Tuesday, October 30, 2018

Time and chance

Signpost in Freetown Christiana, Copenhagen, Denmark

A dear friend sent these words to me yesterday,  from Ecclesiastes, and I was heartened by this ancient wisdom in a dark time for me personally and for the world.  My own sorrows and troubles do not belong to me -- they are not mine alone.  They flow into the common, shared grief.  Every day, all over the world, there is great loss, and great joy, constantly intermingling.  The violence at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh this past weekend, and the loss of life and trust in that community, combines with the outpouring of support and calls to action, take their place in the powerful thrust of history and karma.  Somehow, for me at least, the clouds have lifted today and the way has become clear.  I don't begin to understand how this sort of thing happens, but I'm grateful for the abiding of the earth, the dependability of the sun and the wind and the sea, and great workings of time and chance.  I bow to them all in gratitude.

1:4 A generation goes, and a generation comes, but the earth remains forever.

5 The sun rises and the sun goes down, and hurries to the place where it rises.

6 The wind blows to the south, and goes around to the north; round and round goes the wind, and on its circuits the wind returns.

7 All streams run to the sea, but the sea is not full; to the place where the streams flow, there they continue to flow.

 9:11 Again I saw that under the sun the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, nor bread to the wise, nor riches to the intelligent, nor favor to the skillful; but time and chance happen to them all.

Tuesday, October 23, 2018

Resting in the Difficult


I just had the great pleasure of teaching a weekend retreat sponsored by Lion's Roar magazine at the Garrison Institute in New York, called "Facing Life's Difficulties" with Patricia Mushim Ikeda and Lama Justin von Bujdoss.   I was inspired by my fellow teachers and all the participants, and in particular by Lama Justin's instructions from his lineage ancestor Gampopa, who lived in  the 12th century in Tibet.

All of us struggle at some point with difficulties, stress, painful emotions, suffering, the unwanted, grief, and more.  I usually invite people to practice with these states, using words like "meeting,"  "facing," "being with," or "being free in the midst of."  Lama Justin quoted Gampopa as suggesting the word "resting."  I don't know what this translates from Tibetan, but when I heard "resting" as a guidance,  my heart settled quickly.

For me, these days, challenges come from everywhere:  in the global situation, personally, and everything in between.  To find rest in the middle of all of it aligns intimately with my understanding of what Dharma practice has to offer.  We are taught from a young age to "avoid" and "transform" -- the two other words Gampopa uses, which I usually talk about as "flight" or "turning away" and "fight" or "fixing." Although they may sound negative, both of these tried and true coping mechanisms can be used positively.    If I am in physical, emotional or cognitive pain I can first try to ignore it, to turn away from it.  Maybe I can imagine a place where I am safe, some resource of protection, or I can play music, take a walk, phone a friend.   Avoiding only works for a short time, but it can be effective, and we all know how to do it.   Transforming, or fighting and fixing, is also effective in dealing with distress.  Although it can be a little more work, the effects appear to last longer than avoiding.  We can take medication, make a plan to change something, organize to help others and ourselves.

But resting in the distress is something else altogether.  From the great practice of sitting upright in the middle of whatever comes during our meditation practice, we learn to intimately encounter what is right here, whether we like it or not.  As Eihei Dogen teaches us, "flowers fall though we love them; weeds grow though we hate them.  This is just how it is."  Being with what is, resting in the middle of our distress, allows a softening and transforming that is not easy to do, but that has effects that can last a lifetime. 

Resting, right here, right now, no matter what is happening.  Please enjoy this gift from Lama Justin and Gampopa.

Wednesday, October 17, 2018

A Good View

From "The Record of Empty Hall" Case 67: Iron Grindstone Liú’s Upside Down (translated by Dosho Port, Rōshi)

Raised: Zǐhú asked Iron Grindstone Liú, “For a long time, I’ve been favorably inclined to ‘Iron Grindstone Liú.’ Is there someone for whom this [name] would be suitable or not?”

Grindstone said, “I won’t go there.”

Hú said, “Turn left, turn right.”

Grindstone said, “Venerable, is there someone who would go upside down?”

Hú then hit her.

[Xūtáng’s] alternate saying for Iron Grindstone Liú: “Not knowing, rely on meeting an outsider.”

Hakuin said, “Where the darkness and the light do not reach, there
is a good view.”

Sometimes in our lives everything is simply confusing -- there is no way
out using the rational mind. Iron Grinder and her friend Hú live in the
world where ordinary and empty exist completely entwined, so that there
is no way to live without the other side. In times of darkness, we dwell
in the darkness. In times of clarity we dwell in clarity. But the way is
beyond these opposites, as Hakuin kindly points out. Through sincere
practice, we can find our good view beyond dualistic ideas of
left and right, dark and light, this and that. Everything that is
happening may seem upside down, but really, when we see clearly,
it is just right. Words can't do it, so sometimes the only response
is a hit. Or a warm smile of recognition and the direct meeting
that is possible between people of the Way.

Thursday, October 4, 2018


Emmy winner Merritt Weaver in a still from "Godless"

Let me start by reassuring you that this post isn't about religion, or the lack of it in modern times.  I recently watched and deeply enjoyed the limited streaming series "Godless" on Netflix, set in the late 19th century in the American west, written and directed by Scott Frank.  And I want to warn you,  if this review leads you to watch the program, please make sure you have the stomach for viewing hundreds of extras (humans and horses) posing as blood-covered corpses, in not one, but three major massacres and a number of smaller ones thrown in.  Personally, I have an odd capacity to handle seeing violence in a work of fiction, where I know everyone is an actor and there are cameras and lots of film crew members just out of range, much better than I can watch the television news, or even football.  Luckily, I can still tell the difference between real and imagined carnage, but I expect to lose this talent any day now, as my exposure to real (filmed) violence in the actual world increases.

Two of the actors in the series, Jeff Daniels and Merritt Wever, rightly won Emmy awards for their portrayals of a ruthless killer/preacher and a fearless trouser-wearing and gun-toting widow, respectively.  A second trouser-wearing, gun-toting widow, brilliantly played by Michelle Dockery, best known for her role as Lady Mary in "Downton Abbey," was nominated but sadly didn't win.  Daniels, the comic star of movies like "Dumb and Dumber," with his rubbery face smiling broadly,  spouting cock-eyed religious philosophy, and his eyes completely dead, is beautifully cast against type as the worst kind of sociopath.  He is the character who speaks the lines about the world being godless, as he indiscriminately slaughters the vast majority of the people he encounters.  Wever and Dockery join forces against him, along with a whole crew of colorful characters, many of them women, people of color (former slaves and Indians), and poor white folks.  And (spoiler alert) even though the story is terrifyingly dark, the series closes with a number of happy endings, some of them expected to the point of cliché and some surprising. 

What kept me watching, besides the quality of the acting and writing, was the beautiful cinematography and the gorgeous music, composed by the Guatemalan composer Carlos Rafael Rivera.  The story unfolds slowly, and touches on many themes relevant to modern times: racism, sexism, the lasting effects of trauma,  and most of all, the tyranny and magnetism of insane people in power.  If you are prepared to watch a dream world filled with terror, love, redemption, and lots of horses, you'll enjoy "Godless."