Buddhism teaches that there is nothing we can do to stave off aging, illness, loss, or death. It is inevitable that they will come. How we conduct ourselves during and after is the definition of who we are as human-beings. An essential quality of a fully mature human being, of a fully realized enlightened being, especially during difficult times, is to have the heart of a Bodhisattva. The traditional definition of a Bodhisattva is, “someone who chooses not to enter the state of perfect peace, called nirvana, in order to help all sentient beings to liberate themselves from suffering and its causes.” Here the use of the term “perfect peace” does not mean the complete absence of anxiety. It points to how the Bodhisattva responds to stressful and anxious moments like the one we find ourselves in today. Traditionally Buddhism teaches the every being possesses “basic goodness,” therefore every being is a potential Bodhisattva.
While no one including myself welcomes physical pain or mental anxiety, the heart of the Bodhisattva is large enough to hold both pleasure and pain; both the loved-one and the enemy; both the friend and the stranger, in compassionate equanimity. The Bodhisattva embraces his or her kinship not only with those he or she loves, but also with those we may not love or even hate, or with the stranger, and with the whole of nature which sustains all of us. We are related, to all beings past, present, and future. We are also interconnected through our relatedness; therefore what happens to one-being, happens to all of us. We are interconnected biologically, ecologically, economically, and politically. We are interdependent as well. We are in this together, we always have been. We need to support one-another, communicate everyday, says the things you’ve been putting off all of your life.
If there ever was a time in human history, (and there have been other times) once again, now is a time to “Call On All Bodhisattvas”. While fear and anxiety tend to dominate the hearts and minds of so many fellow human beings during this global crises, the heart of the Bodhisattva offers an avenue toward calm, a border point-of-view (options) healing, and possibility, during what feels so impossible. Qualities such as patience, tolerance, loving-kindness, compassion, generosity, and benevolence, applied to how we respond to this crises, can do us all much good. These qualities nurture not only one-another when practiced, science tells us our mental attitude can either weaken or strengthen the human immune system. These qualities though inherent in all of us, sometimes far too often, prove to be difficult to embrace and actualize; requiring practice or regular application and renewal through a daily practice of quiet reflection (contemplation); meditation; and living more purposefully and mindful, not only of our thoughts and emotions, but also of how we communicate with our words and with our actions.
COVID19 is real. Everyone must, follow the recommendations of the experts: regularly wash your hands, keep a safe “social distance” from others, and stay out of public gathering places with more than ten people. Following these recommendations can help prevent you and others from contracting this virus.
COVID19 however, is not the only thing that isolates and separates us. We were divided long before this virus ever touched our shores. We need to be honest with ourselves and each other about this if we are ever going to defeat this virus and other deadly diseases such as: economic inequality, injustice, all forms of discrimination, polarization, poverty, religious and political intolerance, and other social diseases which have made their way through the population long before COVID19.
Alienation, resentment, greed and hatred have never dispelled darkness in our world. Only the truth of loving-kindness; compassion; generosity; mercy; and benevolence, the most ancient and inexhaustible truth which has time and time again proven to bring light, into the darkened corners of our world. From this Truth, we begin to align our priorities including our choices and our behavior and endeavor to dissolve all forms of oppression, doing our part as Bodhisattvas to help all sentient beings liberate themselves from suffering and its causes. Through solidarity we are present for one-another (if not physically), and care for each other (regulasrly pick up the phone, email, write a letter, or text), drawing from the best of our angels, of our — True-nature.
In Zen, especially in times of uncertainty, we can create some certainty in our lives. We do not just abandon years of practice and training because of the fear and anxiety we may be experiencing or because of desperation. We “respond” to the moment by bringing to the moment our practice and training. You and I have no power over what the world may be, or any person for that matter, at any given time whether they be simpler times or complex such as these. What we do have power over, is, our own actions and behaviors.
We can bring some certainty to the moment by being in the present moment with integrity. Here I find the emphasis on having a “daily routine” helpful.
When I wake up in the morning I take a moment to reflect and assess my experience. I apply the basic techniques of living mindfully. I take a breathe or few and bring my awareness to my body and any mental formations. I offer my prayers of gratitude. When I get out of bed I go to the bathroom and with “mindful attention” I wash my hands, my face, and sometimes my entire body; quietly, reflectively, gratefully. I then make my bed. (Never leave your bedroom without making your bed. It makes a hell of a lot of difference when you seek refuge for a nap or when you retire later that evening.) I Turn off all electric items such as the lamp, air filter, and radio. I then make my way down the hall greeted by my cats, I take the time to respond to their needs, then eventually my dog and her needs. While I make it a practice to leave no dirty dishes in the sink except sometimes, I take care of what is needed there. I heat the teapot full of water and prepare my morning matcha tea with honey. I continue from there throughout the day. When I’m hungry I eat. When I’m thirsty I drink. When there’s dishes to clean, I clean the dishes. When it’s time to pray or meditate, I pray and meditate. When it’s time to rest, I rest. When it’s time to write these words, I sit and write. Routine gives us a sense of “living our lives our way.” I do not “do” anything because I “have to”, I always bring an attitude of, “This is my home. My pets are part of my family. My home protects me, keeps me sheltered, warm, and creates a space for me to be. So as I always tell my ten-year old daughter, “The house takes care of us, our pets give us happiness and joy, they take care of us, so we take care of the house and our pets, and friends, guests, and other family members.”
I can remember the arrival of the first computer. The geeks in my class had a field day. It was like the heavens opened and God sent manna. As time went on and we all began to learn how to use a computer one of my friends, one of the geeks, was heard to say, “Garbage in, garbage out.” Later, I like so many learned he was referring to the mechanics of a computer. A computer can only give us whatever is on its hard drive and in its memory. Likewise, a human-being can only react or respond according to whatever is on his or her “hard-drive and in his or her memory”.
So, watch what you expose yourself to while isolated in your homes.
I strongly encourage everyone to “go on a strict diet” of watching cable news. I personally limit it to just at best a half-hour in the morning, a half-hour at night, and sometimes less. The same is true about social media. “Garbage in, garbage out.” Not that there is no value whatsoever in checking in with the rest of the world. But as you know, it’s not like the days of “Walter Cronkite,” “just the facts”. When you randomly just listen to others without filtering the information and blindly accepting it as fact you open yourself to, many other forms of viruses neither good for the mind and the body. Remember that the body takes its cues from your “state of mind”. Do whatever keeps it calm, quiet, and prepared to respond, not just react, to the challenges rising up from moment to moment. As I write these words I am listening to channel 443 on the Comcast cable network. I recommend it.
Finally, having been diagnosed nearly two years ago with pancreatic cancer, I refused to let the cancer, the chemo-therapy, radiation, my daily exhaustion, any side effects, and yes my own fears, to define me.
I fell in love many years ago with The Great Mystery, call it God or Buddha; with this beautiful beautiful planet we occupy together; with my daughter since the first day she was born ten-years ago; with my ninety-year old parents; my sibling; my friends; my fellow monks and students, and the many persons who have visited Pine Wind over the years. What defines me are the Vows I’ve taken and, recite regularly to myself and in the liturgy. They are my personal promises, not just traditional precepts of a Student-of-Dharma. They can be summed up with my experience I have had on numerous occasions including during this part of my journey with cancer.
“It is and continues to be a privilege to be alive. I am honored and grateful for the number of lessons I have learned from everyone I have had contact with in one form or another. Every breath I breathe is gift. Every person who come through these doors, who make the choice to be here when they could be anywhere else in their world, is gift. I am grateful that perhaps whatever days I have left I will get to live them in the heart of the natural world; that I will continue to be called to a life of benevolent service. That I will not be and am not ever alone. I will continue to make this journey with my fellow monks, my brothers and sisters, loved and selflessly supported by friends of Pine Wind and that, like Robert Frost once wrote of himself, in the end: “If I would have it writ upon my stone, let it say, “I had a lovers quarrel with the world.” This, is what defines me. I pray that I will always have the strength and mental fortitude to never fail in my definition and, like my relationship with my dog I hope, “That I will always be the person you think I am.”
“We are so much more together than alone!” Let this be our hope for the future, to realize this. Let this be our only intention, to actualize this everywhere.
I love you,
“The need for the Dharma is stronger than ever. We can choose to live in our fears, confusion, and worries; or to stay in the essence of our practice, center ourselves, and be the ones on this beautiful boat of the earth that demonstrate patience, compassion, mindfulness, and mutual care.” – Jack Kornfield
The dictionary defines “fear” as: a feeling of anxiety concerning the outcome of something or the safety and well-being of someone. No one would deny that we are living in a time of uncertainty and causes for concern. We can choose to view the world and current events exclusively from a place of fear, doubt, and worriment, or we can choose to view it from a place of “faith” as we feel both the strength and fragility of our “interdependence and interconnectedness”.
As some of you reading this may know, nearly twenty-four months ago I was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. (I continue the “good fight” to defeat the cancer in my body to this day.) Needless to say my immediate emotional response was one of fear. Over the past twenty-four months I relied on my forty-five years of practice and training in Zen and my “faith,” and found “refuge” in the Dharma and made a conscious choice to come from a place of faith rather than my fears.
Recently I presented a two hour talk on “Working With Our Emotions”. During that talk I reminded people that, “We are not our feelings or our emotions.” We have feelings, and we have emotions, but “we” are much larger than any feeling or emotion we may be experiencing at anytime. History is full of so many examples of how both individuals as well as small and large groups of people transcended their feelings and emotions to meet the current challenges and to bring about great change in their lives, the lives of others, and to our planet.
In times, such as these, of uncertainty and good cause for concern and vigilance, we need to remember that, “We’ve been here before.” Perhaps some of you reading this have not lived long enough to experience what I mean as a nation or a community, but certainly each of us I am confident, if we took the time to contemplate this moment, can remember other times in our lives when fear dominated our experience and despite its presence we made it through and overcame our reasons for fear.
I will admit that my cancer and the chemotherapy I am receiving are cause for fear to visit me every day. It would be foolish, deceptive, and unrealistic to suggest that that should be different just because I am a Zen monk and live a spiritual life. The First Noble Truth applies to everyone, even the Buddha, Christ, and the Prophets.
So what’s a monk or anyone else for that matter to do?
First, “Do Not Panic.” Educate yourself and “do what is necessary”. Listen to your doctor or other “experts”.
Next, when fear surfaces we are to expect it, while at the same time not “fear” it. (It was Franklin Roosevelt during the some of the darkest days on the planet, WWII, who said, “We have nothing to fear but fear itself.” Meaning we need to have an appropriate relationship with this sometimes quite powerful emotion. (Here, “appropriate” means “one that works” to support us and get us through the storm.)
Fear is a normal systemic anatomical reaction to both real and perceived threats. Sometimes our fear is a function of our “perception of the moment” or of what’s going on in the world. We need the wisdom to discern the difference between “real threats” and “perceived threats”. We need to remind ourselves that we possess the knowledge and the courage to do whatever is necessary to meet the challenge both real or perceived.
Next, whenever we experience fear or anxiety real or which is part of your perception of what’s happening, stop and take a breath. Find that still place within yourself and try to “bear witness” to your experience and to the narrative which is creating your experience. Continue to breath slowly and deeply until you find yourself coming to a more calm and rational state of awareness. As I mentioned earlier, every morning I am greeted by fear and when I am in a “chemo-week,” most of my day feels fearful and uncertain. Now you need to know that there are times when the experience is overwhelming. Whether or not, my training has taught me to find refuge in both my breath and bearing witness. The feeling or emotion may not go away immediately or for some time but, I do not allow the feeling or emotion to define me or who I choose or need to be in the moment. This is my “act of faith”. My choice to believe that no matter what is happening in my world or the world around me, “In the final reckoning all will be well.”
Next, this is what “living spiritually” is about. We all, both monks and laypersons, need to regularly pray, meditate, contemplate, and choose to “be the ones on this beautiful boat of the earth that demonstrate patience, compassion, mindfulness, and mutual care.” For ourselves, our families, our neighbors, and fellow brothers and sisters, and for the entire world.
I would also like to suggest that you strongly limit exposure to both social media and cable news. Remember, we live in a “culture of fear,” and it is the business of both these medias to report current events from a place of suspicion and yes – fear. Be very “selfish” about what you allow to enter your sphere of consciousness. I am not suggesting no exposure, but perhaps a real “diet” is in order here.
These may be “The times which try men’s souls.” They are also times for men and women of real faith, real spirituality, to rise up as our ancestors did so often and, be what the world needs now.
So slow down. Trust yourself. Trust your family and friends. Trust the Dharma. Wash your hands. Learn to gassho (prayer hands) and bow instead of shaking hands and hugging. And always remember, “Everything is of the nature of impermanence, this too shall pass”. And when it does, I’ll be waiting to give you one big hug!
I Love You,
Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the center cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is closed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.
— William Butler Yeats
Everywhere you go there is talk of a revolution. Even His Holiness Pope Francis as well as The Dalai Lama has suggested that what the world needs now is some kind of “spiritual or moral revolution”. The difference between these two holy men and those around the neighborhood bar or attending a political rally, is that they understand as I do that, the revolution they point to must come from within each person desiring real and sustainable change in our current world conditions. For centuries past we have for too long engaged the wrong-notion that the world around us needs to change when, all the evidence shows that the “world around us” is in fact the world man has created and; that creation finds it roots in mans current or historical state of mind or consciousness.
The dictionary defines “rev-o-lu-tion” as: a dramatic and wide-reaching change in the way something works or is organized or in people’s ideas about it. By nature any authentic spiritual approach to life is “revolutionary” or “transformational”. What authentic spirituality really does, is plant the seed of ancient wisdom within the person or, more accurately nurtures the existing Seed of Consciousness inherent in every individual, which in turn “causes” a “wide-reaching change in the way something works or is organized or people’s ideas about it.“
Most peoples idea of spirituality is in reality another form of “modern day marketing and consumerism.” You take the world’s idea about life such as, “the pursuit of happiness, or pleasure, material possessions, or financial security” and repackage it in a box with pretty colors and great slogans, (usually quotes from Zen or the Tao, not to forget that symbol “Yin-Yan”) and label it —“Being Spiritual”. The aim of both “modern marketing” and what is often “marketed” as “spirituality” is just another way of luring the individual to a product that is designed to “appease the ego’s desires”; whether it be “better and improved feelings and emotions,” “financial wealth and security,” or just the notion that “if you buy this you will become more, better, or different in no time whatsoever, requiring little to no changes in your behavior”.
The confusion, anxiety, stress, self-doubt, worriment, fear of uncertainty, political polarization, and all the rest, is now as it has been through the centuries, less about the content in a persons life, and more about the lack of or complete absence of discipline and integrity (context). It is a “crises of identity”. What the Buddha, and Christ, the Prophets, and Sages, have all been saying to us while society continues to ignore it or put a blind eye to it (Ignorance: what the Buddha identifies in the Second Noble Truth as the cause of our discontentment.). It’s no wonder we regularly feel confused and uncertain about our footing in the world; our society has dissolved into a myriad of disparate and conflicting images and notions about what it means to be human, let alone “E Pluribus Unum — Out of many — One”.
If the Western world today appears to lack a commitment to a life of real-faith and integrity, “it may be because that the terms of that faith have lost all purchase in their memory and imagination.” In Yeats’s poem he suggests that, even those with “the best” intentions lack the necessary conviction to fully realize and actualize their faith, lost “to a generation completely spellbound by the glitter of technology, the lure of consumerism, and the surreal whirlwind of change in a global, media-saturated environment.”
(This was never more evident to me than a recent trip to Disney World with my 10 year old daughter and her mother. The planning of which took months, and the execution of which took four days. My intention was to enjoy a time I may not have many more opportunities for, to witness in my daughters eyes the “wonder and amazement” I experienced, as a small child of the 50’s and 60’s watching Walt Disney World on our family’s black and white TV every Sunday evening. While I admit that there certainly were opportunities for that, the reality was that the designed environment was clearly intended to “spellbound the visitor by the glitter of technology, the lure of consumerism, and the surreal whirlwind of change in a global, media-saturated environment.” You were lured into a theme of wonder, beauty, and promise, only to be ushered out at the end to the next theme through a maze of “merchandise” which would leave any one person bankrupt after a short while. And not just financially. Everywhere, not only the technology required to create the surreal experience of “Soaring Around The World,” or actually “Being a citizen of the Empire” was evident, and there were as many I-Phones “the citizens” carried with them distracting them even more from any possibility of any real human contact. That and the numbers of “All the Lonely People” that populated the small spaces provided in the lines and the parks themselves, standing and waiting sometimes hours on end for what would be a 15 minute sensational experience, rarely looked up enough from there cell-phones to see each other let alone have any genuine contact with other. At the end of the day you found yourself even in the best physical condition, as opposed to my own, too exhausted to even have that “family conversation” either on the bus ride back to your room or after you arrived.)
The singular goal of any authentic spiritual approach to living ones life is, “to awaken in human beings a sense of original innocence, or what Buddhism calls the Original Self.” That “True-Self” which while may not yet be realized by the individual, yet exists and awaits to be re-awakened. In the book titled, “The Way of Peace,” Morihei Ueshiba, the father of the ancient Japanese martial art Aikido writes, “You are here for no other purpose but to realize your inner divinity and manifest your inner enlightenment.” Here is where the revolution begins, where transformation is possible.
What I call “The Principle of Identity” is the ground, the cornerstone, of any authentic spiritual practice or approach to living one’s life spiritually. The principle states that, “whatever you identify with, you become.”
If you know yourself as Chardin suggested as, “a spiritual being immersed in a human experience,” your lifestyle will reflect this and your experience both of yourself and your place in the world will reflect this as well. What follows is your views of yourself, the meaning of your life, your life’s purpose, and the world around you will also reflect this. Remember what I said earlier, if we are going to have any kind of global revolution or transformation, it must begin with you, it must begin with me. It must emerge from within and “realize and actualize itself in the world” through you.
Zen, and its practices, too often are mistaken to be passive in nature. Rather, Zen is a living tradition vibrantly responding to the issues and circumstances as well as the signs of the time. In Mahayana (Zen) Buddhism there is the emphasis about the life of the “Bodhisattva” – a person who is able to reach nirvana but delays doing so out of compassion in order to save suffering beings. The Bodhisattva is fully engaged in the world for the benefit of all sentient beings, while not being of the world. (Here “of the world” means, “the world man created”.) His or her view of themselves and their place in the world transcends all modern day images and ideas about what a man or woman, a citizen, a worker, a person, truly is. (The literal translation of the word “bodhi satt va” means: Sanskrit: one whose essence is enlightenment, from bodhi – enlightenment + sattva – essence.) It follows that a Bodhisattva “vows” to live his or her life as a benefit for others, as a conduit for cessation from all forms of suffering. It also follows that every serious practitioner of Zen, is a Bodhisattva and, at once mystical and political, spiritual and intellectual, personal and transcendent, sacrificial and life-giving.
Make no mistake about it, contrary to contemporary western representations of spirituality, Zen calls us and, sometimes drags us, out of our comfort zones; while inviting us into a more fluid realm, a contemplative experience, mystery. Awakening the memory of our “inner divinity,” whether through the employment of new kinds of language and behavior (etiquette), new and also ancient forms of prayer (chanting), disciplines (virtue), and liturgy, make no mistake about it will require risk. Like the mystical image and meaning of the life of the butterfly, the caterpillar must cease to be before it can fly free. Free of its old form, sacrificed or laid down in order to fully realize the complete meaning and purpose of its existence, and in fully realizing it may truly thrive.
Zen is, and must, if its ever to continue to retain its ancient yet modern viable identity, insist on the practitioners willingness to die to the old image of themselves and the world, and open their hearts to the possibility of a new yet ancient reality living and hungering within us to be alive; to sacrifice that socially acceptable image of “me, myself, and I” in order to actualize and manifest that enlightened, True-Self, in the world, for the world’s benefit.
Toward the objective of “Zen Training” or practice, which I have already pointed to, Zen employs four basic vehicles — “The cultivation of Wisdom through meditation, contemplation, and mindfulness (awareness); the study of ancient teachings; living a virtuous life, and benevolent service.” Once again, Morihei Ueshiba reminds us, “The Art of Peace begins with you. Work on yourself and your [appropriate] task in the Art of Peace. Everyone has a spirit that can be refined, a body that can be trained in some manner, a suitable path to follow…Foster peace in your own life and then apply the Art to all that you encounter.”
Zen can be described as a “way-of-life,” or more accurately a “way-of-being” in the world. “One does not need buildings, money, power or status to practice the Art of Peace. Heaven is right where you are standing, and that is the place to train.” In Zen, we do not look for God or Buddha outside ourselves, they are within us. It is because of this fundamental truth that we train how to “live in the kingdom of heaven,” which is always “right wherever we are standing” at anytime. The world is our Zendo. While we may come together as Sangha or Community to train in a specific Zendo (Pine Wind), our training or practice, does not end when we exit. We train together at Pine Wind in order that we may be able to “return to the market place,” and be a “light in the darkened corners of the world”.
Another widely held misconception of the spiritual life is, that while we are admonished to “be in the world but not of it,” the spiritual life somehow exists apart from the world and our daily lives. The fact of the matter is, that, “our lives just as they are, is the spiritual life”. If we understand the words from the Art of Peace, “Heaven is right where you are standing, and is the place to train.” Our lives and everything about our lives, is our training. We are to “work on ourselves and our appropriate task in the Art of Peace.”
Usually when I ask people what their practice is, they will tell me, “Oh I meditate.” Or “I do Yoga.” Or “Reiki.” Authentic spiritual training takes place in your daily life, “your life” is the training or practice. Spirituality and daily living are not separate from each other. “Not Two” as we say in Zen.“All things, material and spiritual, originate from one source and are related as if they were one family. The past, present, and future are all contained in the life force. The universe emerged and developed from one source, and we evolved through the optimal process of unification and harmonization.” We are to work on our lives as they are at the moment, remembering that “Everyone has a spirit that can be refined, a body that can be trained in some manner, a suitable path to follow…” We work with our uncomfortable emotions, reactions, fears, worriments, self-doubts, criticisms, judgements, and all the rest. “Fostering peace in your own life and then applying the Art to all that you encounter…Heaven, earth, humankind, United in the path of harmony and joy, following the Art of Peace, across the vast seas, and on the highest peaks.”
In short, living spiritually, living a Zen Inspired Life, is “to become fully impregnated in a mystical and truly mysterious tradition,” to “manifest fully the mystical dimensions of this ageless and timeless way-of-being in the world, hence to help us do what we must really do in order to bring about real and sustainable change in the world: live our faith — fully, deeply, in its totality.”
“The Art of Peace is medicine for a sick world. We went to cure the world of the sickness of violence, malcontent, and discord — this is the Way of Harmony. There is evil and disorder in the world because people have forgotten that all things emigrate from one source. Return to that source and leave behind all self-centered thoughts, petty desires, and anger. Those who are possessed by nothing possess everything.” — Morihei Ueshiba
Viva La Revolution!
I love you,