Every morning whenever I enter the Zendo (meditation hall) at 4:00 AM, I enter a “sacred space,” but not for the reasons that may seem obvious to some. A Zendo and a Zen Monastery for that matter is a reflection, an outer representation, of the hearts and minds of those who occupy it. While it is designed to be a place for training the mind-body toward “awakening,” and “transformation,” those in training already possess everything needed to achieve this lifetime, sometimes arduous challenge, even though they may not know it when first entering.
Zen spirituality, including meditation and mindfulness training is about what I call “creating space”. It has very little if nothing at all to do with transcending or escaping the world’s problems, stresses, and anxieties. Quite the opposite, it has everything to do with creating space or to “Hold Space” for oneself and the world, including all the stuff our ego prefers averting and avoiding. The Buddha taught that, the heart and soul of the Buddha-Way is “friendship.” Authentic Spirituality is about “making friends with ourselves, with others, and with the world,” as we; and they; and the world is, rather than some idealistic notion about the way the world should be. This does not exclude engaging in efforts toward making the world more loving or kind. For me the question surrounding our efforts is always about, “How do we best do that?”
“Underneath all we are taught, there is a voice that calls to us beyond what is reasonable, and in listening to that flicker of spirit, we often find deep healing.”
– Mark Nepo “The Book of Awakening”
Spirituality is not a vacation but rather a vocation. Meditation and Yoga, were never meant to be a means of escaping the world but rather, a means for entering into life more deeply and profoundly. While both the monk and the pilgrim may retreat from the world for a brief period of time, it’s not to escape but rather to train, to renew, to reconnect, in order to re-enter life more skillfully and with understanding and clarity developed while in retreat, learning to “be in the world more fully, intimately, and without reservation or self-preservation.”
The contemplative is not interested in either novelty or variety. He or she seeks a deeper meaning of life than the cultural or social definition accepted by so many. We train in the spiritual practices to learn “not to be daunted by the things of the world,” so that we can be present to our lives as they are, including our families, our friends, and our neighbors; and to the world as it is, and to the endless evolving and ever-changing circumstances of life, not as a victim of change but rather as a healing and reconciling force of Nature.
“We will match your capacity to inflict suffering with our capacity to endure suffering. We will meet your physical force with soul force. We will not hate you, but we cannot in all good conscience obey your unjust laws. But we will soon wear you down by our capacity to endure suffering, and in winning our freedom, we will so appeal to your heart and conscience, that we will win yours in the process.” – Martin Luther King, Jr.
Whether one is a Buddhist, a Christian, or Jewish, there exist certain universal convictions that the founders and their disciples of each of these paths held and continue to hold to be inviolable.
“Every human being without exception possesses intrinsic dignity; everyone without exception should be treated with fairness, loving-kindness, and compassion; that each of us has the responsibility, and this includes how we treat the stranger, to protect those who cannot protect themselves, to lift up the fallen and provide them with basic tools to rebuild and flourish once again; and finally, the delicate web of the natural world should be handled with respect, and all natural resources should be used appropriately.”
Our nation and the world finds itself once again in tumultuous times marked by so much uncertainty and instability, accompanied by threats of increased violence and assaults on personal freedoms and basic human rights. This time, however, it will not be enough to simply assign these dramatic changes which have already begun and the ones that are still ahead, to just the ruling party’s political platform or vision for the nation. No, we are witnessing a dynamic effort to thwart the evolution of human consciousness that has been moving toward a more loving-kind and compassionate society, an inclusive society where no one is left behind or forgotten, a real and imminent threat upon the social fabric of our society and all humanity.
What lies in our power to do, it lies in our power not to do.
During this time of so much change and adversity, I am regularly reminded of some advise given me about parenting which has extended into all the roles I play at any given time. “Pick your battles.” Recently after making a decision back in November to spend less time watching cable news and visiting Pine Wind’s Facebook page, I made the error of visiting both the news media and social media a little more often than I would prefer to. An error I have quickly corrected. However, for anyone who feels otherwise I would like to respectfully offer some advise. Like so many I am sure, I find that more than necessary, repetition on current events and oppositional themes shot at me on Facebook. While one can certainly be entrapped by our emotions responding to every one of them, my advice is to “Pick Your Battles”. (I also noticed one day while drinking my very large cup of coffee and getting lost in one of the cable news networks, that all they really do in the course of just two-hours is repeat over and over again the same news they reported just an hour ago, and they are masters at making it look like “Breaking News”.) You don’t have to respond to each and every one of them. In fact I think there is an important “lesson” to be learned in feeling that you do.
On Wednesday, December 28th I found myself in Cooper Hospital’s emergency room. I woke up that morning feeling wonderful, much better than I had felt in several weeks. By noon I was in a car speeding through the streets of Camden until I was ushered to a chair where I would sit for the next hour. I was in convulsions shaking so badly I could barely speak. But I would find no mercy, at least for the next 40 minutes, even though it felt like an eternity. No one enjoys being sick let alone having to go to an emergency room these days, especially over a holiday. The room was packed. I was shaking and waiting for someone to come help. This is where I always say, “Here is where training pays off.”
To know one’s “intention” is vital for any healthy spiritual practice. To live with “integrity” is quintessential. Intention without integrity has no value. We need to know our truest intention and then live intentionally with integrity. Webster defines “integrity” as “a strict adherence to a particular way of being.” When I live with integrity my intention is reflected in all my choices, in every decision I make. It reflects in every word I speak, every action I commit.
A “person of integrity” is reliable, their word is their bond, their actions reflect who they are, you always know where they are coming from. I believe that integrity coalesces vision with action; it creates for sustainable and fulfilling relationship. There is a saying in Zen, “Even if the Sun were to rise in the West, the Bodhisattva knows one way.” No matter the circumstance, no matter the situation, no matter how I may feel at this moment, and even what I think, my integrity is my guide, my code for living my life, the cause for the effects or the results I aspire to create. I often say, “There are days when I must muster up a whole universe of compassion for some people I may encounter. And I do.”
“In the twenty-first century if we ever expect to fully realize peace of mind and body, we must cultivate a way-of-living which transcends religious and political ideology, and detach from our expectations on governments and religious institutions of themselves to ever bring about the transformation which leads to a loving-kind and compassionate society; one which is deeply rooted in personal responsibility, the practices of contemplation, and moral or ethical living.”
– Seijaku Roshi
Often visitors to Pine Wind mistaken the fundamental aim and objective of the Zen practice of turning the most commonplace activities of daily living, the mundane, into a thing of spiritual beauty capable of transforming this place and time into the Kingdom of Heaven with, what they often identify with as just rituals of “another religion”. There is a saying, “You don’t have to be a monk to live like a monk,” and I say, “but you have to live like a monk” if you are ever going to fully realize true and sustainable peace of mind and body. The whole world needs to become your Zendo, a place of contemplation and prayer, where inner and outer charity, forgiveness, and loving-kindness, is our religion and way-of-life. The conventional paradigm for “religion” and “religious affiliation,” like that of “political ideologies” and “political affiliations” in the modern culture has failed us and, will not be sufficient for the future if we ever expect to realize what people often refer to as, “The Oneness of Things”. We cannot ever expect to know for sure that we are One People, One Nation, or One World as long as we cling to the “identities of religion and politics” which too often serve to separate us from the other. They re-direct our attention and demand that our focus be on our “differences” rather than our “commonality”. Love, equality, compassion, kindness, justice, freedom, equanimity, and abundant prosperity are not religious beliefs or political ideologies reserved for just believers or party members, they are the very essence of all life and humanity. They are qualities of what Buddhist refer to as Buddha-Nature.
Yesterday we witnessed the effect of an electorate who believes that, “Reality Shows” are reality; that a nation where malice toward those who are different, hatred or resentment toward those who have what we do not have, and indifference toward the most vulnerable among us is not only the expected but the norm. Yesterday it was confirmed what was long suspected, that the “United” States of America is a myth; that the notion that every citizens life and the life of their daughters and sons matter is a myth; that the rights and liberties of a so called free nation belong to everyone is a myth, and that the “pursuit of happiness” has only been a means toward distracting us from the “man behind the curtain”.
Yesterday was not an election about one personality over another, or one party over another party; yesterday the majority chose hatred, greed, indifference, misogyny, sexism, homophobia, injustice, and nationalism, over patriotism and a united country, inclusiveness, charity, love of thy neighbor (no matter their religious beliefs and political affiliations, their level of income, or the color of their skin) and basic humanity.
The day after like every “day after” the rest of “the people” are faced with a choice. We can either become daunted and discouraged by yesterdays results, ready to throw in the towel, or we can choose to become even more committed and stronger in our convictions. We can be afraid, or learn how to transform our fear into a force of nature which, like Nature when the forest is destroyed by a fire responds with its inherent compassion and life force to renew it for a stronger and better forest for the future.
I will assume that anyone reading this has heard this before, “If you do not find peace within yourself, you will not find it anywhere.” So perhaps you have heard it before or maybe this is the first time, either way, “It’s true!” Our Nation and the World around us would not be witnessing what it is today if everyone were to take this to heart, embrace it, and live it. Peace on Earth really does begin with you, it depends on you. “If you do not find peace within yourself, forget Peace on Earth.” This is not some Buddhist or Spiritual philosophy. Think about it, our actions which create causes which create effects, flow from our thoughts and our emotional state of being. It follows that when I am happy I behave in a completely different manner than when I am sad or angry. When I am content with my life, with who I am, I will treat you in a completely different manner than if I am always craving what you have, jealous of what you have, or resentful for you having and I don’t. Actions not only speak louder than words, they create lasting impressions like seed of consciousness which give rise to the future. Action is “karma” and karma is the energy which gives form to our inner thoughts and emotions. What we see out there began within us.
As a youth I grew close to the parents of a friend of mine from high school, we kept in touch for many years after graduation. “Mr. Fitz,” as I called him was much like (the famous 70’s sitcom character) Archie Bunker type personality with smoother edges. “Mrs. Fitz,” was indeed much like Edith Bunker, Archies wife, without pretension, beautiful, sweet, and with that quiet wisdom overshadowed by her humility. I remember one occasion when I stayed for dinner, afterwards the news with Walter Cronkite came on the television. The “Fitz’s” made it a point to sit together on the “davenport” or the sofa together, sometimes holding hands if she wasn’t knitting. At the end of the news broadcast Walter Cronkite would always say, “And that’s the way it is.”, to which Mr. Fitz would respond, “No it isn’t Walter, no it isn’t.”
“C. S. Lewis taught, if the devil were to succeed in England, he would need to wear a three-piece suit and speak with the Queen’s English, and surely never appear as a red demon with horns and a pitchfork.” This morning like most Americans I woke to the news of yesterdays current events, a practice I have limited now to approximately 3 minutes at best, only to hear the same news from the day before and days before that. Nothing much had changed. Hatred, distrust, accusations, true or false, blaming, promising, hopes, doubts, more hatred, more accusations, and more promises that have been made for decades by others who, hated, suspected, and mistrusted someone other than themselves or their party or particular group. Like the saying goes, “The more things are supposed to change, the more they stay the same.” I immediately observed my muscular skeleton retract in pain with the kind of feeling you get when you’ve tasted something that always turns your stomach. My reaction was to pick up my aging and almost near dying dog sitting near me and hold her close to me telling her, “I love you girl.” I needed to find refuge in my humanity and something that was real, my dog.