“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.
Lately I have felt like I have been living under and endless stream of clouds. Winter has certainly taken its toll. But clouds unlike the light which shines behind them, are impermanent, no matter how long they may linger. But more importantly they are deceptive, and when we look up and only see cloudy skies, we must keep looking until we see the whole truth. The Sun does not go up or down, in or out, it is always shining, always bright, always in its appropriate place in the Universe. The light is never dispelled, only hidden at times by obstructions both natural and manmade. No matter what direction we look, if our vision is big enough, wide enough, high enough, we must and we will eventually, discover the light.
I am a cage for monkeys while I sit, scatterbrain is my name. My monkey mind wants my attention. Like with my seven year old I just acknowledge that. I’ll give it something to do. What it doesn’t know is doing will do it but only for a little while. Doing and having is of the nature of impermanence. It wants to go somewhere. What it doesn’t know is that there is nowhere to go. Up, down, left, right, there I am Up, Down, to the Left, to the Right. Where is there to go?
Our work is not to manipulate the moment, this Sacred Passing Moment, this way or that way. The world comes to us just as it is, and just as we don’t want it to be, except sometimes. Our work is to welcome it and make peace with it and for it, just the way we are. Ahhh. There it is. Peace. The monkey has settled down to – just Be.
To Be or Not to Be – there really is no choice.
“A Tree gives glory to God… by being a Tree.” – Thomas Merton
Each of us are Spirit, manifestations of the One with our own signatures; Authentic Spirituality is the means by which we awaken from a lifetime of ego delusion to realize our True-Self and to manifest our own enlightenment in the world. “In setting off in search of true identity, one steps into a labyrinth, a maze, a tunnel of love, a hall of mirrors, a derelict graveyard, a long-neglected archeological site.” This “awakening” is not easy and results as a function of entering a process, a kind of “path” which takes us through a “hall of mirrors” and challenges us to confront our many false identities we have accumulated.
Authentic Spirituality, Zen is life-it’s our life, and our journey begins right where we are, with our lives exactly as it is and as it isn’t. One of the barriers presenting us from entering the path and liberating ourselves from our suffering is the myth that, “I’ll start when…”, or “I need to wait until…” There’s never going to be any more appropriate time to begin your journey than now. There are no required preconditions or circumstance, just the desire to be free and the willingness to make the journey no matter the circumstances or situations ahead. Even if you have begun and failed to continue, start again. As Jesus taught, “Pick up your cross and follow.” As the ancient masters would ask, “If not now, when?” Even if you lack the courage or the strength. You know how many people in the world are weakened by life’s challenges facing and confronting life every day. Hospitals and cities are filled with such people.
As a youth I grew close to the parents of a friend of mine from high school, we kept in touch for many years after graduation. “Mr. Fitz,” as I called him was much like (the famous 70’s sitcom character) Archie Bunker type personality with smoother edges. “Mrs. Fitz,” was indeed much like Edith Bunker, Archies wife, without pretension, beautiful, sweet, and with that quiet wisdom overshadowed by her humility. I remember one occasion when I stayed for dinner, afterwards the news with Walter Cronkite came on the television. The “Fitz’s” made it a point to sit together on the “davenport” or the sofa together, sometimes holding hands if she wasn’t knitting. At the end of the news broadcast Walter Cronkite would always say, “And that’s the way it is.”, to which Mr. Fitz would respond, “No it isn’t Walter, no it isn’t.”
“C. S. Lewis taught, if the devil were to succeed in England, he would need to wear a three-piece suit and speak with the Queen’s English, and surely never appear as a red demon with horns and a pitchfork.” This morning like most Americans I woke to the news of yesterdays current events, a practice I have limited now to approximately 3 minutes at best, only to hear the same news from the day before and days before that. Nothing much had changed. Hatred, distrust, accusations, true or false, blaming, promising, hopes, doubts, more hatred, more accusations, and more promises that have been made for decades by others who, hated, suspected, and mistrusted someone other than themselves or their party or particular group. Like the saying goes, “The more things are supposed to change, the more they stay the same.” I immediately observed my muscular skeleton retract in pain with the kind of feeling you get when you’ve tasted something that always turns your stomach. My reaction was to pick up my aging and almost near dying dog sitting near me and hold her close to me telling her, “I love you girl.” I needed to find refuge in my humanity and something that was real, my dog.
“When the student is ready the teacher will appear.” I’ve thought a great deal about that and how it sounds a little like a saying that showed up in the 70’s, “Today is the first day of the rest of your life.” – And everyone I knew began procrastinating. The previous quote is actually a koan. Like all koans it is designed to “not make any rational sense, and are used to ‘blow the minds’ of trainee monks in order to trigger their enlightenment.” If you read it and interpret its meaning as it is, the problem with that is that after forty-one years teaching it is my experience that, “The student is never ready,” and that any lesson of any value, any lesson that is really transformative always appears as a kind of “inconvenient truth”. God knows we don’t like to be inconvenienced.
The way most of us live our lives, making choices, or committing to anything is usually a function of how we feel at the moment. If I were to do much of what I do let’s say just in the course of one day, according to how I feel, I wouldn’t accomplish much. The first thing to realize is that our “feelings” about the moment are often unreliable and have nothing to do with this present moment. They are almost 100% of the time connected to some past (unresolved issue) experience. Relying on my feelings and I would include my opinions and points-of-view, as well as the beliefs I have formed about my life, is like relying on the other person to change before I can be happy.
Certainly the student should “be ready to learn,” but what does that really mean; To “be ready” to learn? When are we “ready”? Again I have found that we are never really ever ready for those transformative lessons in life. Those lessons are either always heaped upon us at any unexpected and sudden moment or, we decide to apply what I always call “Nike Buddhism” or “Nike Zen” if you prefer: We learn to “Just do it”.
“It’s Up to You! It’s Always Been! What Do You Want?”
In his book “A Monk in The World” Wayne Teasdale makes reference to one of several versions of a story told to me many years ago. When I first heard it, it defined for me what I call “The Difference,” that one ingredient which separates novelty and authenticity. My version tells the story of an encounter between a Zen master and one of his students. The student in a rare opportunity approached the master challenging him about the notion of enlightenment. “How is it possible to be truly free?” “To live an unencumbered life, free of the mind’s distractions, worriments, and fear?” The master invites the novice to walk with him and together they enter the forest surrounding the monastery. The young person continues probing the master while he remains completely silent offering no response. They eventually arrive at one of the lakes on the property and it is then the master speaks inviting his companion to join him as he cools off in the body of the lake. No sooner they are waist deep in the lake and suddenly the master grabs the student and pushes him under the water, holding him there. You can imagine the surprise and eventually the fear rising in the novice’s body. It is almost to the moment when the student would naturally pass out and only then does his teacher lift him out of the water. Gasping and kicking, obviously angry and afraid, he screams at the teacher, “What was that about?” “How could you do that to me?” The Zen master walks to the shore with the screaming novice, shakes himself off and turns to the student saying to him, “When you truly want enlightenment as badly as you wanted your next breath, then and only then will all of your questions be answered and you will know the answers in your very body just as your body knew to choose life.”
“We are not human beings having a spiritual experience. We are spiritual beings having a human experience.” ― Pierre Teilhard de Chardin
My life’s journey has been one of creating clarity, first for my own life and then as a teacher for others, and continues to be that way. I believe that’s what’s so for all of us, the only difference may be is that we either consciously participate in that process or as the ancient Zen masters suggest, “We are dragged.” From my earliest days I have preferred not to have scarred knees.
Since I can remember I have always felt a “calling” to spirituality and religious life, or as a young Catholic we called it a “Vocation,” and as a young Catholic feeling the inspiration I thought it was to the Priesthood. It was, but not the Catholic Priesthood. Do not misunderstand me, there never was a conversion for me though I no longer and haven’t for a number of years been a “practicing Catholic” I still hold very deep affections for the “community of saints” I have come to know and love over the years, and continue every year to entertain the desire to attend Christmas Eve Mass. It is also important that you understand that even though Zen Buddhism has been my “vehicle of choice” for making this journey, I do not consider myself to be a Buddhist (in the conventional sense of the term) anymore than I was comfortable identifying with Catholicism or any “ism” as my religion. In the end my True Religion has always been “Freedom”. Zen Buddhism has and continues to prove to be the best fitting vehicle for both my nature and my heart’s desire.
“In the Buddhist tradition, the purpose of taking refuge is to awaken from confusion and associate oneself with wakefulness. Taking refuge is a matter of commitment and acceptance and, at the same time, of openness and freedom. By taking the refuge vow we commit ourselves to freedom.” – Chogyam Trungpa
Fundamental to Buddhist Spirituality is the practice of “taking refuge”. When I find myself in times of trouble, in times of uncertainty, in times of pain, what is my reaction, where do I turn?
We are most certainly living in troubled times marked by uncertainty and dominated by what Buddhist call The Three Poisons of life – Greed, Anger or Resentment, and Indifference. Many of us, myself included, often find ourselves stressed by the news of current events and the unknown about where we are headed both as a species and a country. The historical resources we have relied on in the past to support us by providing unbiased and well informed, fact-based information, continue to disappoint us. We are bombarded everyday not with information designed to inform and empower, but rather biased opinions and propaganda of a few whose agenda is exclusively a personal self-serving one. Even when we turn to our neighbors and friends we can find ourselves more frustrated and frighten of the future when our conversation is rooted in fear and distrust rather than hope and vision.
“The beginning is the destination. Any distance between now and then, here and there, is an illusion. Aware and fully engaged here and now, without pretense, without reason, is what we call Enlightenment.”
– Seijaku Roshi
What does it really mean to be fully present, here and now; to be present to our life which is always and only happening now? We do not exist in the past and even when we arrive at tomorrow it’s now.
Webster’s dictionary defines “Being” as “The quality or state of having existence: the most important or basic part of a person’s mind or self.” If we are ever going to experience the fullness of life, of being truly and fully alive we need to “be” where life is happening – Life is Always Happening Now.