mat, never attend a sesshin, never hear a teisho, never even smell the incense or hear the han?  Can I not be a Zen priest to them, even if it means not coming across as "a Zen priest"? 

I've done the math, and I'm happily convinced that there is no plausible alignment of conditions that could result in me being sanctioned as a Zen teacher.  None.  I could not be more relieved!   I take that as a kind of carte blanche to take the Dharma in any direction that is skillful and beneficial.

A variety of circumstances are moving me to a point where my life is going to have to shift from its present course.  Here is the top of the 100-foot flagpole.  Time to take a step!

11 June 2013

be • lieve verb \bə-ˈlēv\

I started on this one a few months ago.  That I kept nursing it along is perhaps the best indication of how truly baffled I am by the issue.

The longer I'm around, the harder the time I'm having making sense of the verb, believe.  It's troubling to me, since I find it's a word that carries a significant load in current parlance and contemporary politics, and I just don't see how it could possibly bear that load up.  It is also troubling to me, since people often ask me about my Buddhist "beliefs" or what a Buddhist "believes," etc., and I find I just don't know what to do with such questions.

I'll leave the first worry to the side, since it's tied up with so many other issues I wouldn't know where to start.  The second worry is trouble enough but it's probably a bit less tangled of a knot.  Off we go:

I take refuge in the reality of enlightened Mind, in what it shows forth, and in the company of those who, like me, seek to attain it.  I have confidence that these mark out a reliable path for my practice. I resolve to do my best to follow the way that leads to the end of suffering by rooting out its causes in my own body, speech and mind.

That's plenty already, I should think.  Anything else that comes up in conjunction with any of the above – like seeing into the fact that all phenomena (all of them, my embodied "self" included) are marked by non-self, impermanence and unsatisfactoriness – aren't matters so much of belief as much as accurate assessments of states of affairs that make a sane life possible.  I guess you could say that I "believe" in conditioned co-arising the way I "believe" in gravity.

As in the case of gravity, I don't see a need to discuss these things much; I just use them accordingly.  If I'm tossing someone a garden glove, I reckon my throw with gravity as a given.  If I am navigating my way with another person, I reckon my assessment and course of action with respect to the marks of conditioned existence.  I can screw up my throw, and I can screw up my interpersonal relations, but these are not because gravity or, say, impermanence are wrong; it's because I didn't rely on them accurately or enough.  It's called "user failure" in that case, not a matter of a "false belief."

The unseen is woven into the seen, and the absolute is inherent in the relative.  There is no need to create a parallel universe populated with beings and ideas that do not belong in this one.  No need at all!

07 June 2013

The Other Smile of the Buddha

I've been laid up for a few days now with an infection that – ok, I won't head into TMI territory – has me moving much more slowly than usual.  After visits to a GP and a specialist, with a follow-up ultrasound, I'm now on two weeks' worth of anitbiotics, orders to do nothing strenuous for a few weeks, to apply an ice pack for another day yet, then to sit in warm baths thereafter.  The specialist says things won't be completely back to normal for 6-8 weeks, but I should be able to be more active after 3.

Fun, huh?!  Good thing I got most of the garden taken care of already, though there's some speculation that's what brought this on.

I have to say that, as much as I prefer health, vigor and activity, I can use situations like this once in a while.  I'm watching issues come up for me that I usually don't see much of or all that often.  Inadequacy is in there, and a good measure of loneliness (though my DVD supplier has overnighted another collection for me to watch during my convalescence, and I'm quite grateful to him for that), not to mention the aches and pains, the yukkiness of fevers and all the rest. These provide a necessary corrective to my over-inflated sense of self, my shows of having it all together, my sense of connectedness and bodily integrity.  I am reminded of the finitude and radical aloneness embodied existence carries with it.

But, and all of a sudden, the lives of those laid up in hospitals and nursing homes and hospice care become more real to me as well.  The loneliness of those truly without family and friends becomes more significant to me.  All at once, I feel a renewed kinship and bond with all of us, old and young, doing our level best to make it through this life.  Every one of us, each in his or her own way, probably has something going on now he or she could use a hand with, a pat on the back for, a sympathetic ear to talk to about or just a shoulder to lean on.

A couple weeks ago I gave a talk here on the Fasting Buddha.  I made the point that, far from representing the wrong way to practice, it strikes me as representing a necessary form of practice along the way.  It's the first step out of the palace and its cushy life and ignorance of the world for the Buddha on his way to awakening.  It can be our way out of the many kinds of "palaces" we build that keep us safe and secure but, for all that, lacking in wisdom and compassion.  We need to do without and get a taste of suffering and disorientation every once in a while to discern just how deep the roots of self run.  Life sometimes gives us enough of those, but if we're finding things going just smashingly well, maybe we need to head straight in under our own power, to probe the depths and so come to see even more clearly that we're not at all what we thought we were.  The Buddha found his limits and then took food again.  I can honestly say I have not yet found mine and that my practice remains incomplete as a result.

Still, even though I'm not all skin and bones I can still smile faintly the smile of the Fasting Buddha.  It's the smile that comes with seeing sickness and setback as welcome teachers and guides.  If I have one wish, it's that I can smile this same smile under even worse conditions, right up to the very end.

06 June 2013

The Four Vows 1: The Liberation of All Beings

All beings without number, I vow to liberate.

If we treat this as a standard declarative sentence, with subject, verb and object doing their usual work, the first of the Bodhisattva vows is meaningless.  I, being the kind of fathom-high critter I am, do not even know how many numberless beings there are (it's a commonplace that we have not yet neared the end of taxonomizing beetles, let alone the rest of the insects, for instance), and it is not at all clear what it would mean to "liberate" them.  "Liberate them" from what?  How?  By myself?  Really? How much time will that take?

No, the first of the Bodhisattva vows is not uttered in the realm of conditioned existence.

If we treat the first vow as an expression of enlightened mind, in which the emptiness of "I" is seen through and through, then there is no I and no numberless beings, either, and they are, in their radical non-selfhood, already liberated. 

Indeed, the first of the Bodhisattva vows is uttered in the realm of the absolute.

Now here's the rub: it's a bogus move to start in the realm of the absolute and derive from it something about what should be done in the realm of conditioned existence.  There is nothing in the absolute on which to hang anything about conditioned existence.  That's precisely why the one is the absolute and the other conditioned.

Put differently: uttering the first Bodhisattva vow commits me to nothing particular whatsoever in terms of day-to-day action in the world.   Since I cannot derive something about conditioned beings from the absolute, I cannot derive what action to take with respect to them, either.  With an even finer point on it: the first Bodhisattva vow cannot be used as leverage for any kind of action or ethical position or theory or principle or maxim or -ism.

None, near as I can tell.

And yet….

I have seen what happens in the actions of everyday men and women, conditioned beings in a conditioned world, once they have begun to glimpse the absolute.  And it's not like, "Oh, John's doing thus-and-so, and that's a sign of his insight."  No, it's infinitely more subtle than that.  It's more like, "Oh, I hadn't expected that out of John.  Wow, where'd that come from?"

And in being able even to say that much, we find ourselves, the world and all beings therein – even if only for a moment – all very much at ease.

03 June 2013

The Scarlet and the Black – And the Blue?

A few months back I received a box of DVDs reflecting a friend of mine's likes, interests and the rest.  I'd watched most of them since, but there was one I hadn't yet, and this past Saturday I put it in and watched.

The film was The Scarlet and the Black, a made for TV movie from the early 80s about the activity of Msgr. Hugh O'Flaherty in Rome during the Nazi occupation from 1943-45.  He coordinated an underground network that hid downed Allied soldiers, Italian resistance fighters, Jews, etc.  The film is part drama, part comedy, part mystery/detective story, as we follow O'Flaherty's tricks in dodging the Nazi authorities, who were soon on to him but unable to touch him because of Vatican diplomatic immunity.  Particularly gripping is the cat-and-mouse game played between O'Flaherty and Col. Herbert Kappler, the SS officer responsible for overseeing the occupation, and at one point Kappler has O'Flaherty in his crosshairs, but O'Flaherty moves, and no shot is fired.

Towards the end of the film, as the Allies are advancing on Rome, Kappler soon realizes his days are numbered, and that it will not go well for his wife and two young children.  Knowing of O'Flaherty's connections, Kappler arranges to meet him privately to make a startling request: that O'Flaherty secret his family to safety.  O'Flaherty gives him a talking (ok, shouting) down, and walks away.  As the film ends, it becomes clear that O'Flaherty did indeed get Kappler's family safely to Switzerland, much to Kappler's surprise – and relief.  What's more, we're informed that after the war, Kappler was held for many years in Regina Coeli prison and that O'Flaherty visited him every month, his only visitor.

I love/hate hearing about this kind of thing.  I love it, because it speaks to me of the depth of human selflessness and compassion.  I hate it, because it reminds me of how truly shallow mine is by comparison. 

01 June 2013

Trivial Pursuit

I was a young adult at the height of the Trivial Pursuit craze.  Geography was my favorite category.

I remember finding out that there was more than one set of boxed questions when I got invited to play the German version.  All of a sudden, I was thrown into SPD and CDU questions rather than Democrat or Republican.  Pop Culture included some of the first German-language TV and radio shows, and History meant, in large part, German history.  All of a sudden, whatever sense of mastery I had was thrown out the window.  I still did well enough at Geography, but what did I know of hot-shot players in the 2. Bundesliga in the '60s or the Prince Archbishop of Magdeburg back in the day?

It strikes me that we are, all of us, in a somewhat similar situation in our everyday life as well.  Each of us has, as it were, our own boxed set of ideas, memories, expectations and wants.  We think we know it inside and out (though there are always a few surprises!).  Get exposed to a different box, however, and we lose our bearings, prove our limitations, find ourselves knocked down a peg or two.

I've added a few boxes to my repertoire over the years, but only a few.  I watch other people play out their cards and know that those are not part of my set.  I can never master them all.

So I dream of being box free, and I wonder if that's possible.  Actually, I know it's not.  Who am I kidding?

It's probably enough to know that mine is a box or two among many.  It's probably enough to not attach any significance to the fact that I play my box particularly well or another's box particularly poorly.  And it's probably enough to know that, at the end of the day, it's only a game, a trivial pursuit, if ever there was one!

25 May 2013

Family Secrets

I cannot deny that there is hurt and suffering around, but I cannot fail to see the very many ways, large and small, that people everywhere reach out in compassion, wisdom and love. 

This past week I attended my uncle's funeral, and as we were in the back of the church waiting for the service to begin, a woman came up to my father and introduced herself, asking if her name rang a bell.  My father didn't hesitate, "Yes, you lived with us in Litchfield for a while.  You wrapped butter at the dairy."  Seems my grandfather, the Baptist minister in town, and my grandmother had welcomed her into their home for about a year when she was 15 and in a tough place.  Here she was, some 60ish years later, at the funeral of my grandfather's son. 

I had never heard about that before.  I tear up just thinking about it. 

There is no monopoly on goodness; there are no privileged agents of compassion.  It is our birthright, as much a part of us as our navels.  We can cover it over.  We can pretend it's not there.  But in the end it can never go away.  It marks us as the beings we are and whispers to us of the deepest reality.

My grandfather set up all kinds of churches in rural Michigan in the advancement of his faith (he started the one my uncle's funeral was held in, no less).  This apple called "me" certainly has fallen quite far afield of that tree in that regard.  But he knew, I hope, as I do now, that of the things that last the greatest is love, the only one that really counts.

16 May 2013

Job? What Job?

A little less than nine months ago I picked up the 2012-13 academic year.  As of 9:30pm last night, I set it down.  Grades submitted, meetings attended, some socializing with colleagues enjoyed, it is now officially summer break.

I'm often amazed at the speed with which I can go from one thing to the next.  In the blink of an eye, all the concerns and worries, frets and frustrations of the job just simply evaporate.  What got done, got done.  What didn't, didn't.  And that's all there is to say about it.

And even that's too much to say, because to tell the truth, I'm already thinking about a day in the yard and garden, and the birds are singing and the sun is breaking over the treetops and the air is warm and the breeze is calm (and no trace of classes and discussions and meetings and grading remains).


09 May 2013

Are There Better or Worse Ways to Die?

I recently came across a few photos from the factory collapse in Bangladesh showing some of the victims.  I am reminded every time I drive the Interstates around Chicago just how many people have died so far this year in traffic-related incidents in Illinois, the figure prominently displayed on over-the-road signs.  Any number of organizations list the number of deaths in a year from AIDS, hunger, cancer, heart disease, suicide, guns, alcohol, bullying, and even wisdom teeth removal.  Practically every hurricane, tsunami, tornado, heat wave and snowstorm has a death toll attached to it.

Let's face it: there are all kinds of things in the course of a day, week, year or lifetime that can kill you, and one of them has your name on it.  Some of them are natural, some of them are human-caused.  And if somehow you escape a definable agent or situation as the cause of your death, in the end, age itself, with the increasing deterioration of the body, will seal the deal. 

There's no guaranteed life expectancy that announces itself with the cut of the umbilical cord, either.  Some live a minute, some an hour, some a day, some a week, some a month, some a year, some a decade, and some a century.  It's hard to make sense of a better or worse time to die.  After my friend died a month ago, I was walking in a grocery store and saw an old, enfeebled man making his way with a walker.  "At least Dan will not have to deal with old age," I thought to myself.  Of course, he will never enjoy a retirement, either.

None of this overstates the case.  Nothing in this is pessimistic.  Just the facts, folks.

It's at this point that I find myself settling into practice: what is this? what is this birth-and-death?  I didn't ask for birth, I don't ask for death, yet here they are!  There's no escaping this life; there's no escaping this death.

If you think you have an answer, you're fooling yoursef.

05 May 2013

Are We Missing Something? Well, Yes!

I came across this in the Huffington Post "Religion" section a couple weeks ago:
All main religious groups in France, with the exception of the Buddhists, have spoken out against marriage reform.
Why should this be the case?

I've got a few ideas why, one kind of straightforward, the other perhaps not so much.

The straightforward one is that Buddhism has historically never considered marriage to be more than a civil affair.   It would be about as appropriate for a Buddhist, as a Buddhist, to have a position on marriage statutes and provisions as it would be for a Buddhist, as a Buddhist, to have a position on car registration requirements, zoning ordinances, emissions standards, medical licensure, mining policies, and interment regulations.  Simply put, to the Buddhist mind, marriage regulations are best left to the prevailing social customs, demands, needs and expectations, and societies and governments will work those out in all the usual ways they have at their disposal.

The other reason is not so straightforward, but does, I think, go much deeper toward understanding the current religious brouhaha surrounding marriage equality.  Simply put, unlike its monotheistic friends, Buddhism paints no pictures of what an ideal life would look like.  There is no one privileged social formation, one special kind of governance system, a particularly enlightened economic structure or even a determinate familial or personal lifestyle that, as such, trumps all others. 

The root defilements of greed, anger and confusion yank at us the same whether we are gay or straight, progressive or conservative, monarchist or republican, capitalist or communist, parents or childless, and nothing that would seek to turn us into one or the other or elevate one and debase the other could possibly change that.

On the flip side, the prospect of waking up to our True Self is the same whether we are gay or straight, progressive or conservative, monarchist or republican, capitalist or communist, parents or childless, and nothing that would seek to turn us into one or the other or elevate one and debase the other could possibly change that.

I admit I'm painting with a broad brush here.  There are certainly segments of Christianity that are more than willing to extend the "neither slave nor free, Gentile nor Jew, woman nor man" further to "neither gay nor straight, black nor white, rich or poor," etc.  Conversely there are segments of Buddhism that sound very much like 60's-style activists retrofitted with a Buddhist framework who, as such, aim to create certain determinate social structures and eliminate others.

Nevertheless, "sangha-formation" has always marched to a very different beat from "people-formation," and, from the looks of things, it would seem to be keeping to that beat today.

01 May 2013

There is No Normal

I have a dear friend in the travails of a divorce.  Sometimes he calls me up to vent, and sometimes he calls me up in the hopes of just getting a break from the rollercoaster ride he's on.  The other day, he mentioned that he was doing his best to get back to normal.  His sleep was off, since he would lie awake at night ruminating on what the soon-to-be-ex had just said or done.  Because his sleep was off, his exercise schedule was off.  Because his exercise schedule was off, he was feeling more tired at work and would find ways to nap.  You get the picture.

My first thought was to assure him that things would eventually return to normal, that he would soon enough (a couple years, maybe, but soon enough) find that he could take the by-then-ex's words and actions in stride, etc.  I soon thought better of it, though, because there's a simple truth that is being shown to him quite clearly now, a simple truth which is everywhere operative, even when we don't perceive it: there is no normal.

There is no normal.  Of course we know that on some level.  Everything is in a state of flux, conditions are perpetually changing, everything responding to, reacting to, acting in concert with, arising in conjunction with, everything else.  And, of course, we often wish that just weren't so, that we could hold on to something for a while longer, that the target would just stay put for a few minutes, that our game plan might be given half a shot at succeeding.  And so, thus it is that we tread the gerbil wheel of dukkha, working up a sweat, going absolutely nowhere.

So I suggested he not fight it.  When he was tired, he should nap and not worry about whether he worked out that day.  When he was lying awake in the middle of the night, he should just know that this is what is means to be getting divorced.  When he had a good night's sleep, he shouldn't read any trends into it, but just enjoy a day well-rested.  I said it was just like sitting: some days you're focused, some days you're not, some days you have pain, some days you don't.

He got it, and he old me he was appreciative of that reminder.  I just need to remind myself from time to time! 

12 April 2013


Here's one I'd never heard of before:
"Sonder" - n. - the realization that each random passerby is living a life as vivid and complex as your own—populated with their own ambitions, friends, routines, worries and inherited craziness—an epic story that continues invisibly around you like an anthill sprawling deep underground, with elaborate passageways to thousands of other lives that you’ll never know existed, in which you might appear only once, as an extra sipping coffee in the background, as a blur of traffic passing on the highway, as a lighted window at dusk."
I had experienced it before; I just didn't know it had a name.  

Sometimes, when riding the CTA, for instance, or driving down the highway, it occurs to me that everyone around me is playing his or her own tune, marching to be beat of his or her own drum, wrestling with his or her own demons, and aiming at his or her own happiness.  I see them for a 40-minute ride or for a quick pass on the interstate, and that is all the connection we will likely ever have.

Sometimes the connections have a bit more of a lifespan.  I have students a semester at a time.  I have neighbors that might be around a year or ten or more.  I have had playmates, classmates, roommates and housemates.  I have friendships going back over thirty years, colleagues going back over twenty, and fellow sangha members going back over ten.  In the end, whether for a day or a decade, the connection is one of many, has its stops and starts, and may have greater significance for the other person(s) or for myself.  I may factor you more into my narrative than you factor me into yours, for instance.

For the most part, though, the basic truth remains: I am on some irreducible level but a bit player in others' scripts as they are but bit players in mine.  If I'm lucky, I might get involved with some one person enough to use the term "spouse" and a few people enough to use the term "friend."  Beyond that, I might have a few score of acquaintances, some few hundred people I recognize by sight, and, well, that's about it out of a lot of almost seven billion on the planet.

The definition above is taken from The Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows.  I have to say, I don't perceive it as a sorrow but more as the basis of a quiet joy.  You see, it is precisely because I don't know you very well that I can feel honored to be let in on your life.  When I realize I really don't know what's going on with you, I can find in you a source of fascination and growth.  Whatever you let me in on becomes a gift, not just a matter of course, and you remain a source of mystery for me all the same because there is so much more that I am as yet (or can ever really become) aware of.

Like the silence which makes sound, sound, and like the amorphous background that makes objects, objects, our everyday anonymity and obscurity is that which makes friends, friends and lovers, lovers and fellow travelers on the Way, brothers and sisters.

07 April 2013

Sighs Too Deep for Words

At work I was invited to be a member of a committee formed earlier this academic year, the Inter-Religious Council on Dialogue and Spirituality.  Our job description is both simple and not-so-simple:
The mission of the Inter-Religious Council on Dialogue and Spirituality is to support and advance religious diversity in Valparaiso University under the auspices of the Provost’s Office. To this end, the Council regularly assesses resources, services, and needs relating to religions and religious communities at the University and makes recommendations to individuals, groups, committees and offices who can take appropriate action.
It's simple, because it kind of makes us look like a brokerage firm, lining up needs with ways and means to satisfy them.  It's not-so-simple, because supporting and advancing religious diversity at Valpo is a task that ranges from the obvious to the ambiguous to the contradictory. 

Here's a case in point.  At our meeting this past week, we were thinking through ways of highlighting the holidays and observance days of the various religions represented on campus.  Now Valpo has an established Morning Prayer period in the class day, and a Protestant Christian service is held in the main chapel at that time.  I suggested that one way of accomplishing some religious diversity goals might be to have a different tradition lead the Morning Prayer on one of their respective holidays, a Jewish service for, say, Yom Kippur or a Buddhist service for Vesak.

I was taken aback at the push-back the idea received from one of the committee members.  He wasn't terribly articulate on his reasons, but he was quite animated in his objection.  "We cannot allow this to happen!" he repeated several times, each time more vociferously than before.

There is some back-story here.  Valpo has maintained a close historical and cultural, though not administrative or financial, tie to the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod (LC-MS) since its purchase by the lay Lutheran University Association in 1925.  Although independent of the LC-MS, the campus chapel has been understood to be an LC-MS chapel, with an LC-MS University Pastor until quite recently when a female pastor of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) was appointed as a University Pastor as well.

Here's the problem: LC-MS folks are prohibited from praying with anyone else, even another non-LC-MS Christian.  Pastor Cox's appointment at Valpo was a cause for scandal in some LC-MS circles, and LC-MS pastors have been chastised for taking part in interfaith services in the wake of 9-11 and in the aftermath of the Newtown shootings.

I don't know what prayer is that it would be something one should be either prohibited from or skeptical about doing with others.  I get that the words one uses may not equate with the words another person uses, but I don't believe so much rides on the words that they should be something that divides rather than possibly unites us.  Even within the Christian tradition there is a recognition of the inadequacy of the expression of our prayer: "[W]e do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words." Rom 8:26  I have to wonder whether the inverse obtains, that when we assert that we (alone) know how to pray as we ought, the Spirit stops acting on our behalf.

We're funny creatures, we humans.  We are part of something bigger than we will ever comprehend with our thought and language and science and scholarship.  We know this on some level, but in our attempts to talk about it or address it, we bumble along, with nothing sounding quite right.  Silence is best, of course, but sometimes we do have to speak.  Let that speech come from the depth of our realization, not from a book or symbol or catechism.  Let it be fit for the occasion, right and proper for the audience.  Let it start when it needs to start, and end when it needs to end.  Then, perhaps, all our singing and dancing and talking and praying will become the voice of the Dharma, the speechless sigh of the Living God, if you will, in all its wonder and beauty and challenge and awe.

03 April 2013

Resurrection 101

So the other evening after a sitting, a new Center regular, a young guy in his early 20's, said that over the weekend he and his folks had been trying to figure out this whole Easter business.  Seems they'd never been terribly religious, and they didn't quite know what it was all about, so they turned to Wikipedia for answers.

I found myself entering into the discussion the way an addict goes after his drug.  I don't know why, but I feel some kind of internal obligation to put the very best spin on most religious traditions.  In the end, I acknowledge and respect that these have at their core deep elements of truth and the ability to move people in the direction of compassion and selflessness, and I am eager to keep them from being caricatured and stripped of their power.  And so, thinking I could do better than Wikipedia (not hard), I held forth, dismissing the zombie/resuscitated corpse view and steering him instead toward a more nuanced understanding of the resurrection.

Stupid me.

I should have just kept it to one line: "Keep practicing, and after you've practiced long enough, you'll understand everything you need to know about it." 

29 March 2013

Bodhisattva Night Out

Last night I took part in Holy Thursday mass at a local Catholic parish.  It was good for my practice.

The liturgy of Holy Thursday evening has always spoken deeply to me of things I know to be most true: that the self has to be broken and die, that healing and life lie in that brokenness, and that that brokenness becomes in turn nourishment for the life of the world and the liberation of all. 

Now all that gets packaged in the commemoration of Jesus' last meal with his disciples, and during the liturgy, the washing of the disciples' feet is reenacted.  The standard script is that the priest washes the feet of twelve men, as a picture snapshot of the events of 2000 years ago.  But last night, everyone washed everyone else's feet.  Stations with chairs and bowls and pitchers of water and towels were set up, and one by one, we all got our feet washed then switched places and washed the feet of the next person in line, on and on until all those who wished had washed and been washed.  Small words were exchanged, smiles, looks of both awkwardness and appreciation.  Old feet, kid feet, teen feet, calloused feet, feet with bunions and toenail fungus – all feet were attended to.

I was choked up and on the verge of tears the whole time.

Earlier in the service, Psalm 116 was sung.  I sometimes refer to that Psalm when explaining my ordained name to my Christian friends.  "Shodhin" means requiting, returning good for all the good received; Psalm 116 begins, "How shall I make a return to the Lord for all the good He has done for me?"

Of course, the answer to that question and the meaning behind my name both point in the same direction: always – even if you're going to die the very next day – the most important thing is to be of compassionate service to others.

I won't stop sitting on a mat and facing a wall, but I can certainly use a few hands-on reminders of that every once in a while!

27 March 2013

Bumper Sticker

I'm not one for bumper stickers.  I may have inherited that from my father, who was absolutely resolute about never sticking anything on the car, not even the dealership logo, etc.   I heard once that the number of bumper stickers on a car indicates something about one's anger level – the more stickers, the angrier the driver, no matter what the stickers are for.  Perhaps there's some truth in that, I don't know.  Today I put a bumper sticker on my car, and, I have to admit, it was because I was somewhat ticked:

It's the sticker used by the Human Rights Campaign, a group that advocates for marriage equality.  I've been a member as many years as I've been able to afford it (2 in the past 7 years), but I've always been sympathetic to their cause. 

I put it on my car today because of all the clap-trap surrounding these two days of testimony before the Supreme Court, yesterday on California's Proposition 8, today on DOMA.  The justices seem reticent to make a sweeping judgment, and I have to admit, I agree with their prudential jurisprudence.  On the whole, I'd rather leave things to develop over time and with as broad a base of support as possible.

So I put the sticker on as a way of indicating that I'm yet another person who supports marriage for all, regardless of orientation.  Maybe when folks see it in some parking lot, or on the road, or at the toll plaza, or at the repair shop, they might realize that someone not so very different from them thinks this is a good idea.  Maybe they'll come to think so, too, if they don't already, and the base of support will get just that much wider as a result.  Then maybe this can cease to be such media fodder, and we can all get on with our lives.

Of course, if DOMA gets tossed out on its ass, I won't complain, either!

26 January 2013

About Some Other Somewheres

In the last few weeks I've spoken with a variety of people who, each in his or her own way, voiced a common concern: what does one do in the face of hurt, or harmful social structures and environments, or systematic injustice?  participate?  withdraw?  how does one practice in such a world?

Buddhism, near as I can tell, is rather unique in offering no alternative reality to the present one.  There is no heaven, no Walhalla, no paradise-on-earth.  Just this.  Nirvana is not an alternative reality, either.  It is, as Hakuin so aptly puts it, openly shown to our eyes. This earth is the Buddha-land, this body the body of Buddha.  There is no some other somewhere.

It probably doesn't help to hear that in the thick of one's questioning.  Words are cheap.  I also don't think one can just hear those words and understand.  This kind of understanding is hard-won, the fruit of concerted practice.

All I find myself saying in such circumstances, then, is, "Practice.  Practice harder, and harder yet.  Practice until the line between participation and withdrawal disappears." 

The Dharma is a healing salve.  It's not just a parlor game or pleasant pastime.  There is release, but it is not bought cheaply.  It costs you your very life as you have known it so far. 

11 January 2013

Picking and Choosing When to Pick and Choose

I don't know how many times I've encountered the profound opening lines of Affirming Faith in Mind:
     The Great Way is not difficult
     For those who do not pick and choose.

     When preferences are cast aside
     The Way stands clear and undisguised.
I also don't know how many times I've heard them invoked when it comes to making a distinction between A and B or inviting a choice between x and y, as if what is being warned against here is selecting.

Selecting from a presented range of options is not a problem. There is a deep truth in the point that not all options are equally good.  If I have a nail, and I'm presented with a hammer and a saw, I will pick the hammer.  If I have a problem to solve, and there is a dharmic and an a-dharmic way of tackling it, I will pick the dharmic. If I'm in a hurry to get to work, and I have the choice between I-90 or I-80/94, I will pick I-90.  Relativism is not a dharmic view, and, yes, there is such a thing as right view vs less-than-right view.  One leads to wisdom and release; the other leads to stupidity and bondage.

What is a dharmic view is dependent co-arising.  And here the injunction against picking and choosing finds its full field of application.  The "picking and choosing" in question can only refer to wanting to cherry pick aspects of our situation we want and leave behind those we don't.  The problem is that all aspects are part and parcel of our situation, we cannot have the wanted and not the unwanted ones, and if we think we can, well, then we have set Heaven and Earth very far apart indeed.

The Way is right there.  Right there.  Nowhere else.  Not otherwise than it is.  Warts and all.  Don't waste time imagining some other somewheres, some other versions of what's right there, for in that moment, you've already pulled back.  Life's too short for pipedreams.

04 January 2013

Practice, Governance, Dukkha

I happened to catch a video clip yesterday of a man being interviewed by a woman concerning raising restrictions on gun acquisition in light of the recent mass shootings.  He was quite insistent on the point that one can pass all the legislation one wants, but it won't keep guns out of the wrong hands.  His conclusion: gun legislation is a waste of time.

Now I'm guessing that most 21st century Zen folk would have wished he'd have said the opposite, namely that more gun control legislation is a good thing.  Most 21st century Zen folk tend to fall on the progressive side of the political line, tend to vote progressive issues, and gun control is a progressive issue.

Funny thing is that I caught a similar argument from 21st century Zen folk recently concerning stricter guidelines and a system of sanctions on the ethical conduct of Zen teachers.  Was there not language propounded to the effect that one can form all the guidelines and rules one wants, but teachers will still commit improprieties?  Were there not conclusions similar to that of our hapless interviewee, namely that guidelines, rules, and sanctions are a waste of time?

I'm not interested here in the effectiveness of legislation, rules, guidelines and the rest.  Those are empirical matters, and I'll leave it to more competent researchers to give us the scoop on them.

What interests me in both cases here is the pervasive, stubborn refusal to be governed.  Forget the empirical data for a second; what comes through loud and clear in both instances is a deep-seated contempt for anything that might rope one in.  "I certainly don't need such rules," says the self-possessed/enlightened one, "and as far as any other folks go, they're too far gone for the rules to have any effect on them."

I don't know about you, but I do know about me.  I am not so self-possessed or enlightened that I can't use some rules and regulations.  I can do – and have done – some incredibly stupid, self-centered, hurtful, and shameful things.  I also know that I might well have done even more stupid, self-centered, hurtful, and shameful things were it not for the rods, the staves, the fences and the guideposts worked out by my brother and sister human beings in moments of greater clarity than I might possess at a given point in time.

Yes, by my fellow human beings (so we can drop both the "who thinks they can tell me what to do?" and the "who's to say what's right and wrong?" evasions).  Yes, in moments of greater clarity than I might at a given time possess (so we can own up to our own fallibility and come to rely on the wisdom, example and never-failing help of others/sangha).

There is a myth out there that we are completely in control 24/7. That myth helps support the language of autonomy, of self-determination and the rest bequeathed to us by the European Enlightenment.  That myth also finds itelf invoked when talking about enlightened teachers, gurus, oshos and roshis.


Here I do know as well about you as about me.  We – every last one of us – is yanked to and fro by greed, anger and ignorance.  We – every last one of us – stands in need of correction and guidance.  For we – every last one of us – is still caught up in the mire of our personal and collective dukkha.

I just can't give a hearing to anyone who would claim otherwise.  Better: anyone who would claim otherwise scares the living shit out of me.

03 January 2013

Doesn't Get Much More Straightforward

I know it's making the rounds, but it might as well have a place here as well.  'Nuf (un)said!