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.
I find myself reminiscing of days gone by, melancholy for a time when the world I’ve known in my heart, was so much different.
The words of our forefather’s and mother’s continue to haunt me, as they do millions of Americans: “We the People.” “E Pluribus Unum.” “With Liberty (Freedom) and Justice (Equality) for all.” “Like an anthem in my heart,” they continue to orchestrate a “vision for the world,” a dream of days go by, “which either happened or not, and if not, “Why Not?”, interrupting and disrupting the world and todays current events.
All throughout history the Monastic and Contemplative Community has served as a “quiet yet powerful force for good in the world”. The monastery is not only home to the Monks but, a place of refuge for visitors and pilgrims seeking refuge and, a conducive and appropriate environment for nurturing and awakening the best of human nature.
I have often been heard to say, “You don’t have to become a monk to live like a monk but, you have to live like a monk.” Living authentically and spiritually in the world – matters; Living a principled and purposeful life – matters, Community and a devotion to benefiting the lives of others and a commitment to something larger than just yourself – matters. Not only does it “matter,” it is the “difference” in life that so many continue to search for endlessly.
“I can tell you deliverance will not come from the rushing noisy centers of civilization. It will come from the lonely places.” – Fridtjof Nansen
I have always felt like a “stranger in a strange land”. I first felt this way when I was seven years old, and after God had stolen my heart, and has yet to return it to me.
In my youth, I often visited the “rushing noisy centers of civilization,” in search of love and glory. I found it for a while, and then the lights would come on at 1:00am as they did hundreds of times, only to find myself in the streets of the city making my way back to that place from whence I was convinced the journey would lead me to what I felt I most needed.
I would occasionally seek refuge in the “Institutes of Knowledge” which I would never underestimate their contributions to civilization. Yet, here we are in the 21st Century still debating the fundamental issues of humanity: The right to life; to live free of the fear of discrimination, injustice, poverty, and illness; the right to full self-expression, freedom from repression and oppression, equality and war.
Being the first-born son of a “conservative capitalist” “meaning of life,” was defined, for me, a definition I would quickly reject and in doing so, be rejected. Early on I was exposed to the “Industries of Commerce,” in an effort to try to shape and form me toward that ends. There I heard Mara’s voice and his promises of wealth, security, and glory? I would not be enticed, well not entirely. Remember God has my heart, and regularly interrupts my thoughts.
I choose to live the “life of a monk” not because I wish to go to heaven after I am finished here, or because I want to accumulate enough good karma to somehow escape the wheel of samsara or suffering; or because I believe, which I do not, that somehow the Universe is my personal ATM or offers me “The Secret” to abundance or prosperity, but because everything inside me has always and, continues to convince me that, thus is the better way.
I cannot remember a time in my life since I was seven years old that my vocation did not call me to, “Dare to seek on the margin of society,” to live Nobly, Grounded in Virtue, Honor, and a sense of Benevolent Responsibility to the World. A vocation I believe not limited to priests, rabbi’s, or those in religious life. Like Albert Einstein, I have always and continue to, “Desire only to know the thoughts of God. Everything else, is simply details.”
Like so many, I ponder what life will be for future generations, the future of our Nation, the planet, but most especially humanity. For what is a man’s life without virtue, without honor, without passion, without community, without a heartfelt benevolence, compassion, and love? It is our humanity which permits us to recognize beauty, to experience wonder, to laugh, to dance, to play; to cry, to grieve, to respond to injustice, to care for, and to appreciate life.
“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.
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.”