Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Gratefully, a Third Time Around the Blog

It's a bit dizzying to realize that the earth has gone around the sun three times and I've gone from being 61 to 64 since I first timidly clicked the 'publish' button on this blog.

It's also rather humbling to discover that folks from 129 countries have paid a visit - 53,672 visits to be exact - with over half of them this past year. Particularly since, out of the 75 published  posts, only 14 went up this year. While it would be nice to believe that quality has replaced quantity, I think a simple shortage of effort and focus on my part is the reason.

I've noticed this before (Lifeless or Just Leafless?), particularly at the end of this summer (Missing in Action). Despite a little flurry of activity in September, I seem to have made a fairly easy transition from aestivation to hibernation.

Do I suffer pangs of guilt thinking about the posts I haven't published? Definitely. Do I plan on going gentle into that good night? Definitely not.

Once again, I would like to express my heartfelt thanks to everyone who has stopped by for a read, and to the cybersangha for the generosity that has come my way in the form of kind social media comments, shares, +1's, mentions, RT's and likes, and of course, the thoughtful and encouraging comments left on the blog. Thank you so much.

Oh, and speaking of humbling, it's hard to describe the feeling I get when I check out a favourite blog and discover a link to lowly Snow Branches on the blogroll alongside my all time blog heroes. Perhaps a combination of surprise, grateful affection and apprehensive butterflies hoping I won't blow it and get deleted.

I just had a thought: It's not very Zen to express my feelings like this.

Then I had another thought: What a dumb thought.

Wishing you the very best for the New Year!

Sunday, October 27, 2013

Zen and the Art of Debauchery

Every summer on Salt Spring Island, the Saturday market brings droves of tourists in their cars and campers to the village of Ganges. Much time is spent circling the blocks hoping someone else will leave the market and vacate their spot. Inevitably, someone came up with an apt bumper sticker: Zen and the Art of Motor Vehicle Parking in Ganges.

Ever since Eugene Herrigel's book, Zen in the Art of Archery, and later, Robert Pirsig's Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, a plethora of  "Zen and the Art of ..." books have sprung up, ranging from Zen and the Art of Knitting to ... Zen and the Art of Competitive Eating.

Much has been said about the "Zen" of activity beyond effort. Two of my favourite bloggers wrote about it this month:

In letting go of “trying”, in letting go of any intellectual idea of how archery should be done, these archers are simply totally, wholeheartedly merged with their activity. The years of practice in a very easy way, in a relaxed way, comes through.  The archer, the arrow ... are all one movement and one whole. Subject and object merged. This is what one might call effortless effort.

... Dogen Zenji propounds the concept of ... gujin ... which means “the full exertion of a single thing.” That may sound like yet another form of striving, but it is actually quite the opposite. Far from adding another burden, the practice offers a path toward total rest.

Gujin has been variously translated as “total realization,” “total penetration,” “total manifestation”—and, most often, “total exertion.” The scholar and translator Francis Dojun Cook, an authority on Dogen, explains the concept in this way:

From the angle of the person who experiences the situation, [gujin] means that one identifies with it utterly. Looked at from the standpoint of the situation itself, the situation is totally manifested or exerted without obstruction.

I suspect we all experience this from time to time. Splitting wood with an axe, no matter how hard I try to hit the centre of a log, I always seem to miss, but often as soon as I stop trying, the axe splits the log exactly in the middle, even cutting the little dot in the centre of the growth rings in half.

Debauchery.  One definition is "seduction from virtue or duty". Also, debauch: "to make disloyal", "to lead away from virtue or excellence" and "to corrupt by intemperance or sensuality".

I realize they are only human, but fresh (to me) news of Zen masters behaving badly always triggers a little letdown.

In the ‘60’s, Philip Kapleau’s The Three Pillars of Zen was the first Zen book that really touched me. Kapleau’s teacher Hakuun Yasutani Roshi, who founded the Sanbo Kyodan school, became one of my Zen heroes. I even wrote him a letter asking for advice (he didn’t reply).

One of the little letdowns was learning that, as most notably published in Brian Daizen Victoria's book Zen at War, both Yasutani Roshi and his teacher, Harada Daiun Sogaku Roshi, held extreme right wing, militaristic, and in the case of Yasutani, anti-Semitic beliefs.

Kubota Ji'un, the 3rd Abbot of the Sanbo Kyodan wrote:

I personally became Haku'un Yasutani Roshi's disciple at the age of 17 and kept receiving his instructions until his death. So I know very well that Yasutani Roshi did foster strongly right-winged and anti-Semitic ideology during as well as after World War II, just as Mr. Victoria points out in his book.

I find the following quote from Harada Roshi particularly disquieting, perhaps because it takes the form of “Zen and the Art of …”:

Forgetting [the difference between] self and others in every situation, you should always become completely one with your work. [When ordered to] march -- tramp, tramp; [when ordered to] fire -- bang, bang; this is the clearest expression of the highest Bodhi-wisdom, the unity of Zen and war.

Victoria’s book has not been without criticism:

It is right to uncover actual corruption, and Victoria has done a great service in shedding light on a dark time in our history, but nearly destroys his argument by his questionable methods and exaggerated conclusions. … Let’s keep up the good fight to uncover wrongs, reflect and atone, make things right. But let us do so in a forthright and honest way. One must not manipulate and straighten twisted vines.

We practice Zen for the benefit of beings. Selflessly seducing a student or skilfully slaughtering another being - on the battlefield, the electric chair or the barnyard is using Zen as a means to an end that doesn’t justify the means. To me, this is Zen and the art of debauchery.

Bodhin Kholhede, dharma heir of Philip Kapleau, has this to say:

Now that we’ve had the book on Yasutani Roshi opened for us, we are presented with a new koan. Like so many koans, it is painfully baffling: How could an enlightened Zen master have spouted such hatred and prejudice? The nub of this koan, I would suggest, is the word enlightened. If we see enlightenment as an all-or-nothing place of arrival that confers a permanent saintliness on us, then we’ll remain stymied by this koan. But in fact there are myriad levels of enlightenment, and all evidence suggests that, short of full enlightenment (and perhaps even with it—who knows?), deeper defilements and habit tendencies remain rooted in the mind.

- Yasutani Roshi: The Hardest Koan Tricycle Magazine, Fall 1999

And finally, thanks to Koun Franz for this kindly reminder:

There is another conversation in all of this, one that I find more troubling: “He wasn’t a real Buddhist, because a Buddhist could never do something like this.” The math behind this is very simple: If a Buddhist could never do this, and if I am a Buddhist, then I am incapable of doing [this]. And if he and I do not share the same capacity for doing good or bad, then he and I are fundamentally separate.

It doesn’t work that way. We may want it to, but it doesn’t. The fact is, there’s nothing that a human being (any human being) cannot do. The difference, if there is one, is that Buddhists might know that. …

I wanted to say there’s a limit and I’ve found it, that here, finally, I can say, “I am not that.” But that’s not the truth. I know. Whether through practice or the constant asking or just advancing age, I know better. ...

The question for us is how—not just, “How could he do it?” but “How could I do it?

Sunday, September 29, 2013

The Animals Wearing Our Clothes

It's natural to focus our compassion on other beings - animals, children in need, the sick, the downtrodden, even our enemies. Being selfless. Putting our own needs and comfort on the back burner. Tireless rescue workers forgoing sleep. Mother Teresa. Bodhisattvas in the trenches. So much to do. So little time.

In all of this, it's easy to forget a much neglected group of animals. I wrote about them in my first blog post (Who Are These Faithful Friends?):

They are generally obedient animals, with teeth, nails and hair like most others. ;They love attention but are often ignored.  They would love to romp, but are usually allowed only a little bit of walking, and for the rest of the time, are made to sit.

Most often, they are made to eat food with minimal nutritional value, so that for much of their lives, they are obese and unhealthy.  In some cases, they are forced to breathe smoke and even to take harmful drugs to the point of addiction.

They have naturally curious intellects, but these are usually stifled by the countless hours of mindless television they are made to watch.

They are aware of endless opportunities to make others happy, to reach out and comfort suffering.  But because they are forbidden to do so, they are mostly sad.

Despite all of this, they continue to serve us until they eventually die.

They deserve our kindness.

They are our bodies.

Compassion for others and our sense of identity with them go hand in hand.

Compassion is not an idealized state. It is a profound realization that we are not separate from one another. It involves the ability to feel another’s suffering. Like lovingkindness, it is fundamentally interactive and ultimately has no subject and no object. Lovingkindness and compassion are the perfume of the realization of nonduality.

           Compassion: The Second Abode by Joan Halifax Roshi

Respect and kindness towards our animal bodies is really no different.

Besides, there is work to do, and our bodies are our tools. Letting them deteriorate is like letting our chisels get blunt and our wrenches get rusty. Unnecessary illness is unnecessary distraction.

In our enthusiasm for self-sacrificing compassionate action (or possibly, I hasten to add, because of laziness or gluttony), we may overlook or minimize our bodies' needs.


The cost of poor sleep is much greater than many people think: it may have profound consequences for our long-term health. Research has revealed that people who consistently fail to get enough sleep are at an increased risk of chronic disease, and scientists are now beginning to understand why. Treating sleep as a priority, rather than a luxury, may be an important step in preventing a number of chronic medical conditions.

Sleep and Disease Risk (Division of Sleep Medicine, Harvard Medical School)


The health benefits of regular exercise and physical activity are hard to ignore. ... Find a physical activity you enjoy, and just do it. If you get bored, try something new. ... As a general goal, aim for at least 30 minutes of physical activity every day.

A healthy diet

Metabolic Syndrome is a cluster of conditions — increased blood pressure, high blood sugar level, excess body fat around the waist or abnormal cholesterol levels — that occur together, increasing the risk of heart disease, stroke and diabetes ... If you have metabolic syndrome or any of the components of metabolic syndrome, aggressive lifestyle changes can delay or even prevent the development of serious health problems.

Metabolic Syndrome (Mayo Clinic)

I can’t slip away without putting in a plug for what I believe is one of the best gifts you can give your body – a whole foods plant based diet, as recommended in the documentary film Forks Over Knives.

Through an examination of the careers of American physician Caldwell Esselstyn and professor of nutritional biochemistry T. Colin Campbell, Forks Over Knives suggests that "most, if not all, of the degenerative diseases that afflict us can be controlled, or even reversed, by rejecting our present menu of animal-based and processed foods." It also provides an overview of the 20-year China-Cornell-Oxford Project that led to Professor Campbell's findings, outlined in his book, The China Study (2005) in which he suggests that coronary disease, diabetes, obesity, and cancer can be linked to the Western diet of processed and animal-based foods (including all dairy products).

Forks Over Knives (Wikipedia)

This public service announcement was brought to the animals wearing your clothes by the animal wearing mine.

Thursday, September 19, 2013

I Will Love You All My Life

The first time I saw this picture, I got choked up - and the second time, and the third, and the fourth. Innocence, unwavering loyalty, sadness at the shortness of life, all from one image. It was love at first sight.

I will love you all my life.

Lovers say it to each other. Christians, Muslims and Jews say it to God. Narcissists say it to themselves. Materialists say it to their possessions. Vegans say it to the animals. Environmentalists say it to the earth. Bodhisattvas say it to all sentient beings.

It's possible to get bogged down in nonduality (Gazing at the Ox - Solipsism: Trapped in Tozan's First Rank), but wherever "I" and "you" appear, so can love. What an absolutely marvellous fact!

For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face; now I know in part, but then I will know fully just as I also have been fully known. But now faith, hope, love, abide these three; but the greatest of these is love. (1 Corinthians: 12-13)

It's also possible to get bogged down trying to define love. A many-splendored thing? That which makes the world go round? The only thing that there's just too little of? All you need? Perhaps love is like a window. Perhaps an open door. I fear we're straying into koan land.

Never mind. Our hearts know exactly what love is, even if our brains don't.

Returning to the pathetic story about how I let a bunch of pixels shaped like a dog's face get to me, I was reminded of the true story of Hachikō, an Akita dog. The video tribute is a moving blend of clips from the 1987 movie and the 2009 movie with Richard Gere and Joan Allen.

Thanks to Lynette Monteiro at 108zenbooks for the introduction to Hachikō in All in the Waiting. (And best wishes to Lynette and the Ottawa Hospital Emergency Spiritual Care Assistance Team responding to the train-bus tragedy yesterday.)

What the world needs now is love, sweet love,
It’s the only thing that there’s just too little of.
… no, not just for some, but for everyone.
(Burt Bacharach)

Monday, September 9, 2013

Flee(t)ing Thoughts

As I never seem to tire of mentioning, my attraction to Zen practice is its simplicity, or more precisely, its lack of distracting frills and ornaments, and its directness.

Whether we're off the cushion chopping wood or interviewing a client, or on the cushion following the breath, sitting with a koan, or just sitting, our brains naturally churn out unbidden thoughts. A constant part of practice is dealing with them in order to be fully present.

In Opening the Hand of Thought, Kosho Uchiyama Roshi (successor to Homeless Kodo Sawaki) describes the process like this:

Briefly, our attitude in zazen is aiming at maintaining the posture of zazen with our flesh and bones, and with our mind letting go of thoughts.

What is letting go of thoughts? Well, when we think, we think of something. Thinking of something means grasping that something with thought. However, during zazen we open the hand of thought that is trying to grasp something, and simply refrain from grasping. This is letting go of thoughts.

When a thought of something does actually arise, as long as the thought does not grasp that something, nothing will be formed. For example, even if thought A (“a flower ") occurs, as long as it is not followed by thought B (“is beautiful"), no meaning such as AB (“a flower is beautiful") is formed. … So, even if thought A does occur, as long as the thought does not continue, A occurs prior to the formation of a meaningful sequence. It is not measurable in terms of meaning, and it will disappear as consciousness flows on.

Our encounter with thoughts during practice seems to fall into two categories: after daydreaming and before daydreaming.

The first happens when we have grasped a thought, chased it with others, and find ourselves in a daydream. Here we simply notice that our attention has wandered, let go of the thought, and return to being present. If it’s gentle, effortless and non-judgmental, the process of letting go doesn't itself become a distraction, as it can otherwise trigger its own train of thoughts.

The second happens when we become aware of a thought as it begins to take form, but before it takes hold.

Dealing with these nascent thoughts requires even less effort - just returning the attention to the matter at hand without, literally, giving them a second thought, allowing them to 'disappear as consciousness flows on.'

Of course there are times when we need to pay attention to thoughts as they arise. Making thoughts disappear while trying to write a list of things to buy at the store would be a little, er, off the mark.

The title of this post comes from the realization that opening the hand of thought is a skill that, perhaps because it's so easy, can be used wrongly. I've been catching myself allowing thoughts to disappear not because they distract me from being present, but because they're uncomfortable: generally thoughts that remind me I'm avoiding something. (Hopefully I'm just noticing this more, rather than doing it more.)

Either way, more practice required.

Related Post: Stage Fright

Photo © 2013 Marjon Hollander, with kind permission.

Sunday, September 1, 2013

Missing In Action

Stepping from August into September, the question nipping at my heels is, "When is not doing enough, enough?" The lazy summer months floated by, my formal practice went on holiday, this blog crawled under a rock and went to sleep and to some extent, honestly, I feel like I did too.

The summer hasn't been a complete write-off by any stretch. Lots of family time, office time and exercise, and what I think of as my informal practice - i.e. for pretty much everything outside the zendo that doesn't involve sitting on a zafu, aiming to be fully present - continued to unfold at its own pace.

The bodhisattva express, it seems, has infinite stations where one can get on board, but none for getting off and going on a seaside holiday.

The feeling of having been missing in action (I pause to acknowledge having borrowed, nay, stolen the term from blogging friend Lynette Monteiro's Trudging the Wrong Path Diligently) arises when my half-hearted best intentions miss the mark and I drift back into reading a mindless novel. Another twinge of remorse comes from the downside of spending less time on the internet: falling behind in my blog reading, leaving a veritable cornucopia of wonderful works to catch up on.

I could lapse into platitudes here, but since what is really called for is action, I'll just click the 'publish' button and get back to work at failing better.

See you out there.

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

The Waterfall

Chaos and bedlam
No droplet misplaced
Every splash harmony
Even the moment
Of thunderous impact
Silent water
Gives silent birth
To silent spray
The waterfall
Is the water
Is the rocks
Is the trees
The waterfall
Writes this
Reads this
Is this
Is just
A waterfall

Photo: Skógafoss waterfall, Iceland
This Wikipedia and Wikimedia Commons image is from the user Chris 73 and is freely available at //commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Skogafoss_from_below.JPG under thecreative commons cc-by-sa 3.0 license.

Friday, June 14, 2013

Perceiving the Precepts and Buddhist Carnivores

A constant and necessary part of my job is critical analysis - looking for flaws in arguments. Clients, colleagues and opposing counsel try to persuade me with a chain of reasoning that leads to a conclusion they want me to accept. They naturally emphasize the strongest links. I naturally roll out my electron microscope and scrutinize the weakest ones.

Although I try to phrase “you’re wrong” in the nicest possible way, nobody likes to hear it. Emotion aside, critical analysis is simply a search for the truth. Better to have a few ego feathers ruffled than find out the hard way.

I've been doing this for as long as I can remember – in school, in science, in law, and in everyday life so much that I've gotten used to my brain’s incessant little contrarian quips. Make a pronouncement and I’ll take a pot shot at it before the words are out of your mouth.

“All crows are black…” “What about albino crows?”

Useful in the courtroom, perhaps, but a decided handicap in polite company.

Whether I want it to or not, my contradict-o-meter starts going crazy whenever precept #1 of the Bodhisattva Precepts (Do not kill or cause suffering to other beings) or #2 (Do not take what is not given) occurs in the same thought as eating or using animal products.

My train of thought goes something like this:

It is not necessary to eat animal products to be healthy. Period.

Eating animal products creates a demand for animal products.

Producing animal products for food almost always involves killing animals and/or causing them to suffer.

Therefore, eating animal products almost always causes unnecessary suffering and offends the first precept. Animals don’t give us their flesh or milk or eggs voluntarily. We take them because we can, and this offends the second precept.

If the Bodhisattva goal is to relieve suffering everywhere, causing unnecessary suffering is exactly the opposite.

I'm quick to admit that not every case is black and white – just most cases.

If eating animal products were necessary for health, then we would have a real ethical dilemma, but it isn't, so most of the time, we don’t.

There are truly difficult occasions when insisting on strict veganism may cause suffering.  When one parent is vegan and the other eats meat, they have to reach a truce over what kind of food their young child will eat. Other situations, e.g. not offending your host, can often be avoided by giving a little advance warning.  I don't think people really want you to go against your conscience – after all, who would insist that a Muslim or a Jew eat pork or an abstainer drink alcohol?

There are arguments in favour of using leather, e.g. boycotting the sweatshops that make non-leather shoes, but I'm not inclined to agree that putting poorly paid people out of work altogether is a good thing, and from what I've read, the suffering caused by the leather industry is of a different order of magnitude.

One of my Zen heroes is Robert Aitken Roshi, for many reasons. A big one is his direct speech about taking compassionate action. In Miniatures of a Zen Master, he wrote:

The Dharma is pure and simple. 'Do not kill.' Denial of this truth can be convoluted and complex. 'Git along little doggie,' chants the cowboy affectionately on the way to the slaughterhouse. 'Do your patriotic duty,' advises the leader on this or that side of a war. Come on! Start at the beginning. Killing is killing. Build your case there and make your presentation there, if you have the fortitude.

Using animal products, or not, is an individual choice.

We can't judge each other's choices because we don't know what is in each other's hearts and minds.

I'm just saying what's in mine.

Friday, May 31, 2013

Childhood's End

It seems like I've been seventeen for an awfully long time - 47 years next month, to be precise. Body sporadically reminds me that, although feeling the benefit of being a herbivore and getting some exercise, it's no longer a teenager. However, I can't honestly say my thinking mind feels any older than it did when I graduated from high school. It’s still curious, prone to wonder, and as my colleagues will attest, annoyingly analytical.

It was years after my teens before I could freely admit to being an adult man. Over time, my depth perception has increased and I can't deny being a bit wiser, but terms like 'grown up' and 'mature' suggest a level of development I still don't feel.

This post languished as a draft for over a year as a title, opening line, picture and a few scattered thoughts. Because the previous post leaned towards ‘nothing to attain’ (hopefully not so far as to suggest that aimless marketplace wandering should be substituted for formal practice), now seemed a good time to bring this one out of mothballs.

Childhood's End is the title of a science fiction novel I read in my teens by the late Sir Arthur C. Clarke about a tipping point in human evolution. It made a lasting impression on me and contributed, I’m sure, to my shamelessly optimistic belief that, despite the horrors of human depravity, war, and the animal holocaust, we are growing up.

We start out preoccupied with ourselves. Possessive, even obsessive, about our toys. Caught up in playground rivalries - "I'm better than you are!" With any luck, as we grow older, we leave some of this behind. Life becomes less about our own personal pleasure, our personal safety, and our status in the eyes of others. What gives us more happiness is nurturing growth and healing hurt, as if our need for the world to be our parent transforms into our becoming a parent to the world.

In the novel, a whole generation of children begins to exhibit breakthroughs in awareness and acquire powers that their fearful parents don’t understand. To shepherd the children through this transformation, a race of benevolent aliens keeps a watchful eye, and for the most part, doesn't interfere with human affairs. One exception is their intolerance of cruelty to animals. At a bullfight, when a Picador stabs the bull with his lance, the entire crowd screams in pain. They quickly got the message.

I think the reason I avoided finishing this post for so long is that it cuts uncomfortably close to the bone. Writing about childish behaviour in others draws on my considerable judgmental skills. Just when I've figured out the specifics of someone else's arrested development, however, I catch a glimpse of myself in that pesky mirror and it all goes out the window.

I feel those pokes of the Picador’s lance as twinges of guilt each time my critical thoughts loop back and point out my own fears and defence mechanisms. The lessons hit the mark, and I’m very grateful for them …  but it doesn't mean I have to like them.

Kindly reminders to stop and, rather than follow my inclination to run away and take refuge in distraction, take refuge in the Three Jewels.

Beckoning to loosen my fierce grip on the 'right' way.

To let each moment be.

Childhood's beginning.

Related posts:

Friday, April 26, 2013

With Bliss-Bestowing Hands Searching for the Ox

The Ten Ox-Herding Pictures are traditionally considered to represent stages along the path of awakening. The first picture is of a beginner; in the last picture, the beginner has become a master. For present purposes, I'm skipping the steps in between.

The beginner appears to be intent on seeking. The master seems to have found, mastered, and transcended whatever he was looking for, and now, for lack of better words, is blessing everything he encounters.

The boy in the tenth picture looks remarkably like the beginner in the first - perhaps a hint that beginning never ends, or in T.S. Eliot's words, the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time.

In Original Dwelling Place, Robert Aitken Roshi wrote:

I spend time with inquirers disabusing them about absolutes. When someone who has read a little in Zen Buddhism asks me if I am enlightened, I respond without hesitation that I most certainly am not. When someone asks me how many koans I have passed, I respond that I am still working on my very first koan and that I haven’t passed it yet. This is not false modesty but is true to the very bottom. There is enlightenment beyond enlightenment, passing beyond passing. Each milestone on the path may seem a be-all and end-all experience. Everything falls away. The everyday self disappears. Yet the path continues to open out.

Experience is the moment; the path is endless practice.

The tenth ox-herding picture brings to mind words from another tradition:

… I am the Alpha and the Omega, the Beginning and the End. To the thirsty I will give water without cost from the spring of the water of life. (Revelation 21:6)

The point I seem to be trying to make is that it’s never too early to spread kindness. No need to ‘attain’ something first. Just do it. The marketplace awaits your bliss-bestowing hands.

Oh and the flip side of that is, do we really believe there is something to attain? Or, perish the thought, that we have attained it?


Lately I've been discovering the music of Libera.

I am the day, soon to be born
I am the light before the morning
I am the night that will be dawn
I am the end and the beginning
I am the Alpha and Omega
The night and day, the first and last

Thursday, March 28, 2013

Zen but not Buddhist

Don't worry - I'm not jumping ship, just letting my mind wander.

As time passes, I seem to have been shedding one thing after another - old habits, language, values, beliefs (see, e.g. Prayer Pruning: Goodbye Jesus?) like articles of clothing along the dock on the way to a dive into the lake.

I wrote elsewhere (Buddhist Blasphemy?) that I call myself a Zen Buddhist because the label seems to be the best description of what I seem to be. And then, because I'm a Zen Buddhist, I do Zen things, like put on a black robe and do zazen on a zafu on a zabuton in a zendo, chant the four Bodhisattva Vows and pay attention to the abbot.

Ever with an eye for a simpler way, it seemed logical to wonder about extracting from Buddhism some kind of 'pure' Zen - in words attributed to Bodhidharma:

A special transmission outside the scriptures,
Not founded upon words and letters;
By pointing directly to [one's] mind,
It lets one see into [one's own true] nature and [thus] attain Buddhahood.

(I was tempted to replace the last four words with "..." because of the B word.)

It's not that everything Zen has to be as wordless as the Buddha's holding up a flower evoking a smile from Mahākāśyapa, but I admit to ducking for cover when I encounter language like:

This teaching of causality is not that of universal mutual co-arising and non-temporal causality developed later (as, for example, in the Hua-yen tradition), but the temporal, twelvefold chain of dependent arising as discovered by the Buddha during his enlightenment under the Bodhi tree and classically expressed in the Mahāvagga…. Dhātu-vāda is antithetical to Buddhism, since it is the very teaching that Śākyamuni intended to deny. (Paul L. Swanson "Zen is not Buddhism": Recent Japanese Critiques of Buddha-Nature)

But I'm not convinced that bare bones ‘pure’ Zen as a method of transmission can stand on its own.

The law of entropy says that over time, things naturally dissipate, decay, scatter, become diluted, disorganized, out of focus, forgotten. The principle seems to have wide application: a drop of ink in water, galaxies, civilizations, memories, my desk.

Energy and direction are required to counteract entropy. This opposing force also takes many forms: biological growth and healing, cultivating relationships, repair and cleaning, spiritual practice.

So if Zen is a blooming awareness, how best help the flower unfold and propagate, and at the same time, counteract the natural tendency of awareness to become a fading memory, soon easily confused with a clever facsimile constructed entirely of thoughts?

The Buddhism component, with its priesthood, ordination, teishos, sanzen and dharma transmission, is a ready-made machine for nurturing, refining, and passing on awareness, with the added benefit of quality control to ensure that the end product is the real McCoy.

Granted, the gadget is of very old construction – some parts seem unnecessary and overly ornate, but modernizing it has mostly been rather conservative – I suspect, at least partly, because of the priceless nature of the human raw materials and the onerous responsibility for their transformation. It works, and if it ain’t broke…

Nevertheless, those inclined to be ‘spiritual but not religious’ may be turned away from the Zen by a perceived irrelevance of the Buddhism.

Domyo Burk covers this nicely in her post Zen and Religion at Sweeping Zen:

When someone describes themselves as “spiritual but not religious” they usually mean that they pay attention to aspects of life beyond their immediate and personal physical, emotional and mental concerns – like universal truths, morality, or the existence of God – but they do not identify with an established tradition, set of beliefs, or institution. If we use this popular understanding of religion, we might use the term “Zen practice” to refer to the Zen teachings and practices that address our relationship to ultimate reality, and the term “Zen Buddhism” to refer to the set of traditions, resources and institutions that people have created to support and convey those teachings and practices. Zen Buddhism includes writings, a special vocabulary, history, mythology, rituals, devotional practices, imagery, religious objects, clergy, institutions and – most of all – many groups of people, now and over the course of the last thousand years, consciously practicing Zen Buddhism together.


I hope non-religious folks can find a way to practice Zen, because I believe that in its essence Zen is about training to master the art of living a human life. I want people to have access to that training even if they aren’t interested in religion, or if they follow a different religion. I see this training as a wonderful opportunity to take full advantage of having a human life, but even more I see it as a fundamental human responsibility. Should we not work to master the art of our human life as we would work to master a skill, a trade, or another kind of art? Should we not diligently train ourselves throughout our lives toward greater wisdom, compassion and facility with using this tool of a human body-mind?

The value of “many groups of people … consciously practicing Zen Buddhism together” is echoed by James Ford Roshi in his Huffington Post article (well worth reading in its entirety) How to Be Spiritual But Not Religious in a Way That Actually Helps:

There's something really important about people on a spiritual path coming together regularly with others. …

We desperately need others, if we hope to grow spiritually.

The human ego is not a pretty thing to behold in isolation. We need each other. We need our rough edges bumped against, and worn down a little.

And little does this as well as throwing one's self into a spiritual community.

It's easy, and exciting, to envision an evolving Zen Buddhism that can be embraced by a wider and wider sangha without losing its edge. Surely it's happening as we speak.

Calligraphy by Kanjuro Shibata XX "Ensō (円相)" (Wikimedia Commons)

Thursday, February 28, 2013

Pulling Strings

We have a saying in the law business: We are deemed to intend the natural and probable consequences of our acts. In other words, defenses like "Sure, I hit the window with a sledge hammer - but I didn't actually expect it to break!" don't cut it.

Sometimes I picture the universe as having absolutely every single point in space-time joined by a string to absolutely every other point. Any movement, anywhere, affects us. Everything we do - and think, which is a form of action - to some extent affects everything else.

Because of the infinite complexity of this interconnectedness, we generally move almost totally blind to the radiating consequences of our actions. Nevertheless, we place great store in feeling in control of our lives - that when we turn the steering wheel to the right, the car will go to the right and not into oncoming traffic.

I noticed that I had been thinking about the string analogy recently when I had an urge to eat something nonvegan.  It goes like this:

Taking a roast chicken from the supermarket shelf pulls a string that goes into the storeroom and magically pulls another roast chicken out onto the shelf to take its place. Each roast chicken in the storeroom is connected by a series of strings to a live chicken. As sure as night follows day, whenever a roast chicken leaves a store in a shopping cart, far away and unheard, a wretched chicken is dragged out of a house of misery into a slaughterhouse, whether we want to think about it or not.

Remembering the string analogy helps me choose actions that don't naturally and probably lead to suffering ... or does it? If every action is the result of the sum total of the influence of every other action, everywhere, do we even have free will?

My inclination is to fall back on "I don't know - does it matter?" and just carry on acting as if I do have free will, one step at a time.

I was taken with Kokyo Henkel's post Karma, Free-Will, and Determinism over at Sweeping Zen:

A bodhisattva is one who is willing to play the game of appearing as a sentient being who is in control of herself and living in accord with other sentient beings, completely willing to receive the effects of karma, even though ultimately the set of conditions we called “me” that did the action is not the same set of conditions called “me” that receives the result. The freedom of the bodhisattva is that by seeing the illusory nature of free will, they are willing to receive whatever effects come.

Suffering exists.

The laws of cause and effect exist.

We can't control them, but we can unreservedly throw ourselves into them.

And act, when we feel a pull ... on our heartstrings.

Thursday, January 31, 2013

The Polish Cross-Examination

Quite a while ago, I posted a courtroom reminiscence (The Ten Commandments Cross-Examination). The urge is upon me again.

I was in the middle of a fairly lengthy trial in the BC Supreme Court. Generally, these are pretty serious and formal affairs. In Canada, we still wear the traditional barrister's garb, minus the wigs.

Because the trial was about events that mostly took place in Poland, many of the opposing witnesses required a Polish interpreter, which tended to slow down the flow of cross-examination.

One academic gentleman I was attempting to rake over the coals was particularly elusive and just would not give me a straight answer. Over the coffee break, I cornered the translator and asked him if he would please tell me how to say "yes or no" in Polish. He very kindly told me to say "tak lub nie."

Things went much better after that, as I could follow up my questions with a sharp "TAK LUB NIE?" I noticed the judge smirk when I caught his eye the first time I used it.

As the trial proceeded, my learned friend (that's what we call each other in court) introduced a note which his witness claimed had been written by my client. It was in English, but had obviously been composed by someone whose native language was Polish. I questioned the witness (who spoke English) about this.

DA:            So you say this note was written by my client.

Witness:     Yes.

DA:             My client isn't Polish, is he?

Witness:      No.

DA:              But judging by the wording, surely this note was written by someone
                    who is Polish.

Witness:       Well, your client was in Poland for a month. Maybe he became a little
                     bit Polish.

DA:               After this trial's over, I think we're all going to be a little bit Polish.

Judge:          Tak!

Wednesday, January 30, 2013

The Narrow Way - A Review

There are times I feel awed by courageous acts of compassion. This is one of those times. Blogging friend Chris Lemig’s book The Narrow Way comes out next month and I’m honoured to be able to say a few words about it.

As the subtitle suggests, The Narrow Way is about Chris’s coming to terms with realizing he is gay in a time and place where homophobia was the norm. His gut-wrenching descriptions of the fear and self-loathing he experienced and his nightmarish descent into substance abuse and suicidal thoughts are riveting, and surely took great courage to write. How he managed to climb out of such a pit of torment and make his way as a new Buddhist to India and Tibet is a gripping and inspiring story.

Although I’ve kept my own words to a minimum, I hope these passages will whet your appetite for a wonderful book that I had great difficulty putting down.

From time to time, Chris quotes from his journal.  Here is a passage verging on despair.

I worry that everyone who sees me knows I’m spun.
My face turns red and my hands turn cold and purple.
My teeth are falling out and my breath smells a little like death.
It makes me crazy.
I don’t take care of my dog.
It controls me. Sometimes I do it only hours after saying I wouldn't.
I don’t even like it anymore.
It defines me and that’s scary.

His drug use fails to produce the much-needed refuge.

I take a hit and inhale into oblivion, letting my eyes roll back until I forget who I am, who I was, who I might be. I hide, deny, evade and make another attempt at this futile escape. But there is no escape. Even though I have changed my name and moved once a year for the past eighteen years, even though I have changed my story and lied through my teeth, the truth has found me out every time. It tears through my body and mind like a chainsaw, unrelenting and agonizing.

And doesn't make his struggle coming out of the closet any easier.

I couldn't even see that it wasn't desire at all but the essence of the real me, the gay me, just trying to get out. So I took the drugs wildly, hoping they would help me to sound out that name with dry throat and tongue. I would snort whole grams of speed in one great inhale, stay awake and stuttering for days, make my way to the gay clubs and porno stores when I thought I had finally broken through. But even then I could only stand there on the shore of that sea of men and sex while the throbbing music and the desperate moans crashed over me like waves. Sometimes I would hold those men in the middle of the night, there in the dark little booths where I could get down on my knees and with open arms and mouth finally confess. But mostly I would just bite my lip till it bled and run for the door. Three years I did this. Nine hundred blinding sunrises in a row. Then the bottom came up too fast and seeing the imminent future of me, shattered and broken there on the hard, concrete earth, I called home.

And once out, it was far from a cakewalk.

I've been out of the closet for only a month when I find myself pinned down in the back seat of the car. We have just come from the funeral of a friend who died from crack cocaine. Her sister and her son, two people I once called friends, are beating me half to death. We are drunk and angry and I have just said something stupid.

“She had it coming to her,” I heard myself slurring under my breath.

Now I take what’s been coming to me for years and I will never again feel this afraid, this alone, this powerless. Flailing fists smash my face, sending electric shocks of violence to my brain. Fingernails tear at my eyes and I think: “She’s going to scratch my eyes out. She wants me to go blind.” “Faggot, faggot, you fucking faggot!” they scream. Or are they saying, “Fly caged bird, fly”?

I think I will go deaf from the screams that are filled with hate and loud enough to shatter a stone heart. But my heart is not stone; it is flesh and muscle beating two hundred times a minute as I start fighting for my life…

I was completely drawn into the book by Chris’s imagery – whether the sights and smells of a drug hit gone wrong …

It is three years before India and I am not going anywhere. Instead, it is four in the morning and my eyes are wild and bloodshot as I pick through the carpet, searching for tiny pieces of crack cocaine that may have sizzled off the end of my pipe. My roommate sits on the bare floor of her room cooking up a fresh batch on a tarnished, blackened teaspoon but I can’t wait to get another hit. I try to smoke what turns out to be the clipping of a dirty toenail, and it fills my mouth with the taste of burnt skin and rubber.

The temptation to use again, always just around the corner …

Four days later without a drink or a cigarette and the cravings come in powerful waves that threaten to bowl me over. “Just one drag, just one drink and it will all go away,” say the voices of old demons still squatting in a back room in my mind. “Stay quit, stay quit, stay quit,” says another voice, a voice that I am just learning to trust, a voice that I’m beginning to recognize as my own.

I chant the mantra to myself when the bargaining and the drafting of new promises begin and the demons withdraw. Stay quit, stay quit, stay quit.

Or the sights and sounds and strangeness of India.

The bus that will take me there from Delhi is an hour late. Plenty of time to stare, dumfounded and open-mouthed, into the face of India as I wait by the side of the road. I am clutching a sweaty bus ticket while she stares back at me, unblinking and unashamed, with a hundred thousand expressions to fit a hundred thousand moods. She is the young leper girl without a nose in bright blue sari begging for rupees while she dances and twirls to tabla beats. She is the prostitute leading the young man into the abandoned, graffiti covered shack across the street. She is the cars, auto-rickshaws and motorcycles screaming endlessly by. She is the three-legged dog covered in mange darting through the traffic.

This is not the face of India that I had expected or imagined.

Panic and despair as a long and carefully planned attendance at a talk by the Dalai Lama seems to unravel.

Back down Bagshu Road I run, following the black lines of the map that is burned in my mind, all the way to the building marked Security Office. I am on the tips of my toes, humming a little victory tune as I walk through the door. I have made it! Ten thousand miles on this long, hard road. There is no stopping me now!

But then, without any warning, I am stopped, suddenly and surely and dead in my tracks. A giant chalkboard hangs at the far end of the hall and I narrow my eyes in the dark to read and reread the tall letters that spell out in clear and perfect English: THERE ARE NO MORE PASSES FOR HIS HOLINESS’ TEACHINGS.

“There must be some mistake,” I say out loud. I close my eyes, imagine the website that I thought I had checked and double-checked. Passes are only issued on the first day of the teachings, it said.

There is obviously some translation problem at work here, so I scurry from door to door peering into the tiny rooms looking for answers. But no one is home. Then I hear a stirring towards the back. In the very last office sits the only stern Tibetan I have ever seen. He gets up from a rickety wooden chair and looks me up and down. I have lost the ability speak so I wave and sign in unintelligible gesticulations. I try to tell him that I want a pass for the teachings; that I have just gotten off the seventeen-hour bus ride from New Delhi and the fifteen-hour flight from America. I pantomime the past year of preparations and planning and hard work. I explain in sweeping, arcing gestures all the magic and synchronicity that has led me here, to this very place, at this very moment.

He is unmoved.

“Didn’t you read the sign?” is all he says. “Yes,” I manage in a whisper.

In the face of extreme suffering.

I let my backpack slide off of my shoulders and I sit cross-legged on the cold platform next to a pile of filthy rags. But it is not rags at all. Suddenly, it begins to stir and unfold. I leap up, ready to run down the tracks in fear as a human form uncurls itself from underneath a torn t-shirt smeared with dirt and grime. It is a young man, no more than twenty, already broken beyond repair. He is all bones now, sharp at the joints that threaten to tear through the wrinkled brown paper sack that used to be his skin. His wispy beard and wild, black hair are a nest for lice and leaves and bits of trash that have come to rest there.

He struggles to move and each bending of each brittle limb is a creaking agony. I think he might be dying right then and there before my eyes.

I am no more than ten feet away. I could take two decisive steps and help him to his feet, take him to God-Knows-Who, to someone, to anyone for help. But I don’t. All the meditations on compassion, the wish to free others from their suffering and pain, are sucked out of me like air into the vacuum of space. Instead, I stare, jaw dropped open, like a dumb, mute statue of stone. It takes long, slow minutes for him to rise to his feet and when he does I think the cool breeze coming from the north will blow his hollow bones and paper skin down the tracks. As the apparition staggers off and disappears around the corner, I wrap the memory of him neatly into an unlabeled box and hide it away on a lonely back shelf in my mind. By the time my train comes four hours later, chugging and steaming around the tracks, I will have already forgotten him.

A simple act of kindness.

This descendent of the Bodhi Tree stretches her long, dangling limbs over me, just like her forbearer did over the Buddha two and a half thousand years ago. Her leaves shimmer and twist and dance in the warm breeze. Sometimes a score or more of them break loose from her branches and spiral down to the earth. Pilgrims swarm, giddily snatching them up before I can even think about rising. A young Tibetan monk, ten years old, picks one up that has landed right in front of my feet. He has an armful of them already and he cradles them to his chest like precious jewels. He is about to return to the stream but when he sees me looking on longingly, he turns and with a happy smile and bright eyes drops every last one of them into my lap.

At last.

His Holiness is still smiling and offering his blessings to the crowd as the car pulls away. Our eyes meet for a split second. It is not the perfunctory eye contact of politicians and celebrities but a genuine reaching out. For that brief moment I know he is looking just at me, taking the time to really see me. He smiles, then I smile back. I melt and dissolve right there before his eyes until I am completely content and for the first time in my life I am certain that I have come the right way.

Friendship and a call to action.

Monks and nuns and pilgrims encircle us as we say our goodbyes. Finally, I let go of Sonu’s hand and begin to walk away. I turn to wave one last time but he has already disappeared. I have missed the point entirely. Yes, it is good to meditate, to prostrate, to pray. But what good is this if it doesn’t help those in need?

A deep bow of gratitude, Chris. You made me laugh and cry. Thank you for your kindness and courage to tell your story. I hope that many who find themselves overwhelmed by despair, standing where you have been, will know that they are not alone and that there is a way out, even though at times it seems very narrow indeed.

Let me close with your quote of Joseph Campbell:

Where we had thought to travel outward, we will come to the center of our own existence. And where we had thought to be alone, we will be with all the world.
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