This morning as I awoke I laid in bed reflecting on my experience that last forty-eight or more hours. Yesterday my family and I celebrated my parents 90th birthday. Present, was my Father a man of marvel, who continues to work even now seven days a week, with the same devotion he had the first day he went to work. My Mother who for ten years now has lived with dementia was present enough to mumble, “Hi” to everyone before she ate some food and fell fast asleep for the next three hours. Then there was my Father’s brother 84 years old with colon cancer requiring him to wear two colostomy bags and the beginning of kidney failure. Also was my Aunt, his wife who is 99% legally blind and requires his devoted attention every waking hour. They had made the long trip of driving 3 1/2 hours from northwest Pennsylvania for the occasion. Finally, my twin sister, her family my niece and nephew, their wives and husbands, my daughter Katie and her great cousin Livia and, my closest cousin Porky and his family.
On my mind as I laid in bed were the words of the Evening Dharani I had recited in the Zendo hundreds of times, as I did just the other day. “Permit me to respectfully remind you, birth ad death is the Supreme Matter. Everything is of the nature of impermanence. Gone, gone, forever gone. Opportunity is too often lost. Do not squander your life.”
Over a year ago I was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. Entered an intensive chemotherapy protocol, had major surgery to remove a tumor from part of my pancreas, more chemo and then radiation. In the end I was told, I was in remission. The bloodwork showed that the cancer cells were no longer active. With that news, I rang a traditional bell you would find on any ship, to mark the success of medical science and perhaps my will to beat the cancer. The happiness on that day as well as the anticipation of living cancer free did not last long. In just two days from now I will return to chemo-therapy for a second battle against the demon thief who haunts the lives of millions of people all over the world.
As I laid in bed reflecting I wondered, “What had I squandered?” And “How much?” And, “If I did, what would I have done differently?” I must admit to you there were no immediate answers, and certainly not the usual I often hear people say like, “I would have travelled more.” “I wouldn’t have not worked so much.” Or “I would have said, I love you more often.” No my mind simply fell back to the party where, I sat most of the time when someone was not asking me to explain how I felt, simply watching and quietly loving the faces of all the people there. Most of all my daughter Katie. Whom as you’d might expect I worry the most about in the event I lose this battle. I did however begin to see where I took for granted many many years ago that all of these people, whom I love so much, from my Father to his brother, my niece and nephew, my cousins, and last but certainly not least of all my daughter, while only ten years old, would, did, and are aging toward that same inevitable transition that comes to us all. How brief the many family outings when we were children, or perhaps celebrating the new birth of a nephew or niece. Moments like these are too brief, time is merciless forever robbing us of those imagined “opportunities in the future, too often lost.”
Life isn’t like we like to think of it, “either/or”. We do what we can. We do what we do. We accumulate a collection of choices that were both good for us and others, and those not so good. In the end if we are lucky, and I consider myself as one of the lucky ones, we have no regrets. Not because we did it all right or we did it, “my way”. I think the “no-regrets” come from just simply accepting it all. All of it. The successes and the failures. All the while maintaining a sense of gratitude and meaningful engagement with it all as it all unfolds. “Being engaged”, I think is the true meaning of living life. Hiding from none of it. Embracing the hard times as well as the good times. It’s all meaningful and has something for us to seriously consider. Opportunities should be ceased. Take not one for granted. When you find yourself either walking in the rain, bathing in the sunlight, or having to go through hell, do it “as if you own the place.” Don’t look back. The moment you’ve passed through it, it is “gone, forever gone”. Look around you, see the beauty of the moment, touch it, listen to it, taste it and fully digest it.
As I said “hello” and then “goodbye” to my family yesterday, I noticed as I hugged each and every one of them, I held them a little longer and a little tighter. While I did I realized that I wanted them, to know, I really did love them, I really did appreciate them, I really was for them.
By the end of the party I was exhausted, making my way ahead of everyone to my car, when suddenly I heard my daughters voice yell out, “Daddy, Livia, (my five year old cousin) wants another hug.” I stopped and turned around and waited for her to run into my arms, there we hugged. When she broke loose of our embrace and ran back to her Mother, I knew I had been hugged, and I had hugged her. Life Was Good!
I want you to know, I really do love you! I really am for you!
“Our society suffers from a crises of connection, a crises of solidarity. We live in a culture of hyper-individualism. There is always tension between self and society, between the individual and the group. Over the past sixty years we have swung too far toward the self. The only way out is to rebalance, to build a culture that steers people toward relation, community, and commitment – the things we most deeply yearn for, yet undermine with our hyper-individualistic way of life.”
– David Brooks, The Second Mountain
While the meaning of spirituality like the meaning of love may be different to different people, traditionally, “spirituality” referred to a religious process of re-formation, “which aims to recover the original shape of man”. Fundamental to all of the Buddha’s teachings is the “interconnectedness and interdependency” of every life-form, our “true-nature”. We are “interconnected” and our very existence depends on our realization of this fact-of-life and the actualization of our interdependency by the ways in which we live our daily lives.
Chardin wrote, “You are not a human being in search of a spiritual experience. You are a spiritual being immersed in a human experience.” As “spiritual beings,” true and sustainable happiness is a function of “recovering our original shape” or “realizing our true-nature”, living as “spiritual beings immersed in a human experience”.
Spirituality is deeply rooted and deeply committed. It is a “committed life”. There are no options for those who live spiritually in the world. “Community is the Spirit, the Guiding Light.” For the truly spiritual it is our “interconnectedness and interdependency” which defines us and motivates our actions. It is not enough to believe “we are one,” our words, our life’s actions, choices, and ways of being must reflect our beliefs. “Whereby people come together to fulfill a purpose,” a “singular purpose”. That “purpose” being, “to live my life as a benefit for the whole of life”. We were born to bring to the world what the world needs. What the world needs is “benevolence,” a “community” of spiritual beings benefitting the world by the way they see themselves (thoughts), by the way they communicate (words), and by their choices and ways-of-living (actions). Spiritual beings; beings made up of the stuff of love, kindness, and compassion, immersed in the human experience to “realize their enlightenment and manifest their divinity” for the benefit of the whole world. And finally living together to, “help others fulfill their purpose,” and “to take care of one another.”
Living “spiritually” is a way-of-being in the world grounded in the belief in our inherent potential to love unconditionally, to care about each others well-being, to take care of each other and the whole of Nature. Living spiritually is living “Responsibly”. “Responsibility begins with the willingness to take the stand that one is cause in the matter of one’s life. It is a declaration, a context from which one chooses to live one’s life. Responsibility is not burden, fault, praise, blame, credit, shame or guilt. In responsibility, there is no evaluation of good or bad, right or wrong. There is simply what’s so in any given moment or circumstance or situation, and the stand you choose to take on what’s so. Responsibility begins with the willingness to deal with a situation from and with the point-of-view that you are the generator of what you do, what you have and what you are. It is a position which defines you and your way-of-being in the world, an empowering context that leaves you with a say in the matter of life.” Whenever a difficult situation surfaces in my life I do not look for fault, someone to blame or shame, or who’s guilty. I choose to be responsible for my reaction and for correcting the situation. When my brother or sister is hungry, I find a way to feed them. Where I see injustice, I work to reestablish justice. When I am hurt, I forgive. Because responsibility is “my position,” or the “context” I have chosen to live my life from, “I am” the source of my actions and my reactions, of what I want, and of who I am in the world.
Whenever we define ourselves or anything or anyone, we “fix the limits”. By definition to define is, to “fix the limits of”. Choosing to be responsible and to live spiritually in the world “defines” me, it is what determines both my potential and my limitations. Spirituality is “absolute”. Webster defines “absolute” as, “a value or principle which is regarded as universally valid or which may be viewed without relation to other things.” “In “idealist philosophy,” the “Absolute” is “the sum of all being, actual and potential”. In “monistic idealism,” it serves as a concept for the “unconditioned reality which is either the spiritual ground of all being or the whole of things considered as a spiritual unity.” (Wikipedia) Earlier I wrote that “spirituality is a committed life”. Not loving my fellow sentient beings, not being kind to everyone I meet, not showing compassion for the suffering and, not living my life as a benefit for others, is not an option. I don’t get to cherry pick the very basic principles of my life. I may make mistakes and even fail at times. Then I clean up my mess and get back to living spiritually in the world. But simply abandoning my identity because “I don’t feel like it today,” or “life is too difficult,” is not an option. I call this, “The Principle of Identity”. I am defined by the very principles I have chosen, or declare to be, “Who I want to be in the world”. Life’s circumstances and unexpected situations, unfulfilled expectations, and tragedies, do not define me. My “response” to life is “Who I Am”. I am a spiritual being, not a human being in search of a spiritual experience, “a spiritual being immersed in a human experience,” in order to learn, to grow, and to serve.
Living spiritually in the world is transformational. The dictionary defines “transformation” as, “a thorough or dramatic change in form or appearance; a metamorphosis; a change of the form or nature of a thing or person into a completely different one, by natural or supernatural means.” Living spiritually is not just a supplemental effort to simply make me feel better after a difficult day. It is a “re-formation which aims to recover the original shape of a person.” This involves a “thorough or dramatic change” in lifestyle including priorities, principles, choices, and decisions. Happiness, contentment, or joy is not the aim, but a bi-product of living spiritually.
Our social and cultural environment is not conducive for happiness or well-being. Any effort to simply supplement our daily experience with meditation, yoga, a prayer life, or any of the other spiritual practices, will always, result in just a temporary positive experience at best. In Zen, “learning to be content,” is choosing to be responsible, to be “cause” in the matters of my life. The source of my personal happiness, begins and ends with me. My lifestyle, my choices, my priorities reinforce my life’s experiences. Global transformation, begins and ends with me. My choice to heal rather than harm, to forgive rather than blame or shame, and to love “all the many beings” unconditionally, is the transformational force of the Universe.
You say, “You want to see the world change?” Well, all real change begins with real changes. “Be the change you want the world to be.”
I Love You,
We live in a “content” oriented society obsessed with the pursuit of more, better, and different. Our reality, is one of cause and effect, context and content. If we are ever going to understand our personal and global discontentment, which is at the root of the worlds increasing fear of challenges and uncertainty, we must become aware of the “causes” in life, the “context” of our lives which creates the content of our lives.
Faith – “strong belief in God or in the doctrines of a religion, based on spiritual apprehension rather than proof.”
Far too often in the modern world man is willing to “throw the baby out with the bath water.” When problems arise or God forbid tragedy strikes, too many of us move away from our faith in God or Something larger than ourselves. Perhaps we pray less, attend our places of worship less often, put aside meditation, withhold our donations, or are less mindful of our behaviors harmful both to ourselves and others. When problems arise this is a time to “find refuge” in our faith and the spiritual practices which will get us through the darkness, remembering as Mark Nepo writes in his book “Awakening,” describing his battle with cancer, “The presence of God does not guarantee the absence of pain, but makes it more bearable.” Likewise, the Buddha’s teaching on “cessation from suffering,” (The Four Noble Truths) should be understood as a means for transforming life’s disappointments to opportunity’s and not oppositional.
I find myself reminiscing of days gone by, melancholy for a time when the world I’ve known in my heart, was so much different.
The words of our forefather’s and mother’s continue to haunt me, as they do millions of Americans: “We the People.” “E Pluribus Unum.” “With Liberty (Freedom) and Justice (Equality) for all.” “Like an anthem in my heart,” they continue to orchestrate a “vision for the world,” a dream of days go by, “which either happened or not, and if not, “Why Not?”, interrupting and disrupting the world and todays current events.
All throughout history the Monastic and Contemplative Community has served as a “quiet yet powerful force for good in the world”. The monastery is not only home to the Monks but, a place of refuge for visitors and pilgrims seeking refuge and, a conducive and appropriate environment for nurturing and awakening the best of human nature.
I have often been heard to say, “You don’t have to become a monk to live like a monk but, you have to live like a monk.” Living authentically and spiritually in the world – matters; Living a principled and purposeful life – matters, Community and a devotion to benefiting the lives of others and a commitment to something larger than just yourself – matters. Not only does it “matter,” it is the “difference” in life that so many continue to search for endlessly.
“I can tell you deliverance will not come from the rushing noisy centers of civilization. It will come from the lonely places.” – Fridtjof Nansen
I have always felt like a “stranger in a strange land”. I first felt this way when I was seven years old, and after God had stolen my heart, and has yet to return it to me.
In my youth, I often visited the “rushing noisy centers of civilization,” in search of love and glory. I found it for a while, and then the lights would come on at 1:00am as they did hundreds of times, only to find myself in the streets of the city making my way back to that place from whence I was convinced the journey would lead me to what I felt I most needed.
I would occasionally seek refuge in the “Institutes of Knowledge” which I would never underestimate their contributions to civilization. Yet, here we are in the 21st Century still debating the fundamental issues of humanity: The right to life; to live free of the fear of discrimination, injustice, poverty, and illness; the right to full self-expression, freedom from repression and oppression, equality and war.
Being the first-born son of a “conservative capitalist” “meaning of life,” was defined, for me, a definition I would quickly reject and in doing so, be rejected. Early on I was exposed to the “Industries of Commerce,” in an effort to try to shape and form me toward that ends. There I heard Mara’s voice and his promises of wealth, security, and glory? I would not be enticed, well not entirely. Remember God has my heart, and regularly interrupts my thoughts.
Lately I have felt like I have been living under and endless stream of clouds. Winter has certainly taken its toll. But clouds unlike the light which shines behind them, are impermanent, no matter how long they may linger. But more importantly they are deceptive, and when we look up and only see cloudy skies, we must keep looking until we see the whole truth. The Sun does not go up or down, in or out, it is always shining, always bright, always in its appropriate place in the Universe. The light is never dispelled, only hidden at times by obstructions both natural and manmade. No matter what direction we look, if our vision is big enough, wide enough, high enough, we must and we will eventually, discover the light.
“Man is spirit.” — Winston Churchill
If we are ever going to rebuild and renew the world and humanity, it must begin with personal responsibility and a real commitment to the principles of peace, loving-kindness, compassion, benevolent service, and the cultivation of real Wisdom. This will require real effort toward establishing lasting peace within one’s own heart and mind first. When this self I call “Myself” changes, the world will naturally change. The individuals healing and renewal, becomes the worlds healing and renewal, just as the Buddha declared on that day of his own healing, “All beings are Buddha.”
All Life Has Meaning and Purpose
Shikantaza — “Just Sitting” reveals the meaningfulness of life. We will never come to know the meaningfulness of life in our comings and goings, our striving, and our craving. Shikantaza is about accepting ourselves, accepting our world, just as it is, and just as it isn’t. Without adding, without detracting, we embrace, we hold, we experience, we simply accept ourselves. This is the first gate on the Path. Accepting yourself will be the hardest thing you will ever do. Accepting your world will be even harder. This is why we sit. You can study the Dharma, the Sutra’s, the ancient teachings of the Masters, all the way back to Shakyamuni, for your entire life and still remain in ignorance, until you have accepted yourself and your life. Shikantaza is the light that will guide you in your darkness. It is the truth which will set you free.
You may think you understand, but words cannot describe it, its essence is immeasurable. It is not something one can understand. It is not dependent upon human intellect. The fullness of Shikantaza cannot be taught, cannot be acquired, it can only be known. You will not believe me until you have experienced it for yourself. Then no one will believe you, until they experience it for themselves.
Shikantaza is, in all things and matters of life, the relinquishment of dualistic views and approaches. We may “think” of the mind as separate from the body, but neither can exist without the other. There has always been persons who think of themselves separate from Nature. Our very existence is, the natural world. So, we sit to reawaken to our true-nature. Our true-nature is non-dualistic. Dualism is the breach between reality and our ideas about reality — but not to be mistaken as “two”. Like neighbors, dualism and non-dualism live side-by-side. No road or path runs through the middle. In order to realize this we must learn to embrace dualism and non-duality in equanimity. By dualism I mean, the individuals responsibility to find their “Way Home”. By non-dualism I mean, what follows personal responsibility is always “relationship” or “community”. We all need each other. This is the marking of a true and authentic spiritual path or practice. We must make the journey on our own two feet, only to meet others, making the journey on their own two feet, along the way who will help us complete our journey.
Whenever the Monks of Pine Wind come together for a meal we pray:
“This food is the gift of the whole Universe, each morsel is a sacrifice of a life, may we be worthy to receive it… As the lotus flower does not adhere to water, we will feel no rain, for each of us will be shelter for the other; We will feel no cold, for each of us will be warmth for each other; There will be no more loneliness, for each of us will be companion to the other.”
This is the journey and the destination, and the vehicle is Shikantaza.
I am a monk. I have had no formal training per se, by choice. What I have had, is a “Vision”. From as far back as I can remember, my “Vision” has been my True Teacher, the Spirit which continues to drive me, my Guiding Light. I have been a student of several great teachers, before, and after their deaths. When they were alive they would say to me this, they would say to me that. Some of “this” I would remember and apply. Some of “that” I would forget and discard. My Vision has been my primary formal training. Everything I have done, everything I do, has been, and continues to be a manifestation of that Vision; an expression of either my understanding of it or my lack of understanding. Either, or, has served me well.