“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,
“Our love, or lack of it…will in the end be an expression of ourselves: Of who we think we are, of what we want to be, and what we think we are here for.” – Thomas Merton
Love, like Authentic Spirituality is “not dualistic”. You cannot “be spiritual” or love anyone or anything within the context of ego, which is always viewing the world from a dualistic point of view, from a fear based narrative.
Love always tells us more about the lover than it does about the beloved. We love others only and according to how we love ourselves. We can only give what we have and to the extent we can love ourselves unconditionally, we will love others the same. To the extent we love ourselves unconditionally, we will accept others and will be able to embrace the world just as it is and as it is not. Love is the parent of such virtues as patience, and our ability to embrace impermanence. Love does not fear change. For love there is no loss or gain.
Love is not just some sentimental or romantic notion or emotion, it is a force driven towards action by a real sense of purpose, and sustained by integrity. In Zen we say, “May I at all times, both now and forever, live my life as a benefit for others.” While we may not love others with the same emotional intensity we might love a few closes to us however, love always loves with the same intention. Love is by nature benevolent, it seeks to always benefit the moment, to relieve suffering, and to bring support and hope to any crises.
It is only in loving others from a place of benevolence that I am able to experience love. Love seeks only one thing, to be a benefit to others. It is for this reason that love is its own reward. When I am truly and fully engaged in loving others I cannot be bored, worrisome, or discouraged. Loving gives my life meaning and purpose. Love is the meaning and purpose of my very existence.
Where ambition ends love begins. It is not until I stop seeking to have, will I ever have anything of any real substance. When I cease trying to “find love” or wanting to be loved, wanting the whole world to “devote itself to making me happy,” I will find true happiness, and I will be able to see that love was always right here. Loving others is the gateway to the Kingdom of Heaven, to Nirvana. The story about the healing of the blind man by Jesus was never fully told. I am convinced that all Jesus did was to convince the man of his worthiness, of his “lovability,” and immediately he was able to see.
So in the end the world does not need more leaders, saviors, certainly not more politicians. What the world needs more of now is what the world always needs: “More Lovers”.
“So dearly beloved let us love one another… for Love is God.” – John 4:7
“The way to happiness is to keep your heart free from hate, your mind from worry. Live simply, give much. Fill your life with love…” – Buddha
I Love You,
June 14, 2016
Seijaku Roshi’s Meditation
“Do not be daunted by the enormity of the world’s grief. Do justly, now. Love mercy, now. Walk humbly, now. You are not obligated to complete the work, but neither are you free to abandon it.”
– The Talmud
Once again like millions my heart broke at the news of another mass shooting, senseless, without mercy, hateful. I immediately began contacting old friends who I thought were potential victims. Thank you God they weren’t. Dear God what about those who were? What about those who could be in the future? What about my daughter? What about the children? Why?
I do not know the solutions to ending the plague of terrorism and war in our world and I do not want to pretend that I do. I do know my heart hurts more and more for the victims of this madness; I am fearful for my daughter and her little friends, I want her Mom not to take her to the shore in a couple of weeks. I had second thoughts about taking her and her new BFF to see TMNT at the Marlton 8 yesterday. I’m a parent and the suffering of the world becomes more crisp for me everyday, I feel it in my bones, running through my veins. It’s not over there, it’s right here. What’s a “parent-monk” to do?
The words of The Talmud resonate for me. As a person who has dedicated his life to the principles of love, kindness, and compassion; the principles of justice for all, equality, mercy, all the while working at walking humbly, I have always felt, “Obligated to complete the work,” and I cannot find it within me even though I am tempted at times, to “abandon it”.
“The greatest need of our time is to clean out the enormous mass of mental and emotional rubbish that clutters our minds…Peace demands the most heroic labor and the most difficult sacrifice. It demands greater heroism than war. It demands greater fidelity to the truth and a much more perfect purity of conscience.” ― Thomas Merton
I recall watching a documentary on Japan, one of the scenes a fisherman was being interviewed. The fisherman happened to be a Buddhist. The interviewer asked if he believed in God. He replied, “When you are in the deepest parts of the ocean where the waves are 40 feet tall crashing against your boat, and you fear being throne off the boat while pulling in your nets, you can be sure I believe in God.” Life is difficult these days for all of us, myself included. There seems to be so much uncertainty about the future, our trusts violated, our beliefs challenged, and our very existence increasingly threatened by failure to be good stewards of this beautiful planet we all live on. So many families threatened daily by mental diseases stealing precious time away from them and money they don’t have. War continues and seems like it will never end. Extreme poverty continues to visit so many people here at home and around the world. But worst of all, polarization continues to push so many of us away from each other when we should be moving towards each other.
“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.”
You and I are designed for relationship, we are born to be “in relationship” with everyone and everything else. The purpose of life, and if we are ever going to find any meaning, is found in relationship, living my life as a benefit for others. “Community is the Spirit, the Guiding Light…” which when lived functions as a compass, a means of navigating through a reality marked by impermanence and uncertainty. Thomas Merton wrote, “It is therefore of supreme importance that we consent to live not for ourselves but for others. When we do this we will be able first of all to face and accept our own limitations. As long as we secretly adore ourselves, our own deficiencies will remain to torture us with an apparent defilement. But if we live for others, we will gradually discover that no one expects us to be ‘as gods’. We will see that we are human, like everyone else, that we all have weaknesses and deficiencies, and that these limitations of ours play a most important part in all our lives. It is because of them that we need others and others need us. We are not all weak in the same spots, and so we supplement and complete one another, each one making up in himself for the lack in another.”
Community is not just some nice sentimental idea or romantic notion but a force for fulfillment and sustainability. It is a context which naturally creates confidence, courage, true self-esteem, contentment, and love as the content of our lives. Community is the only conducive environment for personal and global fulfillment and spiritual practice.
Enlightenment, is to live one’s life at the level of full self-expression. The work of “being spiritual” is to discover who I am and realize my true self. The first step toward Enlightenment begins with the realization that, “Who I think I am is not” that the self I call “myself” is conditional or what Buddhist call “the conditioned self” and is not my “true self”. This self is who I have come to identify with after years of cultural, social, religious and political conditioning, including the most unyielding of all false identifications, identification with my parents. My happiness as well as my emotional and psychological maturity and well-being is dependent on distinguishing between this self I call myself which is conditional, and who I truly am. Our hearts will remain restless until we do.
In his book, “The Book of Awakening” Mark Nepo quotes Parker J. Palmer who writes, “The spiritual life is about becoming more at home in your own skin.” Nepo says, “The aim of all spiritual paths, no matter their origin or the rigors of their practice, is to help us live more fully in the lives we are given.” This is contrary to most contemporary spiritual approaches which are too often rooted in emotional greed, resentment, or what Chogyam Trungpa called, “Spiritual Materialism”.
There is another saying older than Palmers, “When the student is ready the teacher appears.” Here the reference to the “teacher” may or may not necessarily be a person. We are to understand that, “Life” as it is showing up in our lives and in the world is “the teacher”. As a young Catholic I remember the Sisters and Priests often saying, “God never gives us more than we can handle.” If both sayings are true, and I believe they are, then the only matter left is whether or not the student is going to attend class.
“We say Buddha Nature pervades the entire Universe or God is Omniscient, Everywhere. Therefore we cannot say, “Not now” or “Not here.” For wherever we are there is Buddha or God. In Zen we do not look for Buddha or God outside ourselves, they are within us. We are the gateway. Everywhere we are is The Pure Land, the Kingdom of God. What are you waiting for? If not now, when?”
– Seijaku Roshi
I often say that in our modern world, “A persons word is equal to their excuses.” It would also follow that, “A persons potential is equal to their excuses.” This would include our potential for real changes in our lives which would result in ending our pursuit of and search for what is and always has been with us, and finally enjoying our birthright — joy, contentment, and love. The only thing that prevents us from “here and now” is our deluded perceptions of “when and where”.
On April 15, 2013 Americans and the world once again witnessed the very worst in humanity and the very best, when fellow human beings chose to bring tragedy to the lives of Bostonians, while other fellow human beings chose to bring love.
Each of us must wonder, “Is this ever going to end?” As a parent I wonder, “Is this my daughters future?” Is this part of humanity to become so common place that we will become so accepting that not only will it never end, but so much of the “best of humanity” may be weakened by it or worst jaded.
For now I believe that any hope for the future lies in the past, in history as proven in this account of another time the world witnessed the very worst and the very best…”We who lived in concentration camps can remember those who walked through the huts comforting others, giving away their last piece of bread. They may have been few in number, but they offer sufficient proof that everything can be taken away from a person but one thing: the last of human freedoms – to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.” – Viktor Frankl
“Even if the Sun were to rise in the West, the Bodhisattva knows only One Way.” These words have always resonated within me especially in times of uncertainty or difficulty, and I have always tried to respond to them authentically and to the best of my ability. I have always been attracted to the monastic or contemplative realms of religious or spiritual life. In fact I continue to hold a firm belief that these paths alone are the “One Way”, the only Authentic Spiritual Practices. Much of what people practice today called “spirituality”, or “religion”, is a “path of convenience”. The problem lies in the fact that, that which the heart seeks is never convenient even though it is always everywhere we go, “pervading the entire Universe”. I have always imagined the first “monastic” who looked up into the heavens while at the same time toward that which was calling him or her, within them from where their experience rang, had no words for their experience and chose not to. For them “the experience” itself was sufficient, more than sufficient, it was “wondrous and mysterious”. This is the Nature of Authentic Spirituality. One inspired by the Zen-Life and other traditions like it, understands that no matter how much we think we have or can explain it, well as the Korean Zen Master told his students, “The moment you open your mouth, you are wrong.” As if that is not bad enough, the moment we seek to understand it or explain it we rob ourselves of any possibilities to know it and betray the purity of the invitation. We are called to experience life not explain it. The Mystery that Life really is, can only be known by “living it”. The Prophets, Buddha, Jesus, all called us to “the desert experience”, where the journey is by no means convenient, and requires one’s full attention or commitment. How we ever got to the idea that “convenient spirituality” was an option I’d rather not waste a moment trying to explain.