18 December 2009

Heaven, Hell, and Reincarnation...or not

Death was a hot topic at the Los Angeles Buddhist-Catholic dialogue this month, death and what happens after.

Professor Chris Chapple invited me to go to the Buddhist-Catholic dialogue a while back and I've gone when I could. This group of Buddhist and Catholic spiritual leaders and academics have been meeting together for over twenty years. It's been going on so long, there is a real personal warmth between all of the clerics and academics in spite of the great variety of their beliefs, backgrounds, nationalities and outfits. I mean, you've got sweet Sister Thomas Bernard in her wimple, white sweater and orthopedic shoes as well as a number of Catholic priests from different orders in their collars, interspersed around the table with Buddhist leaders of various traditions. If you didn't know better, you might think that there were representatives from three different religions because of the striking difference in dress between the Buddhists from the "northern" or Mahayana tradition (Chinese, Japanese, and Korea) and the "southern" or Theravadan tradition (Sri Lanka, Thailand etc.) For example, Venerable Miao Hsi from the Taiwanese Hsi Lai Temple and Professor Jeung Park, who's also an abbot in a Korean Buddhist order, dress in robes that look like closely tied coats. Phrakru Sumanatissa Berua from the Wat Thai Temple, on the other hand, is partially, but not fully, wrapped in bright orange cloth with one shoulder completely exposed.

Here's a photo from one of the meetings back in 2008 so you can get a sense of what I'm talking about....

Over the past four or five sessions, the group has been working their way through a pamphlet that the Archdiocese of Los Angeles gives out to its flock: "What Catholics Should Know About Buddhism." The Buddhists at the Buddhist-Catholic dialogue are correcting mistakes they find - and they've found quite a few.

The effort was actually suggested by the representative of the Archdiocese of Los Angeles, Right Reverend Alexei Smith who was ordained as a Melkite Greek Catholic priest.(* explanation of his unusual relationship with the Archdiocese below) "If we're going to be teaching our Catholic kids about these various world religions," Father Alexei said, "we should be teaching them accurately."

It's a pretty remarkable thing that representatives from all of these religious institutions have cared enough about building relationships with each other that they have devoted this much time and energy over decades to do it and with such little notice. And this is by no means the only group like it.

After four sessions, the group was just about to finish correcting this sixteen-page pamphlet. I know, it sounds like watching paint dry, but it wasn't. It wasn't just that there were a number of errors in the text itself but, on occasion, the Buddhists didn't agree among themselves about what should be said instead. Although they are all Buddhists, there are nuances in their tenets and beliefs as different as their dress.

But then, today, death got on the agenda. In the previous meeting, one of the Buddhists had said that, unlike in the West, many people consider themselves Confucian and Taoist and Buddhist or Daoist and Buddhist and Shinto. There just isn't the rigid separation between faiths. However, one of the Buddhist clerics said, in Japan, it wasn't until someone in their family died that they turned to Buddhism.

Professor Michael Kerze, an adjunct professor at Los Angeles Valley College, said he thought that was odd, given what he understood about Buddhism. "Why do (people in Japan) turn to Buddhism for funerals? Given Buddha's vision of samsara and being reborn, why turn to Buddhism for funerals when this is just one passing into another life?"

Ven. Dr. Karuna Dharma, (cleric on the far left in the photo above who was born Joyce Adele Pettingill in Beloit, Wisconsin) abbess in a Vietnamese Buddhist order, said, "When somebody passes, they're headed for a new life. It's very important for Buddhists to try to help them towards a good new life."

Venerable Miao Hsi, added: "It's like a very grand spiritual send off."

Phrakru Sumanatissa Berua from the Wat Thai Temple said: "Actually death is the final journey of the human being. In Buddha's time, there was a very beautiful woman, a woman so beautiful that every male, chase behind her. Even monks. She pass away. Buddha say: 'Keep her. Don't burn her.' Her body lay there for days. Buddha say 'She's there. Anyone want to go there now?'"

I don't know about anyone else at that table, but there's a pretty strong image now stuck in my head.

The Wat Thai monk continued. "The Buddha have to teach them that this," the monk bent his fingers back to his body draped in bright orange, "is impermanent so they can decline from attachment. Everything is illusion. It's not real. So when we have a funeral we have to teach about that: life is impermanent. We like to say that the people who pass away are our teacher, that life is impermanent." So, he said, in his tradition, in the Theravada tradition, the funeral is not so much for the person who died, for aiding in their transformation into a better life. "That's governed by their karma, by what they did in their life. You did good things, you go to good place; you did bad things, you go to bad place - that's what Buddhists believe."

Professor Jeung Park, a Korean Buddhist abbot, explained that, for Buddhists, the concept of a sentient being or "sattva" is different than other religions. He said, for Buddhists, even people who pass away are "sattvas. Because they return. In other religions, whoever passes away aren't counted. For Buddhists, they are because they are in a cycle of samsara. Understand? We are reborn again continuously."

But Professor Kerze had more questions, questions his religious studies students asked that he didn't feel he was answering fully. "My students ask me 'But what, exactly, is reborn?'"

Professor Park said, "We deny that any kind of self exists." No 'atman' - that Hindu term for the "I" that can say "my mind." Wikipedia says it's the Hindu term for soul.

Rev Karuna Dharma said, "I wouldn't use the word 'reincarnation.' 'Rebirth' is different from reincarnation." There seemed to be general agreement from all the Buddhists clerics around the table on this point, no matter what the tradition.

But Professor Kerze persisted, "It's said that Buddha remembered 'all his previous lifetimes in the process of enlightenment.' What was he remembering if there is no 'soul' consisting through these lifetimes?"

Father John Raab said he, too, didn't understand. "Even if you called it "rebirth" instead of reincarnation, what is being re-born?"

Then Reverend/Professor Jeung Park made a point I'd never heard before. The whole idea of rebirth is not really that important in Buddhism. At all. "It's more like a teaching tool to help people see the benefit of living a moral and ethical life." He said that the notion of karma and of dependent origination (that nothing can exist on its own) are much more important than any notion of rebirth for Buddhists. "It's not a big topic or a main notion for Buddhism. So don't spend too much time arguing about it."

It was pretty funny. Everyone who wasn't Buddhist was pretty hung up on nailing down just what, exactly, Buddhists mean when they talk about reincarnation or rebirth while Professor Park was telling us the whole concept was little more than a teaching tool, nowhere near as important as living an ethical and moral life; the idea that nothing can be alive on its own, separate and apart from countless other people and circumstances; and the idea of emptiness or no "self", which is a pretty tough idea to wrap your head around. And it seemed as if most of the other Buddhists around the table agreed.

Those central concepts each make a certain amount of straightforward sense to me. Dependent origination -- that I couldn't exist without my parents and their parents and their parents' parents is easy to see but it's more than that. My continued existence is also completely dependent on a complex and almost infinite series of people, places, events and circumstances - things that are happening or not happening. No one is breaking in to my house right now with a gun so I am able to type these words. I have a glass of water beside me that probably began as snow in the High Sierras and then ran through hundreds of miles of sluices, pipes and pumping stations with the help of many forms of energy with the oversight of who knows how many people to get into my glass where I can use it to keep me alive and functioning for another day. What this means is that the 'me' I hold to be the center of my universe is, according to Buddhism, not self-sufficient, not self-contained, not at all the same as what I really am.

The Heart Sutra says that "Form is emptiness and emptiness is form." This second notion - emptiness - is actually, according to Roshi Bernie Glassman easier to understand if you understand the first idea of dependent origination. It's not that there is nothing, that I am nothing, that Buddhism thinks everything is a big void. It's "empty" because "nothing can exist separate and apart from a web of causes and conditions. Suffering comes, in part, from our ignorance of this fact.

For me, it's pretty easy to see the trouble I've gotten myself into when I've acted as if my actions don't affect a vast web of other people, when I act as though this "self" is self-contained, unaffected by and not affecting others.

My guess is that part of the reason rebirth is not as important as we outsiders might think is that heaven, hell, and rebirth are all temporary - all part of the endless cycle that doesn't end until you've moved beyond karma, beyond the cycle of birth and death, by "realizing" the truth. And, like in Hinduism, you can only realize the truth while you are alive. Being alive is precious, it's temporary, it's fleeting, it's our chance to break free of our ignorance of the truth.

Sitting at that table, I was moved by the determined attempt at understanding and by its limits. Is it possible without at least some direct experience of another's faith? I think that's especially true in Buddhism because Buddhism is, at its heart, about directly experiencing what is unknown, beyond words, beyond concepts and using that direct experience to reduce one's suffering. But it sure was a relief to be sitting there watching people far more knowledgeable than me struggle with the same questions and concepts that make me feel like my brain is missing a few critical gears.


* Right-Reverend Archimandrite Alexei Smith was appointed by Cardinal Roger Mahoney as the Director of Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs. He is the only Greek Catholic priest in the United States serving a Roman Catholic Archdiocese in such a visible position. I didn't know it but the Catholic Church is actually a communion of 22 Churches all united to Rome: Roman Catholics are one of those Churches, and by far the largest and hence most dominant and the Greek Catholic Church (not Greek Orthodox Church) is another.

If you're interested:
Minutes from a past Buddhist-Catholic Dialogue, October 1- 4, 1998

25 November 2009

Thanksgiving and Zen

No, I haven't gone tofurkey - there's just so far I can go - but I can tell you that the time I've spent on the mat has definitely affected the way I cook, especially for Thanksgiving.

In the very first face-to-face I had with Roshi (Wendy Egyoku Nakao,) she said the heart of the practice was sitting. (Roshi doesn't say that verb like anyone else; her "sit" is muscular, it has force and weight.) But her second and final instruction in that very first chat about Zen practice was that I might try, several times a day, to bring my awareness fully back into the present moment. For instance, while brushing my teeth, something I rarely remember doing because my plan-making brain wanders ahead into what I have to do the rest of the day, I might just brush my teeth. With all of my attention. Just drink a cup of coffee. Just drive my car.

This sure isn't easy to do. I don't know about you but, when I try and fail to do something, when I try to "just" brush my teeth and I catch my brain racing off several minutes after it's gone and find my toothbrush rinsed and back where it belongs (or not ;-) but have no recollection of doing it, the first place I go is self-flagellation: "Why can't you...?" Or "You'll never be able to..." Or "This is too hard..." Which is, of course, just more of the same wandering mind.

But cobble together a few moments of "just" cooking and it's amazing what disappears; the scurrying, distracted person I tend to be because I am so rarely "just" doing what I am doing, for one. Suddenly, the potential disastrous outcome is remote and irrelevant. Overwhelming piles of dishes become just the thing I am doing at that moment. The days of collecting the ingredients, preparing, and then cooking the food, calling my Mom with last minute questions, actually become joyous actions when I do them one at a time. This isn't just because of the time I've spent sitting; part of this is what comes from the ritual of cooking essentially the same meal for long enough that I've begun to relax into it, but this idea of fully living my life, of peeling one potato at a time in a kitchen filled with perfect smells with my boys working next to me...who wouldn't want to do "just" that?

(By the way - most of the newest posts are still in the middle (reasons explained elsewhere.) If you don't want to miss them, sign up to have the new posts emailed to you by clicking that button on top of the right hand column...)

17 November 2009

Here and Now...and There

Was sitting this morning and thinking.... Whoops.

Well, I've learned this much: I'm not going to use any of the following verbs "supposed to" or "ought" or "should" when it comes to what goes on when I'm sitting. What I keep hearing and reading in Zen Buddhism is: "Just sit."

That means let it all pass by: the ideas, the stories, the plans, the regrets, the fantasies, the to-do lists, etc etc etc. It doesn't mean that this stuff isn't going to come up but this moment, as it is, is all there is so sitting in this way is a pretty rigorous exercise in retraining my mind and body to stay in the here and now. Given a lifetime atrophy of the mental focus to do that, it is no wonder sitting can be so uncomfortable.

All this is a flimsy acknowledgement of the fact I got stuck this morning on one notion in particular and it was caused by a letter from my ten-year-old niece, Marley.

It was the best letter ever. My niece wrote to thank me for some silly birthday presents I'd sent (let's just say, soap in the shape of dentures was among them) but it was my first real letter from her and it was really fun to get. I can't share the contents because the final sentence said: "Don't show this letter to ANYONE els!!!" (sic)

So, as I was struggling this morning, to "stay in the moment" which included letting go of an unpleasant dream and the free-floating, low-level anxiety of every-day living, I used the thought of Marley's letter to reframe my perspective of my life. I have a ridiculous number of things in my life that call for gratitude and, this morning, that letter and all that it signified, topped the list.

There is no way to keep counting my breaths from one to ten, over and over again, when you're thinking all of these things. That is what beginner sitters are supposed to be doing until their mind is still enough to no longer need the prop of counting. After more than twelve years of off-and-on meditation, eighteen months of zazen, this is my progress: I can watch my mind working. If a really delicious topic comes up, it may take me a bit to notice I've gone off somewhere, but I do eventually notice.

But here's my question, the question that came up for me this morning: If it weren't for my curiosity, my ability to think several steps out, to concern myself with the problems I see in the world, to imagine something better, I'd never have started this project or come to Buddhism in the first place. It is precisely that curiosity and plan-making brain that gets me to the mat and enables me to keep coming back to it, to see what might happen down the road if I put up with the discomfort of the present effort. So I'm supposed to sit and toss what supplies both the determination to sit and the steady stream of mind chatter that makes sitting so difficult? No wonder Zen Buddhism is rife with riddles.

Second, that letter from Marley isn't "in the present moment," right? It was only in the present moment when I read it. I guess it will be in the present moment when I answer it. But what's so bad about indulging in the glow of it for as long as possible? Yes, it can take me out of where I am and what I'm doing right now, for instance, as I type this on a bright sunny Southern California day at a desk covered with books, papers and a cooling cup of tea because my thoughts are also in Texas with that ten-year-old who has given up pink for lime green.
I mean, isn't one of the very first skills we learn as an infant "object permanence?" You know, that just because an object is behind my father's back doesn't mean that it ceases to exist. The Buddhist focus on impermanence makes a lot of sense to me most of the time. How can you argue with the fact that absolutely everything you can think of is, finally, impermanent? But, within the confines of my daily life, it feels very difficult - and perhaps even counter-productive - to apply this notion of impermanence to joy, true though it may be. I am attached to my niece and that attachment will eventually cause me suffering but I am okay with that. I plan to wring as much joy out of that note as I can for as long as I can, even if it causes me to miss a few of my own breaths.

02 November 2009

What I didn't know - part 1

What I didn't know before I began this project:

-- Practicing a faith is as much about choosing a community as it is figuring out what you believe.

-- People raised in a faith rarely know why they do what they do. They just do it.

-- People who religiously practice a faith seem to find a comfortable way to navigate the schism between the way their faith tells them to interact with others and the way life actually unfolds, the way people should behave and the way they actually do.

-- It is very easy to use one's faith, the rites and rituals you are "supposed" to do, to feel bad a lot of the time for not "measuring up" to some ideal. My gut is that this is the source of a lot of the judgement of others' insufficiencies.

-- I have a lot of experience creating strife in my own life simply by thinking I know what the "right" answer is, or the "right" course of action. Get a group together, especially one trying to solve a problem, and my favorite defect appears in almost everyone.

I know that this sounds silly but, not having been raised in a faith, I just assumed that it would be different "there," in communities of the devout. It isn't....at least so far, partway along in this project's arc, whether it's people of a single faith who are trying to work together or interfaith organizations who want nothing more than to help and to understand each other. Is it any wonder people of faith are at odds with each other on a global level when in meetings everywhere, every day, we all suffer through all the ways in which we fail to work together in an open-hearted manner?

Or perhaps I'm completely misunderstanding what "getting along" looks like, what it feels like. I want no one to argue anywhere, ever. How idiotic is that? Perhaps the flip side -- of not expressing an opinion if it differs with someone to avoid an unpleasant conversation -- is just as destructive as imposing my "right" answer on everyone. I'm still very confused about all of this, but I cannot stifle my urge to run when discussions turn to community minutiae. I've gotten enough of that in the jobs I've had. My interest in what faith is and how it works in different religions was, I thought, completely unrelated to that. I'm beginning to think this is yet another misunderstanding I had before I began.

16 October 2009


I've been doing some cleaning up of The Heathen including straightening out some of the dates now that I've learned how to do it properly but, somehow, all the folks on my email list got sent a random collection of old posts, certainly not the ones I would have sent. Just so you know: I'm in the process of putting on line all that I've done to date in Zen Buddhism so most of the newest posts will appear after the 20 April 2008 post, "Beginning Zen."

24 September 2009

Under "religion," do you check "none?"

Here's a pretty interesting look at the beliefs of those in that very large category: "None."

Some of the study's findings:

-- None's make up 15% of the population and that, given their rate of rapid growth, they might surpass the nation's largest denominations.

-- The rise of the Nones is usually decried by religious leaders as a sign of secularization or atheism's ascent but get this: 51% say they believe in God.

Here's a link to the Trinity College study ...

And an article on BeliefNet that mentions it...

15 September 2009

Zen and the West

We understand the extent to which the contemporary West is animated by "prophetic faith," the sense of the holiness of the ought, the pull of the way things could be and should be but as yet are not. Such faith has obvious virtues, but unless it is balanced by a companion sense of the holiness of the is, it becomes top-heavy. If one's eyes are always on tomorrows, todays slip by unperceived. Zen comes as a reminder that if we do not learn to perceive the mystery and beauty of our present life, our present hour, we shall not perceive the worth of any life, of any hour.
Lifelong practicing Methodist and author, Professor Huston Smith in his forward to Philip Kapleau's book, The Three Pillars of Zen

A reminder: You'll find the newest posts in the section on Zen Buddhism for the next couple of weeks, which begins in the March 2009 posts. Or, to make it even easier, sign up with the email subscription button up there on top of the other column and you'll get all new posts sent to your email address no matter where they're posted.

09 September 2009

No Trace

In Zen, you are instructed to 'leave no trace.'

When you clean an incense bowl,

this is not easy to do----

the soft incense powder does not readily arrange itself

when you apply too much pressure, or too little.

You must forget yourself-----

then your action becomes a beautiful action.

Beauty is revealed when the doer is unknown.

In this way, your liberation ensures

the Dharma for future generations.

-- Roshi Egyoku Nakao

04 September 2009

In case you're interested....

Got this email - it's a chance to study online with Harvard professor Dr Diana Eck who's kind of "The" person if you're at all interested in learning about other religions and how they relate to one another...

Dr. Diana L. Eck’s course, “World Religions Today: Diaspora,Diversity, and Dialogue” is being offered as a distance learning course throughthe Harvard University Extension School. Students from places as far away asIndia and Bali are enrolled alongside students at Harvard, and participatethrough online lectures and discussions. We invite you to consider enrollingin this course through the Extension School.For a limited time, the first lecture is available online at:http://cm.dce.harvard.edu/2010/01/13481/L01/seg1/index_FlashSingleHighBandwidth.htmlInformation about the course, including tuition information, is
available at:

02 September 2009

Not Knowing

So much of Zen Buddhism is about not knowing. Irritating. I like to know. I like to think I know. I like to tell everyone in my life what they should do to improve their lives based on what I think I know. I wish I could say I'm being too harsh, too self-critical but I don't think I am. But drop off your first-born for his first year at college and you find out just how little you really know.

(Again, I must apologize. Almost all that I've done in Zen Buddhism that leads up to this lies in raw notes in notebooks, soon to be transformed into posts so I can ONE DAY catch up with myself but I just can't resist writing about some of this when it applies to what's happening in my life right now. [I sure wish I'd thought about doing a blog from the first day I started this thing....] So, please don't miss the new posts I'll be adding fairly consistently this month starting just after the 6 March 2009 post...)

One of the central rituals in the Zen tradition is something called the face-to-face meeting ("dokusan") with your teacher. In the Japanese White Plum tradition, as it is in many traditions, it's a wildly ritualized one-on-one meeting the folks at ZCLA suggest having at least once a week. You wait in the face-to-face meeting line, sitting just like you sit in the zendo, on your cushion, meditating ("just sitting") until you're at the front of the line. When Roshi Wendy Egyoku Nakao rings her little bell, you signal that you're coming by tapping a large iron bell twice. Then you walk down the hall with your cushion and your question. I think you're supposed to talk about issues that come up in your practice but try as I might to get around it, I found out pretty quickly that "practice" is no different than your life. Sit still and what ever's bugging you in your life shows up, like it or not. Every time I go in to that little room, with or without a question about Zen Buddhist practice in general or my efforts in particular, we somehow end up talking about my thinking and my ideas about life to which Roshi inevitably responds: "Is that true? Is that really true? How do you know?"

And there is always only one true answer: I don't. I don't know.

And then I trudge back up the hallway, cushion in my hands, convinced yet again about how little I actually know when I stop for a second to really question my assumptions.

For instance, when I dropped Luke and all of his stuff off at college for the first time, I was all set to indulge in the maudlin. I'd imagined it all: on the plane he played his part perfectly, falling asleep with his head on my shoulder as he always does. We shopped without rancor for the last few things, ate dinner with my parents as they live near where he's going to college. I didn't tear up in front of him but, in bed the night before, I went through all of those scenes of him as an infant, toddler, middle-schooler all in black etc and indulged. He was leaving. Our family would never be the same.

But then Luke veered from my script. He was supposed to hustle me off campus and then not call me for weeks because he was having too good a time. But Luke was miserable. Nothing was what he expected. He was panicked. And I went right down the tube with him. For days. Not completely. I did leave before I got involved setting up every last thing in his room for him. I did get on the plane and head home. I did keep the phone calls and text messages down below insane. But I took his panic and made it mine. I spun out all the possible scenarios - none of them good - about what his unhappy reaction meant about his immediate future and my parenting. And then I started to give advice. And obsess about what I could have or should have done, could say or should have said to make it better. I "should have" stayed to fix his room up because nothing is more depressing than a disorganized chaotic nest.

Then I finally remembered this "not knowing" thing I keep hearing about from the teachers at ZCLA. I don't know if Luke's unhappiness is actually bad for him. I don't know if he'll finally want to come home, I don't know if staying is what HAS to happen, I don't know how Luke should or shouldn't help himself deal better with the transition and, what's more, I don't know, if Luke actually took any of my advice, if he finished setting up his room the way I thought he should, for example, that he'd actually be better off in the long run. I don't know.

As soon as I really really realized that, I suddenly noticed what MY living room looked like. All around me were chaotic piles of clothes, books and CDs Luke had pulled out of his room to give away. And I don't even want to talk about the stacks of books by the side of my bed. Here I am obsessing about getting Luke to set up and to clean up his new room so he'll feel better about his life while sitting in a mess of my own. What better proof of how much I don't know?

After a day and a half of staying off the phone, off the internet, so I could move the stuff off the living room floor and out of the house, I felt better.

Not knowing. I'm working on it.

Related articles that refer to "not knowing" or the people in this post:

-- A lecture by Shunryu Suzuki
--a profile of Bernie Glassman, who was there at the beginning of the ZCLA)
-- a Zen talk Korean Zen teacher Hyunoong Sunim
--a dharma talk by Abbess Zenkei Blanche Hartman on Shunryu Suzuki's Beginner's Mind
--podcast interview with Roshi Wendy Egyoku Nakao, part one, part two, part three

03 August 2009

To Do or Not to Do

Grief. Sadness. Pain. Impotence. Confusion. Lethargy. Numbness. The energy of rage and anger ebbs and this is what's left and I hate it. I want to DO something, anything, because, all the time I'm planning and then doing, I don't feel what I don't want to feel or think I "shouldn't" feel.

So, the activity: within moments after finding out about Lily, I started with obsessive "fact" collection, at first imagining her terror, over and over again. Then, I went grabbing after reasons, answers, future prevention, meaning. When that failed to help, I turned to fierce and unfair scrutiny on the response of the school: were these gifted but beleaguered human beings, who were in shock and mourning themselves, doing the "right" things in response? I called other mothers. Other mothers called me. I sent emails. I left voice mail messages. I am so sorry I did that. It didn't help one bit and I made the pressure on them even worse.

In between all of this flailing around, I kept checking back in with Luke and Matt, each dealing with this in their own way. They both, at eighteen and sixteen, have made it very clear that there's only so much time and direct attention they want from Kevin and me about this. So, finally, at the end of the week, I'd run out of places to hide from these facts: it happened, I can't change that; I have only minimal influence over how it affects other people, even those I love most; and I've got a whole lot of miserable feelings about all of these facts.

I will run pretty far and wide to avoid feeling like this. My usual tricks are no match. My usual tricks are just that - tricks.

I wasn't sure if I was going to take any of this down to the Zen Center itself. From the first moment I walked in there, circumstances threw me together with Shingetsu over and over again. There was an easy, informal, personal rapport made much easier for me by her enthusiasm about what I'm trying to do with The Heathen. I felt like she got it and me. Add that I was already seeing her every week to work on the precepts because ZCLA only offers its official precept course (something you need to complete before you can "take the precepts") during the time of our annual family trip, and it just seemed natural I'd talk to her about it. But, Roshi?

I'd actually backed off from going to face-to-face meetings with Roshi because I had no idea what to say, what to ask, when I went in there. Oh, it wasn't for lack of questions but there are always so many people in line it all seemed too intense and too short. No one question seemed quite worth placing before cross-legged cleric in the quiet room in half-light. So, when I occasionally got up the guts to go in, I usually ended up asking something tiny or "manageable," which Roshi would inevitably call me on. Then I'd think she was looking at me like I'm an idiot which, of course, she wasn't, but that's what I convinced myself I saw in her eyes which, even while I was thinking it, I knew wasn't true but it didn't matter because I had no idea how to stop doing it and besides it was all a little off because I'm writing about this so was I really "there?" Should I really be there? etc etc etc... You get the scrambled up picture. So I decided to stop going for a while until I got untangled some.

But I woke up this Sunday morning and I couldn't think what else to do. I got in the car and drove down to ZCLA. I got there in time for the short service that starts Sunday morning's schedule - The Gate of Sweet Nectar - which is the service that commemorates the end of the week. At ZCLA, people bring a donation of food or a toy that's put on the altar and there's a lot of singing and chanting that speaks directly to the suffering of all, much of it is along these lines:
Calling all you hungry spirits,
all you lost and left behind,
gather round and share this meal.
Your joys and sorrows,
I make them mine.
After, everyone walks in a line to the zendo and sits in silence for two half-hour sessions during which you can go have a face-to-face with Roshi. Roshi then gives an hour-long talk followed by lunch.

I planned to stay only for one of the half hour sessions. I stayed for both and, when it came time for anyone who wanted to talk to Roshi to line up, I got in the line.

There is no question people-- forget "people" -- there is no question I want some kind of answers to the mysteries of life and death, evil and pain and suffering...and that many people find answers (or maybe just solace) in their faith. My mom and dad think it's like turning to fairytales to make yourself feel better. They think it's kind of pathetic and, even, weak.

What's becoming clear to me is each faith has different ways of dealing with pain and suffering. Buddhism puts that issue front and center. The historical Buddha, Siddartha Gautama, was a prince who gave up everything in his drive to understand why people suffer. After putting himself through every religious practice of his day, he finally resolved to sit until he understood suffering. The result? The Four Noble Truths:

1) Dukka - which some translate as suffering. Huston Smith says Buddha meant even more than what we conventionally see as suffering. Smith says it "names the pain that to some degree colors all finite existence." "Life is dislocated."

2) Tanha/Samudaya - The cause of this suffering is desire which Huston Smith says is, more precisely, the desire "for private fulfillment."

3) The Third Noble Truth says that the cure for suffering is to overcome selfish desires. Huston Smith phrases it this way: "If we could be released from the narrow limits of self-interest... we would be relieved of our torment."

4) The Fourth Noble Truth describes how to do that, how to work towards alleviating suffering. The "how" is the Eightfold Path, the practice we know as Buddhism.

All that's great to read about but what does it really mean when you're in it, inside the beast itself?

I sat in line on my cushion just like you sit in the zendo, meditating, eyes almost closed, counting my breath, one to ten and then back to one again, back to one again every time I caught my mind wandering off. It wanders off a lot. It sometimes takes me quite a long time to notice that.

Roshi signaled for the next person to come in by ringing a small bell in her room. When it's your turn, you have to answer her bell by tapping an iron bell hanging on a low stand twice with a thick wooden mallet made of a smooth gnarl of wood. Those gongs let her know you're coming down the short hall. I didn't know what I was going to say but, as the person before me bowed out of the room, a cartoon-like image popped into my head of a squirreled-up ball of energy, reaction, anger and activity, floating high in the air over a barely undulating golden brown, well, hum almost. So I walked in, bowed, and told her about it.

She was quiet.

When you go in to a face-to-face meeting in the zen tradition, the teacher doesn't look at you most of the time. They sit in pretty close to the same posture as in meditation, with their eyes down.

I continued. "I feel like that ball is me, what I normally do, most of the time. But it's not working. Not with this. " I told her I had been able to sit some but I kept thinking there was something I was supposed to be doing, at least to help my children but I was at a loss as to what that was.

She nodded and looked up. Her face was as warm and open as I'd ever seen it in any face-to-face I'd had with her. "Hearts are breaking everywhere because of Lily's death. And there is no way of knowing what this will become, what will come from this. So we sit, really sit, fully present for what is. "

"But I hate what is. And there's literally nothing, nothing I can do about it. Nothing."

"We can only start where we are. Here. Now. By being fully present, by feeling what we feel."

"I'm not sure what that means. And I'm afraid that, even if I did, even if I could just 'feel what I feel,' I would end up not being able to do anything, to help anyone, to be of service to my children or anyone else."

"You know how much damage is done by people avoiding what they feel? Mmmm?" She looked right at me for a painful moment. "It's only from that place of just being fully present for what is, that the right actions arise."

For the first time something about this made some sense. Perhaps it takes something this horrific to show us just how futile it is to try to work around what is and what you're feeling about what is. I have no idea anymore what the right actions are because, much as I'm desperate for something, anything to DO, there is simply nothing to be done.

So what is true? What is?

I don't know.

And I feel what I feel about that.

And hating those facts does nothing more than make the pain worse.

In the talk about practice that followed, someone asked how they could tell the difference between feeling feelings and wallowing in them. My question, my fear, precisely.

The answer from one of the other priests? "You feel feelings in your body. 'Wallowing' is when you start making stories up about them in your head." Stories like obsessing on the faults and errors of anyone involved before, during and after, for example.

Just knowing, really knowing, that there is nothing to be done right now, except to sit with these devastating feelings, helped. Some.

30 July 2009

The dire muck and the sun

The damage done by this event keeps radiating out.

Please note that this blog isn't entirely caught up with where I am. I've spent quite a lot of time studying Zen Buddhism at the Zen Center of Los Angeles. I will be filling in the steps that have led me to this point in the next month so, apologies if the names and concepts in this post seem out of the blue. This also allows me to remind you to check in the so-called archives of past posts as you'll find most of the new posts there in the weeks to come.

One of the difficult parts is that no one in my family thinks they have the right to feel as knocked to our knees as we have been, as we are. This is the Burk family's tragedy, this is the tragedy of Lily's closest friends, her teachers, her intimates, not us. We can only imagine the depth of their anguish and stand on the side feeling impotent to help and, as I talk to more and more mothers and hear more and more stories about their children, I know how far and wide these feelings go, the impotence, the feeling that we don't really have the right to be as devastated as we are, as if we might somehow add to the pain of those already in unimaginable pain if we did.

And so we sit in our houses. Or we sit in other people's houses. We call. We hug our children if they want to be hugged. We feed them if they want to be fed. But we don't know what to say. We don't know what to do. There is nothing to be done.

I emailed Shingetsu and Roshi to let them know what happened. I'm not sure I would have thought to do that but I was supposed to meet with Shingetsu Monday evening - I've been working my way through the Buddhist Precepts with her - and I needed to change the schedule so I could be home at dinnertime. Roshi immediately added Lily's name to the prayer service at ZCLA. And, when I went to meet with Shingetsu, the tiny British Buddhist Sensei tossed all proper Japanese ritual to the wind at first and stood up and hugged me. Hard. She then asked if it would be all right if she added Lily's name to a list that would be chanted in a ceremony every day for forty-nine days.

"Why forty-nine days?"

"It's the bardo, the time from physical death until--" Shingetsu held her fingers up in quotes: "reincarnation."

I was grateful for Shingetsu's finger quotes, her lack of certainty about reincarnation.

But what about Lily's parents? The worst part of this is that there is absolutely nothing I can do for Lily's parents except possibly to tell you -- and anyone else who will sit still and listen -- what a truly loving, smart, and kind being Lily was, how she made people laugh and feel seen.

Shingetsu suggested lighting incense for them. We did.

I'm not entirely sure what I felt about doing any of this. A part of me felt like it wasn't my place to do this, that I should have asked someone's permission first. Another called me fraud. But still another felt just the tiniest bit of relief that there was something, anything, no matter how small or even probably irrelevant, that I could "do" when part of the true horror of this is there is nothing, nothing that can be done.

Is this part of the solace people find in ritual?

After sitting in silence with Shingetsu for a bit, we talked about the horror, about the impotence, and most of all we talked about the feeling of shame that came up about having so many feelings when the tragedy wasn't directly "ours."

"But it is our tragedy. It did happen to us, to all of us. There is no separation. This is life. This is death. It's all part of the same thing. The dire muck and the sun."

The thing is, I know this is true.

26 July 2009

Change it. Now.

I don’t want to write about this. I really really really don’t want to write about this.

Yesterday I was standing on a bluff over the ocean when my husband and Luke told me that a girl in the eleventh grade was murdered. Lily Burk, a brilliant, talented, funny young girl who’d been in plays with Luke, went on an errand for her parents at two o’clock Friday afternoon and was abducted and then murdered. Her body was found in her parents’ Volvo. Blunt force trauma to her head, the Los Angeles Times website said last night.

Lily. She was in the class between Luke and Matt. Lily. She was sweet, gifted, kind, smart and a very, very funny on stage. Lily. Her parents’ only child. How blessed they must have felt for seventeen years. Lily. I looked forward to finding out what she was going to be, what she was going to do. Lily.

Lily Burk.

Now this is where faith is supposed to kick in, where faith is supposed to have answers. Does it? Does it really? Nothing, nothing can make sense out of this for me. My brain is stuck, scratching over and over again at these few horrific facts. Over and over again I can’t stop it, I can’t stop Lily getting in the car that Friday, I can’t stop filling in all the moments I don’t know, can’t know, won’t know, I can’t make time stop, go back, change, I can’t fathom the abyss of her mother and father’s anguish and I can’t do a thing to take even a tiny part of that from them, no one can, and I have to stand paralyzed as my oldest is slammed by inexplicable facts, inexplicable pain and, tonight when my youngest comes home from his summer program, my husband and I will be the ones to bring this horror into his life. He loved Lily. She saw him, liked him, was kind to him at a time when he needed it.

So this is the time when people turn to their faith, their belief, their spiritual leaders for answers, for comfort, right? Do you? Does it help? Do you get answers? Do you get comfort? Really?

Right now, slapping this grief down in front of any one human being, no matter how well-trained, no matter how much they believe and how thoroughly they walk their talk, feels unfair…to them and to me, like it’s a set-up for profound disappointment. It makes me feel like it’s just giving up, of bearing my neck to the wolf, that I’m just finding some way to accept - or at least live with - the unacceptable. What is it that I find unacceptable? Death and senseless destruction. I am in terror, pain, and rage because I want to do something, anything, about it and I can’t. Can’t. Can not. Nothing.

Last night I had dream after dream after dream:

Cars wrapped in white canvas like dining room chairs, Luke’s classmates walking thorough and around them, silent, sad.

I tried and failed to get home but highway signs were wrong and kept changing.

I sat, eating, at a metal table outside. The food was too expensive. I tried and failed to speak French to the owner. A storm came and I didn’t know it for a while until I realized I was soaked through and the umbrella over my table, which had been blown inside out apparently for some time, finally blew away.

And the last: I struggled with a display in front of pale blue fireplace mantle. A vase made of lavender paper was somehow held up in front on a web of string. But it kept tilting over and the flowers kept falling out. I kept trying to right it. I couldn’t. I finally gave up. It flipped over one more time and became a snowflake, the kind you make for a child.

24 July 2009

Snowflakes on a red-hot stove....

I was reading Red Pine's (a.k.a. Bill Porter) translation and commentary on the Heart Sutra, one of the most important sutras in Mahayana Buddhism. In the discussion, Red Pine quotes Chen-k'o as saying that, once we realize the inherent emptiness of our so-called reality,

"...the light of the mind shines alone. When all the clouds are gone, the full moon fills the sky. thus birth and destruction, purity and defilement, completeness and deficiency are all snowflakes on a red-hot stove."

"Snowflakes on a red-hot stove" - now THAT is excellent.

I was just thinking about that today when my youngest son, Matt, was talking about the lives of writers that he likes: this summer it's Edith Wharton, Charles Dickens, and the Bronte sisters. He knows so much about the lives they led while they wrote the books that he loves, the full human beings almost come alive for me. And then I realize how not alive they are. There's a collision between all that energy I can still feel when I imagine who they were and the slapping fact of how quickly, really, it is all over.

There's a line chanted at the end of some of the services at ZCLA - it's an admonition of sorts - not to "squander your life" and to practice as though there were a "fire on your head."

...or, perhaps, as though you were a snowflake on a red-hot stove.

The Heart of the Perfection of Great Wisdom Sutra

This is the version they use at the Zen Center of Los Angeles. There are many different translations.

Avalokitesvara Bodhisattva, doing deep prajna paramita,
Clearly saw the emptiness of all the five conditions,
Thus completely relieving misfortune and pain.
O Shariputra, form is no other than emptiness, emptiness no other than form;
Form is exactly emptiness, emptiness is exactly form;
Sensation, conception, discrimination, awareness are likewise like this.
O Shariputra, all dharmas are forms of emptiness, not born, not destroyed;
Not stained, not pure, without loss, without gain;
So in emptiness there is no form, no sensation, conception, discrimination, awareness;
No eye, ear, nose, tongue, body, mind;
No color, sound, smell, taste, touch, phenomena;
No realm of sight...no realm of consciousness;
No ignorance and no end to ignorance...
No old age and death, and no end to old age and death;
No suffering, no cause of suffering, no extinguishing, no path;
No wisdom and no gain. No gain and thus
The bodhisattva lives prajna paramita
With no hindrance in the mind,
no hindrance, therefore no fear,
Far beyond deluded thoughts, this is nirvana.
All past, present, and future Buddhas live prajna paramita,
And therefore attain anuttara-samyak-sambodhi.*
Therefore know, Prajna Paramita is
The great mantra, the vivid mantra,
The best mantra, the unsurpassable;
It completely clears all pain--this is the truth, not a lie.
So set forth the Prajna Paramita Mantra,
Set forth this mantra and declare:
Gaté! Gaté! Paragaté! Parasamgaté!**
Gaté! Gaté! Paragaté! Parasamgaté!
Gaté! Gaté! Paragaté! Parasamgaté!
Bodhi svaha!***
Prajna Heart Sutra

* Bill Red Pine Porter's definition: "unexcelled perfect enlightenment"
** Red Pine's roughly translates this: "The Gone, the Gone Beyond, the Gone Completely Beyond" but suggests that the vibration, the sound, like in Hinduism, is as important if not more important than the meaning of the words themselves.
*** Again, Red Pine: "Bodhi...means 'enlightenment' adn svaha is exclamatory: "at last,' 'amen,' 'hallelujah.'"

22 July 2009

Tenets or actions, which come first?

I've started reading Karen Armstrong's book The Great Transformation: The Beginning of Our Religious Traditions. Armstrong's writing about the remarkable period she calls the Axial Age (900 and 200 B.C.E) in which most of our major religious traditions began: Confucianism and Taoism in China, Hinduism and Buddhism in India, monotheism in Israel, and philosophical rationalism in Greece. Just a few quotes from the introduction:
"It is common to call religious people 'believers.' as though assenting to the articles of faith were their chief activity. But most of the Axial philosophers had no interest whatever in doctrine or metaphysics... All the traditions that were developed during the Axial Age...discovered a transcendent dimension in the core of their being, but..most of them refused to discuss it."
Armstrong says the essential spirit of the Axial Age was this:
"What mattered was not what you believed but how you behaved."

17 July 2009

The Path to Purpose

So someone asked me to take a look at The Path to Purpose: How Young People Find Their Calling in Life, a new book by Stanford University professor William Damon. I didn't think I was going to end up writing about this but I can't help it.

Professor Damon's going after a critical problem in our society: the lack of meaning, the absence of a sense of purpose that so many of us feel. Of particular concern is the "generation of disconnected and unhappy kids" whose inner emptiness, whose lack of purpose is widespread. In his interviews and surveys of people between the ages of twelve and twenty-two, he says "almost a quarter of those we interviewed...express no aspirations at all. In some cases, they claim that they see no point in acquiring any." Damon links this to an increase in the rate of suicide and attempted suicide. The reason? Professor Damon writes: "I am unconvinced by the 'stress' explanation. Hard work and competition have never broken the spirits of young people as long as they believe in what they are doing."

This might be easy to dismiss as a developmental phase if Damon didn't see evidence of a life-long problem emerging from this aimlessness in young adulthood. "In the long run, that lack of purpose can destroy the foundations of a happy and fulfilled life."
As a parent and as someone who's interviewed a lot of people just out of college who want an entry-level position, I couldn't stop reading this book. Professor Damon is describing something we all know in our gut is true but hadn't quite recognized with such clarity.

Professor Damon's thesis is that schools and parents are failing to teach children how to find their purpose, why they're learning what they're learning. My guess is that's because most of those parents, teachers and administrators may not have figured out their purpose either.

I remember a friend of mine in school - you probably had one like her, too - who always held up class room lessons, demanding to know why she should learn algebraic equations or about the Teapot Dome scandal or how photosynthesis worked. She wanted to know what possible difference it could make to her life. I'm not sure any answer would have satisfied her but Damon suggests that such moments could provoke a more meaningful learning experience. "Incredibly, in all my years as a scholar of youth development and education, I have never seen a single instance of a teacher sharing with students the reasons why he or she went into the teaching profession."

In my very first documentary as a baby producer when I was just twenty-two, I spent months with a gang in San Jose, California, and the police who were working hard to curb their criminal activity. I can tell you that the very first sense of purpose those gang members ever had in their lives, they got the day they joined that gang. I spent more than four months talking to those guys. When I asked them what they envisioned for their future, I might as well have asked in Swahili. The future did not exist for them. They had no future picture of themselves nor any hopes or dreams. But, because of the gang, their day had structure, meaning, and purpose and, as flawed as those were, it must have been an enormous sense of relief to go from nothing to something.

Going one step further with this: I wonder what role a purpose-void plays in those who commit violent acts they say are based on their faith.

I remember the panic I felt before I graduated from college, wondering what I'd do for a living. I was clear that my choice couldn't just be about what might earn me the money to live. I needed to believe in what I did, that I had to feel that it might make a difference. That thinking led me to choose to learn how to tell stories for a living because what little meaning I found in my life had come from what I'd learned from the stories people wrote or told me. I wanted to learn how to do the same for others. The incredible relief I felt when I hit upon my purpose I can still remember, I can even feel it, physically, in my body today. But I also remember how I felt before I figured it out, how desperate, lost, and hopeless I felt and how eager I was for someone, anyone, to tell me what my purpose was.

I was lucky no one ever did. I was lucky no one ever tried to make my purpose serve their purpose.

The central impetus for The Heathen has been my bewilderment about the conflict between people of faith. William Damon's The Path to Purpose has got me wondering if some of the source of that conflict comes from people desperate to find a purpose without knowing how to do it for themselves making them ripe for false clarity.

16 July 2009

The Heathen gets a recommendation!

Hey, fun news! The Heathen was listed as a recommended by the North American Interfaith Network. Here's what they said:

The Heathen Marley's Journal - A Leap

Blog recommend by Bill Lescher and Bettina Gray

Marley Klaus, a former 60 MINUTES producer was raised outside any religious tradition, yet felt a deep sense of need to explore a personal spiritual path that had not been encouraged by her family. In the face of her own children’s questions and “a world war over issues of faith” she took a leap and started exploring Hindu and Buddhist teachings and teachers. In October 2008 she started this blog which is taken from her notes. It is an unpretentious and honest chronicling of a personal journey.

Here is her post following the Mumbai attacks:


Does this really have anything to do with faith? With religion? If someone robs a bank but says the devil made him do it, or Jesus, or God, a jury sees that for what it is and convicts him. We don't blame the faith the bank robber happened to choose to use as an excuse for his indefensible acts, right?

In the middle of the chaos, Mumbai still under siege, a woman interviewed on the radio pleaded for all people of faith not to use this crisis to pull apart from each other but to join together, to use it to rise above, to see what we share not what divides us. I hope her voice is heard and her prayers are answered.

You can browse other entries at http://marleytheheathen.blogspot.com/

08 July 2009

Buddhist Precepts

ZCLA's Statement of the Precepts

The Sixteen Bodhisattva Precepts (Kai) that are given and received during Jukai are divided into three components: the Three Treasures, the Three Pure Precepts, and the Ten Grave Precepts, as follows:

The Three Treasures (Refuges, Jewels) correspond to the “container” or “substance.” These are the essence of our true nature. The refuges are:

1. Buddha, or the aspect of oneness (equality); the unconditioned or unhindered state.

(There are no precepts.)

2. Dharma, or the aspect of differences (diversity, multiplicity) as seen from oneness.

(There are precepts, or a natural way in which life functions.)

3. Sangha, or the aspect of the natural harmonious relationship of oneness and differences.

The precepts come alive through our actions and our relationship with self and other.

The Three Pure Precepts correspond to the order in which we function as the Three Treasures. These are:

4. Do No Evil. (The Three Tenets: Not-Knowing)

5. Do Good. (The Three Tenets: Bearing Witness)

6. Do Good for Others. (The Three Tenets: Loving Action)

The Ten Grave Precepts correspond to the more specific “functioning” of the Three Treasures in daily life. These aspects of life are:

7. Non-Killing

8. Non-Stealing

9. Not Being Greedy

10. Not Telling Lies

11. Not Being Ignorant

12. Not Talking about Others’ Errors and Faults

13. Not Elevating Oneself and Blaming Others

14. Not Being Stingy

15. Not Being Angry

16. Not Speaking Ill of the Three Treasures