We must be willing to get rid of the life we’ve planned,
so as to have the life that is waiting for us.
Authentic Spirituality can be defined broadly as a sense of connection to something higher than ourselves, something larger and more profound than our relationship with sensual satisfaction. In Zen, any type of sensual satisfaction of any kind including “feeling more peaceful” is viewed as a byproduct rather than an ends to a means. Initially almost every person who has shown up at Pine Wind over the years, are motivated by one form or another of the “pursuit of happiness”. Often I warn everyone that, “Ego got you here, but it will not keep you here.”
Spirituality is universally connective in the realization that suffering is a part of human existence. Establishing a real ground or foundation for your spiritual practice which seeks a connection with that larger self, often referred to in Zen as one’s “Buddha-Nature,” or even perhaps “God,” or “Universe,” will prove to be difficult at first but is essential, for longevity and sustainability of any genuine practice including, meditation or mindfulness. Unlike so many other cultural or social efforts toward finding some kind of peace-of-mind, or happiness, or satisfaction, Zen-Buddhism points to “taking refuge” in times of difficulty in one of the Three Refuges — “Buddha-Nature, Dharma Teachings, and finally Community or Sangha;” in the end it all comes down to “You” Your “personal effort,” in maintaining a devotion to the practices, no matter the circumstances or situations rising in our lives at any moment. It means remaining true to the Fourth Vow of “The Vows For All” — “The Buddha-Way is endless, I vow to follow it.”
When we are truly willing to transcend our lifetime attachments to “egocentric emotions and feelings” we discover a kind of set of “transcended emotions” which are not a part of the ego’s bureaucracy. The realization of self-transcendent emotions followed by learning how to nurture oneself to maintain a connection with these emotions, often leads to strengthening the longevity and sustainability of ones spiritual life or practice; apart from which sustainability and growth will prove to not be possible.
In describing these emotions one needs to remember that our connection with them are a function of what Joseph Campbell calls, a “Willingness to forget the life we’ve planned, so as to have the life that is waiting for us.” We must as Zen Master Dogen explains, “Forget the Self” we are far too familiar with, in order to discover this “Higher Self” which results in actualizing “Cessation” from our discontentment created by our attachment to ego. The Buddha taught that, “Dukkha” (discontentment or suffering) is a function of our relationship with, or our attachments, to those feelings, emotions, cravings and desires in our life which, often prove to be the real “Cause” of our dissatisfaction (Second Noble Truth). If our intention for our spiritual practices is only to appease ego’s desires well, that’s just the “dog chasing its tail”. Even the dog eventually grows tired of the chase and go in search of something “more, better, or different”.
Transcendent moments are often experienced as peace, awe or reverence, and contentment—emotional and spiritual wellbeing overlap, like most aspects of wellbeing. The “higher or transcendent emotions — pervade the whole universe, revealing right here right now, every here and every now”. We need only the ability, which training and practice provides, to see them, or more accurately experience them wherever we are and at any moment. We do not have to go in search of them. In fact “searching for them” is a formula for loosing them or not seeing or experiencing them entirely. We need only to learn how to “stop, stay, listen, and experience” this moment exactly as it is, and exactly as it is not. Through Shikantaza, “Just Sitting” meditation of Japanese Soto Zen, we train first in developing and actualizing this posture and then, nurturing and sustaining it throughout regular and consistent practice into an ”endless future”.
At Pine Wind there is a kind of motto which from the very beginning has informed the life of The Monks and those members and students which make up our “Community,” it reads — “Community is the spirit, the guiding light, whereby people come together to fulfill a purpose, to help others fulfill their purpose, and to take care of one another.”
This motto informs everything, every decision, every program, everything we do. Authentic Spirituality takes us out of our conditioned—self which is egocentric in nature, removes us from the bureaucracy of ego, and re-connects us with our Original-Self, our True-Self, which is “Relational” by nature.
“Self-transcendent emotions connect us all through prosocial behavior.” Human Beings are relational by nature. Somewhere in the course of our life we “disconnect” with our True-Nature while not entirely, learned behavior interrupts any direct experience of our “Interconnected and Interdependent” reality. This explains why such contemporary psychological and emotional dysfunctions characterized by a sense of “separateness,” “not belonging,” and “alienation,” continue to lead to low self esteem issues and depression for so many of us today.
Self-Transcendent emotions include: Compassion, Awe or Reverence, Gratitude or Appreciation, Inspiration, Admiration, Joy, and Love. Self-Transcendent emotions naturally inform human behaviors such as acts of Kindness, Benevolence, and Charity. Self-Transcendent emotions are “Others-Focused,” “More Meaningful,” and “Purpose-Filled”.
Too much of what is often mistaken as spirituality is “self-focused,” or “egocentric”. Until we are able to transcend the illusion of “Me, Myself, and I” as the center of the Universe, any possibility for any real transformation and cessation is not possible. The very self we strive through practice to appease, is the very cause of our discontentment. Albert Einstein wrote, “We cannot solve our problems with the same level of thinking that created them.”
I Have written and spoken extensively on the matter of fact that, “I can only offer the world what I have.” Initially, authentic spiritual practice aims to restore the inherent virtues required for any healthy process aimed toward maturity and eventual well-being. Among the virtues referenced in ancient texts are: Hope, Gratitude, Forgiveness, and Self-Compassion. In Zen we understand that cessation from our discontentment or suffering(Third Noble Truth), or true-happiness, is not the function of some supernatural event, nor is it, to be found in some person, place, or thing. True and sustainable happiness is a function of a transformational process. Happiness is an ongoing process involving regular challenges which result in psychological, emotional, and spiritual growth and maturity. In the Buddha’s prescription or process which leads to the aforementioned results (Fourth Noble Truth), He explains that the process begins with “Right Point-of-View,” which is sometimes interpreted as “Right Attitude,” followed by “Right Thoughts,” “Right Speech,” and “Right-Action” and others, behaviors designed to sustain happiness.
Beginning with establishing “Right Point-of-View,” we can connect with the divine, that larger or greater self and purpose for living, which inevitably results in improving one’s wellbeing. We move from fantasy and sensationalism into reality-based practice or training. We begin to experience our interconnectedness and interdependent relationship with others, the whole of Nature, and the Cosmos. Eventually, Hope is reestablished, and a sense of Gratitude for life’s sake naturally surfaces. Forgiveness becomes instinctual and realized as essential for any real sustainable happiness. Self-Compassion defined as:
- Expressing kindness toward oneself and viewing one’s shortcomings with a non-judgmental attitude.
- Connecting one’s experience of suffering with that of the collective human experience.
- Becoming mindful of suffering without becoming attached or making it a part of one’s identity.
Finally after a lifetime of self-criticism, and judging, Compassion is extended to include others and realized as quintessential for any personal or global healing process.
Today the world is experiencing increased social stressors which for centuries have been linked to dis-ease of the mind and the body. Levels of depression continue to be on the rise. There remains a body of evidence that a real “spiritually based lifestyle” is said to have a healing effect on stress filled, anxious, and depressive symptoms. Any effort to establish a “spiritual or religious foundation” for living one’s life is significantly and positively associated with increased sense of well-being and longevity. People live longer, have more satisfying, meaningful or purposeful lives, and have lower rates of low self-esteem, anxiety, and discontentment. Devotion to a regular meditation practice, has proven to lower instances of depression. Becoming more mindful, reduces occasions for depressive thoughts in real-time.
Forming connections with others in troubling times, or any other time for that matter, weakens the strength of fear-driven reactions to external stimuli, eases stress, contributes to reducing the effects of a sense of loneliness, and increases immune response. Both science and spirituality agrees, human beings are relational creatures, therefore “Community is not only the Spirit, and the Guiding Light,” it is the medicine the world has always needed and increasingly needs to meet todays challenge and any increasingly new challenges in the future.
We Really Are – More Together Than Alone!
I Love You,
“Anger, annoyance, and impatience deplete energy. Patient effort strengthens our resources. We need to practice cooling emotional fires and alleviating fierce disruptions from our lives.”
“There is nothing I can give you which you do not have; but there is much, very much, that while I cannot give it, you can take. No heaven can come to us unless our hearts can find rest in today. Take Heaven! No peace lies in the future which is not hidden in the present instant. Take Peace!
The gloom of the world is but a shadow. Behind it, yet within reach, is joy. There is a radiance and glory within the darkness, could we but see, and to see, we have only to look. I beseech you to look.” – Fra Giovanni
In an effort to further clarify “Authentic Spiritual” practice or training, we need to cut off our stereotypical ideas about what being spiritual is really about. It has nothing to do with “finding our bliss,” unless finding it will support us in being more patient with ourselves and others, more loving and kind, more empathetic and compassionate, and move us toward a genuine desire to be of benefit to our immediate environment and the world at large. Ultimately, all the meditation and mindfulness practice and trainings have no value what so ever if they do not contribute to awakening within us what The Buddha identified as our True-Nature or Buddha-Nature. We are by “nature” Loving, Kind, Compassionate, Empathetic, and Benevolent beings. If our spiritual practices are not about cultivating the ground for these qualities to awaken and thrive, we are just fooling ourselves and others who think otherwise.
Our work towards awakening and cultivating these qualities begin by recognizing the years of unconscious and sometime conscious embracing of conditionings or habitual behaviors we have accepted as normal and have reinforced at the cellular level over the years. We have become “reactionary machines” operating most of the time on “auto-pilot”. When we finally take to the cushion, or the chair, or just standing, to reflect on our behavior and commit to come and know “ourselves” thoroughly through-and-through, we become more “aware” of this reactionary conditioning. The more aware we become, we can begin to work with this energy in order to transform it from “reactionary” or “mechanical” behavior, to “responsible” behavior. By responsible I mean that through meditation and mindfulness, first we develop a keen awareness of the difference between the two and its effects on our experience and our environment, then we can “choose” to replace the habitual reactionary behavior with more “beneficial” behavior. Until we “seriously” commit to this effort nothing, and I mean nothing, about our lives will change. The same is true about our immediate environment and the world. Remember what I often said in the past, “The surest way to have life go on the way it has up and until this moment, is to keep doing it the way you always have.”
Authentic Spirituality is taking responsibility for the life I dream of and no longer allowing it to be at the mercy of years of conditioning or life circumstances and situations arising from moment to moment. We really are the “masters of our destiny,” personally and globally.
Can we get down to the business of making the changes necessary for changing the world now?
“I pray for those who dance with life in the face of death.
For those whose unkind visitor brought them great limitation, for whom the plague is real.
For the child, the woman, the old man, the banker, the teacher, the prisoner, the priest, for the artist, the musician, the player. For the worker, the lover of imagination, the dreamer of dreams.
For those who were told not to love, and dared to love anyway. For those who hid for a lifetime, and for those who bravely ventured out.
For those who die alone, and those who leave surrounded by love.
For all the victims of the dark night, that they may reach the dawn of victory.
To them I bow inwardly.
They are with me, now and in memory, and in the hope of the new day.”
I Love You,
“What’s it all about Alfie
Is it just for the moment we live
What’s it all about
When you sort it out, Alfie
Are we meant to take more than we give
Or are we meant to be kind?
And if, if only fools are kind, Alfie
Then I guess it is wise to be cruel
And if life belongs only to the strong, Alfie
What will you lend on an old golden rule?
As sure as I believe there’s a heaven above
Alfie, I know there’s something much more
Something even non-believers can believe in
I believe in love, Alfie
Without true love we just exist, Alfie
Until you find the love you’ve missed
You’re nothing, Alfie
When you walk let your heart lead the way
And you’ll find love any day Alfie, oh Alfie
What’s it all about Alfie?”
Songwriters: Burt Bacharach / Hal David
While the students sit in quiet meditation, the old master jumps from one to the other, in their faces yelling, “If not now when?” The quintessential question of any effort to live a truly “spiritual” life is, “What’s it all about?” First, your idea or desire to be more spiritual, then the big one, “What is your life all about?” Followed by, “Really, what is life all about?”
I have spent forty-five years a student of the spiritual masters, everyone from the writers of the Talmud, the Gospels, the Teachings of Thomas Merton and other various Catholic saints and contemplatives, and the Buddhadharma. I have prayed, meditated, gone on retreats, hosted retreats, taught meditation and prayer, but, it was not until the day they told me I had cancer that I really, finally, faced and answered the question, “What’s it really all about?” While I have certainly visited it on numerous occasions for the past forty-five years; I will tell you that until you have “no choice” to really, really, face the question, lean into it, and not leave the room until you have answered it, that living “spiritually” idea is just another one of those “nice ideas” you have.
There’s a lot of talk about how perhaps maybe after COVID19 is under control, we the people, and the world will have visited the question in some kind of global consciousness way and, everything will be different. In my previous reflection earlier this week following the death of my Mother, I offered a vision for the world I hope we will work toward. While there is evidence, you rarely hear about on cable news, that people are really beginning to “lean into” the question, I must admit I’m kind of “wait and seeing” it through. For every positive and hopeful example rising out of this quarantine we find ourselves in, there is as many examples of “the more things appear to change the more they stay the same.”
Thomas Merton wrote that, “Love is our true destiny.” Albert Einstein wrote that, “Each of us are part of a whole called by us Universe.” I have always believed that we are made of the stuff of Love and, that Love is not some passive emotion we get to enjoy when someone loves us, but rather an active, engaged, verb, to be expressed and spread around by each of us for the benefit of others and not just for our egos. Einstein went on to explain in his own unique way that we are never really “loving” anyone but ourselves until we have “expanded our circle of compassion” to include all sentient beings “including the whole of Nature.” He emphasized that this was “the task” before each of us who live in the 20th and now the 21st Century, and that the future of life on Earth depended on it.
So “If not now — When?” “What are you really waiting for?” “What is your life and all that spiritual matter really about for you?” I tell my students, “Ego got you here (to Zen training), it will not keep you here.” For those who come and truly commit to a lifestyle grounded in Loving-kindness, Compassion, and Benevolent Service, who stay around to continue to do the work, the only thing that keeps them here is — Love. Sangha, Community, are the “Fruits of Love”. Whether we are talking about a religious or spiritual community, or a global community. And, “What is loving another person?” Well let me quote my dear teacher Thomas Merton again.
“The beginning of love is the will to let those we love be perfectly themselves, the resolution not to twist them to fit our own image. If in loving them we do not love what they are, but only their potential likeness to ourselves, then we do not love them: we only love the reflection of ourselves we find in them.” And, “Love seeks one thing only: the good of the one loved. It leaves all the other secondary effects to take care of themselves. Love, therefore, is its own reward.”
We never really see “other” whether it be an-other person, the world around us, and even ourself, until we stop trying to “twist them and ourself into an image.” And then not until, our love “seeks only, the good of the one loved.”
Another factor about “Loving’ other to remember is, the old Zen saying, and I will paraphrase it here, “It’s easy to love someone who loves you back, someone you have an attraction to.” What about the stranger? What about your spouse or partner during quarantine who is driving you crazy? What about the kids who won’t stop complaining? What about a world that has disappointed you? Mother Theresa wrote that, “Love is not love until there is some kind of sacrifice on the part of the lover.”
For the contemplative, and the truly Zen student and monk, isolation and silence is the ground for confronting these questions and arriving at answers which transform us and not just make us feel good. The contemplative and the truly spiritual person must, “travel through the valley of the shadow of death,” before he or she reaches Nirvana.
As you have often seen in my writings and heard me teach, the real valuable experiences are not those moments we are filled with joy and happiness watching a beautiful Sunset or the Sun coming up over the ocean, but they are the moments which “tax” us. Don’t misunderstand me I would love to see the Sun come over the Atlantic these days but, I still have work to do on myself with my patience while parenting my daughter during quarantine. Whether you understand it or not, the two are interconnected. We never see such wonders until we are able to see it while exhausted and frustrated, in the mundanities of life.
So class is in session. Our teacher, our teachers, are calling us. The Han is sounded. The lesson is generations upon generations old. An “Ancient Lesson for Modern Living”. One which has been taught again and again and, will continue to return until we have not just learned it but, we have “mastered” it.
What’s it all about, Alfie?
“If you have come here desolate,
If you have come here deflated, then
Thank your lucky stars the desert is
Where you have landed—
Here where it is hard to hide, here
Where it is unwise to rely on your own
Devices, here where you will have to look
And look again, and look close, to find
What refreshment waits to reveal itself to you.
I tell you that though it may be hard to see it now,
This is where your greatest blessing will find you.
I tell you this is where you will receive your life again.
I tell you this is where the breath begins.”
— Jan Richardson
May My Eyes Be Opened, My Heart Broken, Opened to receive this blessing.
I Love You,
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,
One of the Three Pillars of Zen training is “The Cultivation of Wisdom,” which results in a better understanding of the psychological forces at work in ourselves and in society. The current divide and political polarization we are witnessing in America today is, rightfully so, frightening and confusing to all of us. It sometimes feels like the whole world is plunging itself into self-destruction. If we are to find answers, we must embrace the power of the “Truth” which liberates us from the causes of confusion and desperation. We cannot rely on emotions, or opinions, or even our personal beliefs when those beliefs only prove to further the power of ignorance and widen the divide.
Whether we can see it or not, whether we want to see it or not, each of us has had a hand in the making of the problem(s) which cries out for a solution. We must stop looking for the causes of the worlds suffering in others. His Holiness Pope Francis writes, “We are witnessing the globalization of indifference, there is a culture of conflict which makes us think only of ourselves…We’ve become use to the suffering of others, it doesn’t effect me, no one in our world feels responsible. Who is responsible for the blood of our brothers and sisters? The refugees washed up on the shores of the Mediterranean? [In cages at the southern borders of our Nation?] ’I don’t have anything to do with it, must be someone else. Certainly it’s not me.’ Then who is responsible? Everyone is responsible.”
What is the place of the monastic, the contemplative, in all of this? What is the place of the truly spiritual person in all of this? Are we to simply resign ourselves to the worst? Should we simply fortify our spiritual centers, monasteries, churches, mosques, and synagogues, taking a hard-headed position in opposition to all opposing positions? Satisfying our “egos” with our meditations, yoga, prayer life, energy practices, and sense of piety and goodness, while millions of “our brothers and sisters” perish in the rush of ignorance, hatred, and greed?
There can be no question that unless the current culture of fear, the worship of money and power, and indifference is transformed, we will remain in a constant state of insanity and desperation; and the danger of catastrophe, either through war or increasing natural disasters, will continue to be imminent at every moment of our lives.
Do not misunderstand my passion to mean I have answers, this is a problem of terrifying complexity and magnitude, one that I myself do not see clear and decisive solutions. Yet I am convinced that you and I must be the pathway toward the abolition of this current state of affairs. That we must be active in every possible way of lowering the temperature of the debate, mobilizing all our resources for the healing of humanity, and the whole of Nature.
We must at least face this responsibility and do something about it. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. once wrote, “Those who love peace must learn to organize as effectively as those who love war.” In whatever manner we find ourselves inspired to do our part, we must never allow others to deter us from our commitment to living lives of Peace, Loving-kindness, Compassion, and Benevolence. Prepared to restrain and transform our own instincts for violence and aggressiveness in our relations with other people. We must be vigilant, empowering ourselves and others to meet this most urgent challenge, engaging regular and consistent practices of meditation, prayer, and random and deliberate acts of good works. The survival of the human race and the natural world, the continuing life of the planet itself, depends upon it.
I believe that the modern monastic and truly spiritual persons are called to an openness to a radical personal and global transformation. We cannot continue to rely on the models of the past. We can no longer rely on institutions and structures which can be destroyed or changed in any moment. In the words of the dying Buddha, “Atta Dipa.” We must, “rely on ourselves”. We must, each of us, stand on our own two feet and “be the change we want for the world.”
We begin, by first understanding the psychological forces at work in ourselves and in society. “We are more together than we are alone,” and so let us take that first step and each following step together and, together I believe if not in my lifetime, someday we will “awaken the best of angels within us” and become The Pure-Land, The Kingdom of God, on Earth.
I Love You,
At all times whether we are aware of it or not, we live and exist in “A Circle of Grace”. The aim and objective of any Authentic Spiritual practice or training is, to develop an experiential awareness of our existence within this Circle at all times. At all times, no matter the current circumstance or situation Grace is always available to us unconditionally. We need only to be “aware” of its presence and reach within to be infused by its Loving power.
Never is there a moment in which we exist outside the Circle, or fall from It. But far too often we find ourselves unaware of our existence within the Circle. Because of this absence of awareness, we regularly forget “who we are” and, our “place in the Universe”. Because of this “forgetfulness,” we fall into roles contrary to our ”true nature,” behaving in manners contrary to our deepest desires; wandering, distracted from our true purpose and meaning for our lives. What follows is a measure of discontentment and suffering.
Grace, is relational by nature. While it is always offered “freely,” our “participation,” our “conscious awareness” is required. Given freely, we must accept and embrace It freely. To accept and embrace It freely, is to “live it”. To “live it” is to make it our central desire. Grace is a living being. Infused by It, we are transformed into truly living human-beings. Fully Enlightened. Compassionate. Loving-Beings.
Once infused what follows is a natural awakening and understanding of the real meaning and purpose of our lives. Love is that meaning, and Benevolence is, our purpose for existence. The Circle enjoins a Community of Enlightened Beings, Human Beings, Children of God, Buddhas, Bodhisattvas, Mahasattvas. Together with all sentient beings, we exist to sustain and fulfill The Great Mystery of Life which began since the Beginningless Past. It is only through our full participation in this meaning and purpose for our lives we find our fulfillment. There is no other way. As Thomas Merton once wrote, “A tree gives glory to God be being a tree.” So by being Love and living a life which Benefits all beings, we realize our own glory.
The Circle is all inclusive. For everything, whether fully realized at the moment or not, are “parts of a Whole,” called The Circle of Grace. Each part brings to the Circle what is needed, and each contribution, each participant, is satisfied by what the other brings and in return what each participant brings to the other.
The Circle is Self-Sustaining, for within It there is only One-Self, one True-Self. Call it God, or Buddha, or by any other Name, It never ceases to be The Circle of Grace or in any way is it diminished or changed by what we call It, or perhaps buy our own doubts.
Therefore by Its True-Identity, Its True-Nature, we never need to fear, or worry, for no matter what part of The Circle we find ourselves in, there is The Circle of Grace in Its fullness. No part is lacking. No one is lacking. All are One. All that is required is our “Yes”.
I see you, I love you,
Since I was very little I learned, I was trained, and trained myself to be independent. This was the lesson I heard or received from two very independent parents. A very successful self-made Father and strong willed Mother. As a small child obviously this had limits. I needed to be fed, and clothed, and changed, and all the other things small children need. It was when I entered adolescents that my training began.
I was born into a middle-class blue collar working family, whose Mother was the sole caretaker of me and my siblings, and whose Father was the sole provider. When I and my siblings were very young my Father worked three jobs. It wasn’t until around my tenth or eleventh birthday that had changed. My Father had “climbed the ladder” and now was able to provide for his family with one salary and a growing income sourced in his new start-up business. It was around that same time my Father decided that it was time for me to learn what “hard work” meant. It was also around that same time that I realized that “my feelings” in the matter did “not matter”. He was going to make “a man” out of me and teach me how to make it in “the real world”. My twin and I went to work for my father, after school, and me on the weekends. We worked long hours and were expected also to do our schoolwork, attend classes, and get the best grades possible. For the next four years or so my only relationships were adults, people I came to know and learn from being employed at my Father’s place of business.
By my teenage years I had learned much about business, about hard work, about being your own person. Now don’t get me wrong, these lessons in themself have served me well, but there was one other lesson I had learned. That was, “not to ask” for help or anything else for that matter. If you wanted or “needed” something, it was up to you to make that happen. Along with this lesson I learned for the most part, but not entirely, to ignore my feelings. Especially the sad ones or the ones sourced in not getting what you needed. “Being a Man” meant finding and making your own way and, never, never, expecting help to come from anywhere except, maybe God and that was conditional. At least then I thought so.
It wouldn’t be until my early adult years and up through my mid-years when I was learning who I really was and coming into my own person, that I would begin to see the need to challenge some of these childhood lessons. Yet as I grew and, discovered I had a gift for helping others grow, one lesson, has always stuck with me and proved difficult to relearn, until recently. It would be this lesson that my own survival would require me to learn.
Nearly two years ago I was first diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. I had undergone extensive chemo-therapy, radiation, and major surgery. Eventually I was told I was in “remission”. It would be only several months later I would be told that the cancer was still in my body and had metastasized. It was during my time in the hospital, even though I am confident that I had inklings of it throughout my life, that the “one lesson” I hadn’t learned fully yet, and the one lesson which would be necessary if I were ever going to survive was, “To ask for what I needed.” “Real men don’t ask, they go get it themselves.” I can recall on a number of occasions lying in the hospital bed feeling in pain or uncomfortable thinking, “The nurses are really busy around this time. I can deal with this until someone comes in.” “There are other people on this floor much more sicker than I am, I’ll wait.” The bottom line was then and still to some degree, I did not now how to ask for help, and worse, at least, I felt that whatever it was “I needed” others needs were more important.
All of my adult life I have believed that it is “my job,” “my mission,” to help others, and any concerns for what I might need was secondary. This was my childhood lesson. Yet when we “ask” we participate in a cosmic design. We complete the circle of interconnection and interdependence. Both the one who asks, as well as the one who gives, receives. “Asking” is relational and nurtures our true-natures. Each of us are “relational” by nature. The Universe is a “Community”. “Community is the spirit, the guiding light, whereby people come together to fulfill a purpose, to help others fulfill their purpose, and to take care of one another.” We belong to one-another, we need each other, and every time we reach out and ask for help we reinforce and nurture the “Spirit” which runs through all life.
It was time for me to finish the lesson, and relearn what I needed to. I am happy to report that with the help of first, yes, the cancer, and my blessed Community of Monks, and Students, and Members, Supporters, and Friends, I am attending class regularly and learning what I need to learn. I could not do this without “my teachers”.
Living with cancer everyday provides a lot of time for reflection, contemplation, and meditation. I have given a great deal of reflection about my life’s mission which began for me decades ago, and how my own lessons have always informed the teachings I have shared. Recently one of my fellow Monks and dearest Friend said to me, “Roshi, your message has always been the same, taught by you in a thousand different ways.” Today that message has truly crystalized and proven to be more important than ever.
Each and everyone of us are integrated interdependent parts of a whole called by us Life. Everyone, and I mean everyone, without exception; everyone’s life matters, has meaning and purpose. I have long believed that each of our individual births have never been random acts of some kind of chemical or biological effect, at least not alone. That each of us, without exception, are born on the very second; the very minute; the very hour; the very week; the very month, and the very year we were meant to be born. With us we brought what was “needed in the world”. Yet the very sad circumstance which follows is that most of us never deliver what we brought because, we never learn that our lives matter, and that our lives have purpose. So, some of us never learn to “ask for help,” or “for what we need”. And, when we don’t, all life suffers.
You matter, you were born for a purpose. Your life has meaning. The meaning of your life was defined at birth. The meaning of your life is to live your life authentically. To be the person who was born. Not anyone else. Especially not anyone defined by others. “You” were already defined and, for some great mystery while you were defined, “You” are a work in progress becoming more and more who You were meant to be. Not just for yourself, but the whole World. The work in progress is never over. The purpose of your life, having been born, is to bring your unique authenticity to the work of benefitting the world. So, you need to “take care of yourself” to be able to meet this Divine and ever needed challenge. So, “Ask” for what you need! Don’t wait for cancer or some other threatening experience to show up. Ask! When you do, as I have discovered, an infinite supply of what you need, call it Love, Family, Friendship, Community, will be provided you. Because, we might forget who we are, but that Great Mystery called by us by many Names, never forgets, and is always ready and willing to give.
Thank you to everyone who have convinced me that my asking matters. Without whose love, good thoughts, prayers, and support, I could not meet this challenge and complete my life’s mission.
I truly, truly, love 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,
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.