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

07 July 2009

Lost in transit

Why is it that whatever passes for my daily rituals, fledgling though they may be, get lost when I travel? And, is that necessarily a bad thing?

I've spent most of my life proud of my ability to adapt, to be happy in most situations, with most people, under many different circumstances. On vacation, especially in a group, I like being the "whatever" person. (* a note to those who know me well below...) I guess when I was growing up, I looked around my family of origin and figured there were so many opinionated people, my option was either to have an opinion and the argument that went with it or to go along and have a chance at some fun. The choice to not care too much about my choice is not a bad way to travel with a husband and two teenagers as I care more about simply spending time with them than I do about where we actually go or what we actually do.

But somehow, once I pack that suitcase, I don't just leave behind work and the daily to do lists, I leave behind even the things that have come to mean something to me. The result? I came home from this trip a bit sad and lost. Meditation? Once or twice in three weeks. Exercise? Only the walking that comes from wandering around in hilly places. Not bad but not enough for me. It wasn't all gray. I played cards with Luke and Matt, listened to them laugh together in the back seat, watched the sun set with Kevin in more than one beautiful place, met so many lovely people, saw a rainbow with Matt when we really needed to see one, and I read a lot of Faulkner. But I spent way too much time focused on logistics and deciding where and what we were going to eat and dealing with credit card fraud alerts every other day, so much so, I began to wonder what I ever liked about traveling in the first place. Maybe I used to like leaving my daily life behind. Now, I hated that part of it. I really felt like I had vacated my life.

I must confess I also did way too much scrambling to make things work for everyone, even jumping in to solve problems that weren't mine to solve, so no one would fall apart, all in the maniacal quest for the magical family trip.

And I wonder why I came home feeling the way I do?

But it was more than just the mother-in-charge thing... It wasn't until I got back to my desk and found the passage from the Bhagavad Gita I love so much -- "He who can see inaction in the midst of action and action in the midst of inaction, is wise...etc" that I got why I'd felt so lost in transit this time. I'd lost touch with some of the small actions I now take that help give me stability, peace, meaning: the time I spend every day alone; the time I spend meditating; the literature I reread most days because it helps remind me of what it actually important rather than what presents itself on a minute-by-minute basis as needing my attention. And it didn't get lost because of the outside swirl of the people I love or even broken down rental cars. I simply didn't understand it's importance in my life and the need to make very sure I didn't lose those small things I do every day simply because I was away from home.

I get it. Rituals are important.

[* Okay, my friends and acquaintances...I'm talking about vacation. Yes, I know and freely admit I have NEVER been the "whatever" person at work but that is another subject ;-) ]