you won’t believe what I don’t believe


From time to time I’m asked this question: What do Buddhists believe? I like to respond that Buddhism requires no beliefs, but that’s rather hard to believe. And so I offer this.

I believe in love. Not the love that is the enemy of hate, but the love that has no enemies or rivals, no end and no beginning, no justification and no reason at all. Love and hate are completely unrelated and incomparable. Hate is born of human fear. Love is never born, which is to say, it is eternal and absolutely fearless. This love does not require my belief; it requires my practice.

I believe in truth. Not the truth that is investigated or exposed, interpreted or debated. But the truth that is revealed, inevitably and without a doubt, right in front of my eyes. All truth is self-revealed; it just doesn’t always appear as quickly or emphatically as I’d like it to. This truth does not require my belief; it requires my practice.

I believe in freedom. Not the freedom that is confined or decreed by ideology, but the freedom that is free of all confining impositions, definitions, expectations and doctrines. Not the freedom in whose name we tremble and fight, but the freedom that needs no defense. This freedom does not require my belief; it requires my practice.

I believe in justice. Not the justice that is deliberated or prosecuted; not that is weighed or measured or meted by my own corruptible self-interest. I believe in the unfailing precision of cause and effect, the universal and inviolable law of interdependence. It shows itself to me in my own suffering every single time I act with a savage hand, a greedy mind or a selfish thought. It shows itself in the state of the world, and the state of the mind, we each inhabit. This justice does not require my belief; it requires my practice.

I believe in peace. Not the peace that is a prize. Not the peace that can be won. There is no peace in victory; there is only lasting resentment, recrimination and pain. The peace I seek is the peace that surpasses all understanding. It is the peace that is always at hand when I empty my hand. No matter what you believe, this peace does not require belief, it requires practice.

I believe in wisdom. Not the wisdom that is imparted or achieved; not the wisdom sought or the wisdom gained. But the wisdom that we each already own as our birthright. The wisdom that manifests in our own clear minds and selfless hearts, and that we embody as love, truth, freedom, justice and peace. The wisdom that is practice.

***

I invite you to join me at an upcoming practice retreat this year. I know it is too far, too much, too long, too impossible to ask, and I understand. I just believe in asking.

beside still waters

The Lord is my shepherd;
I shall not want.
He leadeth me beside the still waters:
he maketh me to lie down in green pastures.
He leadeth me in the path of righteousness for his namesake:
he restoreth my soul.

This is not quite how it goes. I know it is not quite how it goes. I don’t remember how it goes, but I mumble it anyway. It is the least and the most that I can do.

Standing by the bed in the ICU, the respirator inflating my father’s chest like a pipe organ, I leave aside the Buddhist incantations that I’ve memorized and whisper remnants of the old soul song. I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever.

This is a passage from Hand Wash Cold that I’ve been thinking about lately and a lot. Soon after my father died 10 years ago, I told my sisters that I would take his dog to live with me. That’s how the old girl ended up here, in a picture I took this morning.

On the far side of 15, she’s not quite on her last leg but clearly on her last three legs, as arthritis hobbles and sometimes topples her. I’ve pulled her from the pond twice. And yet she still wants to wander in and out, not hearing, perhaps not seeing, and not managing much of what she used to do so dependably. So I’m at her side most days, all day, watching for the wordless word she will give me, when we both know beyond knowing what time it is.

I’ve had a number of visitors to the garden lately, and the subject of nearly all these encounters has been life and death. Not surprising since it’s the only subject there is. Some people have seen the warning light of a crossroads ahead. Others are investigating how to be with the sick and dying. I always tell them not to make too much of the dying part, since it happens by itself and without us ever knowing quite how or when, but rather to work on the being part, since only when we know how to be can we be not afraid. Oh, to be not afraid. That is quite simply everything you can do for everyone.

I rattled around Amazon last week and picked up George Saunders’s new and brilliant novel, Lincoln in the Bardo. It is wonderful in the most daring and difficult way, and I recommend it.

The author has imagined life in the graveyard, populated by grotesquely self-obsessed specters who linger longingly and in great distress because they do not know that they are dead. And when they realize it, they are buoyantly free to leave all suffering behind.

I can imagine life in a garden, populated by self-obsessed specters who linger longingly and in great distress because they do not know that they are alive. And when they realize it, they are buoyantly free to show goodness and mercy forever.

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walking to rite aid

When Friday rolled around I didn’t much feel like doing anything special. Just about every day I haul myself to a certain place for yoga, or another place for a workout, or charge up my Fitbit and conjure up a route by which to “get in my steps.” But it seemed to me that I should just use my body in an everyday way and so I decided to walk to Rite Aid and pick up a refill that was ready. I didn’t know how far Rite Aid was from me but it was far enough that I had never been there without driving. So after a half day of doing regular Friday stuff I set off.

Before I’d even walked to the end of the block I’d noticed how much was going on in my neighborhood. Three folks were having new yards put in—yards without any grass and with a lot of wood chips and rock— and two more had already completed theirs. Driving by, I’d seen it all happen, but I hadn’t really taken it in, focused on getting somewhere. Because I know what even a small landscape re-do can cost in time and money it seemed to me that my own street was a pretty hopeful example of good citizenship. It’s now fairly common in California to rip out a lawn, given climate change and water rationing, but these new yards are more than a way to save on a utility bill. Each one is not only an investment in a single household’s water savings but also an investment in the whole world’s water supply. Everyone benefits when one person does the right thing.

After awhile I noticed that a lot of rain gutters need cleaning, including mine. It’s not so bad to feel as if you have something like a mucky gutter in common because it’s, well, common. There’s grace in realizing that we all have a responsibility to take care of something messy without blaming anyone else for the trouble.

When I’d made it about half a mile west, I turned south to head down the hill to the shopping center. I started thinking about the last time I had made a long walk sort of like this one, not just to mark off the distance but to get somewhere. It was during the summer when I was 15 and I had a woeful crush on a boy who would never like me, and I lived invisibly in a small tract house on the barren side of town while he was living large on the leafy side, and I set out one day in the 500 degree heat that is a peculiar feature of your North Texas anguish to walk the 3.5 miles in his general direction for no other reason than I thought he might drive by and see me, the only person out walking on the sidewalk anywhere in town. Or maybe it was that I might see him, because he was someone you couldn’t help but see, being a spoiled son of an airline pilot who had given him a yellow 1973 Jaguar XKE for his 16th birthday. I try to think of how that day went and I can’t remember anything except the long stretch of hot sidewalk along Finley Road because nothing at all happened. I just made the seven mile round trip without anyone ever knowing what I’d done or how sad and silly I was. This boy’s name was Pete but a long time later I learned that his real name was an old-fashioned one, after his dad, a name that would have killed a teenage boy to say out loud, and I only learned that fact from his obituary which I certainly wasn’t thinking I’d come across anytime soon, having a persistent sense of my own youth. Reading between the lines, he appeared to have died without a family or a home of his own, no job, no biography, in his early 50s, and I saw it as the sad end of a dissolute life, a long flight from fear and pain. But what the hell do I know? I didn’t even know his name.

Then I got to Rite Aid where I couldn’t give a dime to the guy sitting at the table outside the entrance because I didn’t have a cent, but I gave him a decent hello.

How long is the walk to Rite Aid and back? About 12,000 steps and 45 years.

Today I’m starting on the gutters.

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not back

I did something a few weeks ago that I hadn’t done in awhile. I took a post from this blog and put it on Facebook. I deactivated my Facebook account on November 24 as soon as a woman I don’t know got fed up with me and wrote, “Why don’t you delete this account?” So I did. Sometimes a remark can strike out of nowhere like a clap of thunder, and you know it’s time to get out of the storm.

The new post that went up, in my typical roundabout way, seemed to be about my ancestors but was really about immigration. I put it on Facebook so that people would see it, because not many people come to my blog any other way. Nowadays a lot of people never see anything that’s not on Facebook. That’s OK, as far as it goes, but it’s also not OK. Specifically, I wanted people to see themselves in the story, to see the larger, human need to belong that makes people leave everything behind and travel a vast and terrifying distance. These days, Facebook seems to fulfill that feeling of belonging without having to do anything at all. There are nearly 2 billion active users of Facebook, nearly a quarter of the world’s population and close to half of all Americans. Nearly 70 percent of all the time spent on Facebook is via a mobile device. I’m gonna guess that’s because the mobile device is simply never out of reach and Facebook is the only “place” there is to go on it.

Pretty soon folks began to say things on Facebook like “You’re back!” and “I’ve missed you so much.” Those messages are really nice and a lot nicer than some of the other things people put on Facebook but still they seem mistaken to me. I’m not back from anywhere because I didn’t go anywhere because there really is no place that is Facebook, other than the screen of your mobile device, and the fact that people see it as a place where real live people do real live things is what scared me off of it in the first place. We have to do a better job of seeing reality than that. We have to do a better job of living in the real world and taking responsibility for it.

Just to reiterate, the place where real, live stuff is happening is not on Facebook.

I guess it’s hard to imagine that there is a way other than Facebook to reach a person with a public website and an email and a street address and a mailbox and a telephone. I started to notice this a few years back when publishers began sending me messages through Facebook and I would think to myself, “You’re a publisher for heaven’s sake,” but people always explained it by saying “I didn’t know the best way to reach you.”

We used to know the best way to reach people. I don’t know when it got to be so confusing. When I was in sixth grade I was assigned to do a report on New York State and so I looked up the address and wrote to the information people in New York State and they sent me a big envelope full of everything anyone could ever want to know about New York State and I did a fine report and put it in a blue report cover decorated with photos I’d cut out from the brochures they had sent. Obviously, in 50 years I’ve never forgotten how easy that was. How straightforward and yet, miraculous. The whole world used to be like that, and maybe when you come right back to it, it still is.

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Photo by Kevin Klima Photo on Etsy

 

learn to meditate

Find a sane spot in an insane world.

Beginner’s Mind One-Day Retreat
Sunday, March 19, 9-3
Hazy Moon Zen Center
1651 S. Gramercy Place
Los Angeles

Beginner’s Mind Retreat is designed to give new meditation students a taste of the Zen tradition, with instruction in seated meditation, walking meditation, bowing and chanting. Lunch is served. Informal discussion is encouraged. Everything you need is provided, along with kindness and encouragement. It costs $40.

For more information about the retreat, go here. To register, go here. If the time is right, just go, and I’ll meet you at the door.

Photo by Ben Newton Photography.

the man on the wall

A couple of days ago some visitors dropped by to see the garden. Before we went outside we sat around the dining room table chitchatting. One of the guests pointed to an old-timey portrait on the wall and asked who it was.

The fact is, I didn’t know for sure. I’d been told it was my father’s grandfather, my grandfather’s father, whose name I only guessed at because nothing had ever been told to me about him except that he had died young and left his family destitute. This old-fashioned, hand-tinted photograph turned up after my grandparents died and if I hadn’t claimed it, it might have been tossed out of the shed along with everything else. This side of my family didn’t waste much sentiment on the past, for reasons you know if you’ve read Paradise in Plain Sight, but still there was a little bit of mythology that we granddaughters clung to, as some of us do about historical fictions. First, we’d been told ours was a clan of railroad men, iron tough but weak to the degradations of drink, and that somewhere sometime they’d come from Ireland. That sounded like a romantic beginning to an American fairy tale but my grandfather didn’t have a wisp of interest in spinning it, nipping our questions about the old country by saying “if there had been anything worth remembering, we’d have never left.”

But things being what they are these days, and the question coming across the table at me last Thursday, I thought I would try to verify the simple facts of the mysterious man who has been hanging on my wall for the last 20 years, peering at me through the same liquid blue eyes that have marked the scoundrels in the family for at least a hundred years.

***

We all have an immigrant story. Some of us were right there in it at the start, clutching a hand, crossing a border, coming ashore; for others, it’s a story covered in dust and thick with make believe. When my daughter was 12, my sister and I took her to New York City and then by ferry to Ellis Island, where we heard a less lyrical history of the place than I would have ever guessed from the words in the national anthem. Here I thought I was a good American student, but I was shocked and sad to realize that immigration has always been as much about keeping people out as letting people in. And so the hollow caverns of the Statue of Liberty National Monument are haunted with the desperation of not just those who survived the cull, but those who didn’t: the ones judged defective or diseased, crippled or criminal, cross-eyed, insane, unemployable or unlucky enough to cough that day, folks who were put back on the boat to sail the other way. I don’t know what you’d have left to say after that kind of cruel passage, which was not just the end of the worst but a hard start to what would prove to be harder still.

So I went looking for a thread to connect those liquid blue eyes from one generation to the next, from father to son, to find the name behind the frame that came to be hanging on the dining room wall. I found it and something else too. I found out how much my family was like every other immigrant and refugee family: they damn sure wanted to be Americans.

The man on the wall is Grover Cleveland Tate, my great-grandfather, who was born in Illinois in 1885 and died in 1919. His wife, my Grandpa’s mom, was Mary A. Cox, born in 1883.

Grover C. Tate’s father was George Washington Tate, who was born in 1850 and died in 1928, father of 10. And although all these many lives were lived in Illinois, the 1900 US Census shows that, sure enough, G.W.’s father had been born in Ireland.

Sixty years later, his blue eyes turned up in my grandpa, George James Tate:

And then again in my dad James Allan Tate:

None of these men amounted to much except what little comes from hard luck, hard life and hard times. Not much to show for all their work and woe other than me and my sisters and all the lives entwined in a galaxy with ours, my daughter and nieces and great-niece and great-nephew-to-be, each and every bloom of fruit on this fertile plain, all the sons and daughters of George Washington and Grover Cleveland, the weak, the strong, my family, my heart, my home, my country, my countrymen and women waiting to cross over and become one of us. I don’t have a political position on immigration; I don’t have the slightest idea. What I have is a life. What is it that you have?

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10 steps for a mindful protest

1. See
2. Hear
3. Speak
4. Sit
5. Stand
6. Walk
7. Write
8. Sing
9. Laugh
10. Cry

Repeat as needed.

what to do next

Never underestimate the power of a single monk on a mountaintop. He alone is transforming the universe.

***

A terrible forest fire broke out one day, and all the animals fled their homes. But one hummingbird zipped over to a stream, got some water in its beak, and rushed back to the raging fire. The little hummingbird tried to douse the flames with a few drops of water, then back to the stream it flew to retrieve more water. The other animals watched in disbelief. They asked the hummingbird what it was doing—one tiny bird would not make a bit of difference. The hummingbird replied, “I’m doing the best I can.”

***

On a winter day 56 years ago, Edward Lorenz, a mild-mannered meteorology professor at MIT, entered some numbers into a computer program simulating weather patterns and then left his office to get a cup of coffee while the machine ran. When he returned, he noticed a result that would change the course of science.

The computer model was based on 12 variables, representing things like temperature and wind speed, whose values could be depicted on graphs as lines rising and falling over time. On this day, Lorenz was repeating a simulation he’d run earlier—but he had rounded off one variable from .506127 to .506. To his surprise, that tiny alteration drastically transformed the whole pattern his program produced, over two months of simulated weather.

The unexpected result led Lorenz to a powerful insight about the way nature works: small changes can have large consequences. The idea came to be known as the “butterfly effect” after Lorenz suggested that the flap of a butterfly’s wings might ultimately cause a tornado. And the butterfly effect, also known as “sensitive dependence on initial conditions,” has a profound corollary: forecasting the future can be nearly impossible.

***

It seemed to be going one way, and it turned out to go the opposite. The disaster is overwhelming, and you are powerless to change the tide. What do you do now? Be a hummingbird, be a butterfly. Do your best against impossible odds.

The hummingbird and the fire is a Japanese folktale, but you might like to hear it told by a masterful storyteller, political activist and Nobel laureate.

The story of Edward Lorenz is quoted from this article by Peter Dizikes in the MIT Technology Forum, Feb. 22, 2011.

And impossible things? They are happening every day.

 

I know

Last week, I woke from a frightening dream in which a friend had gone missing. Nervous, I sent her an email and asked about her health. She told me that she had just been referred to a specialist for something serious, and had suddenly entered a place of uncertainty and worry.

Two nights ago, another friend appeared in my sleep and asked me to say a service for someone with a terminal illness. In the dream, we were in a vast temple, darkened by deep shadows. I ran across the long length of an endless corridor to find the altar and light the incense, panicked at the time being lost, the prayers unsaid.

Yesterday a good friend told me he had been to the hospital earlier in the week. His heartbeat was racing and he was short of breath. Tests were run, but no cause could be found. He thought he knew what it was. He had been waking at night in deep terror. His were the symptoms of profound anxiety.

This morning, a friend texted me and said that I had come to her in a dream last night. She was terrified about our country and sobbing. I appeared out of nowhere and hugged her. Then I said, “I know.”

In the name of terror, we are being terrified. In the name of security, we are being attacked. In the name of freedom, we have been made hostage. The temple is dark.

But this I have seen, and you have seen, and we can trust. Our fear is collective; our tears flow in common; our prayers ascend in one eternal sky. You appear to me and I appear to you. We are in this together.

I know. And I will always respond.

I am writing more than ever, saying all that I can. If you wish to subscribe to this blog and receive new posts in your email, please sign up here.

cake recipe

I was 5 or 6 years old when my sister and I would play a certain game. Whenever we got a bowl of ice cream for dessert we would mash and stir it into the consistency of batter before we ate it. We called the game “Making a Cake for President Kennedy.”

This game was not the measure of our innocent imagination. It was a sign of how much we adored our president. Alas, we didn’t get to play for long. Adoration, ice cream, childhood—and noble presidents—disappear too quickly.

After the euphoria of the marches on Saturday, the reality of our national wound dawned fresh and ugly. What can be said about an affliction so huge, an ignorance so insistent, a menace so malevolent? A lot, it turns out; but then again, not much.

A few days ago I heard from a friend and favorite author, Katrina Kenison, who writes with depth and heart about everything. She has been quiet of late. Quiet since the election. What do we say about the unspeakable? What do we do about the undoable? She wondered if she would ever feel moved to share a cake recipe on her blog again.

Yes, she will. We will all share recipes. We will shop, chop, blend and stir. Preheat the oven, oil the pan. We will set the table, pour the wine. Dress the salad, butter the bread, slice the cake and scoop the ice cream. We will invite people into our homes and feed them, you see, because that’s what the resistance does, in so many words: care.

Small things loom large in times of unfathomable crisis. Small things are how we serve.

Here is one of Katrina’s cakes.

And here is a helpful article with self-care tips for those who care. I’m passing it around for seconds.

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how to grow a democracy

Study the trees that will outlive you by a thousand years.

Look up to the one sky that unites all beings.

Walk the earth with the millions that came before you and the millions to come after.

With each step, plant a seed so small that it is nearly invisible.

Do not doubt the power of that one seed.

Let clouds, wind, rain, sun and fire pass over.

Trust your feet; believe your eyes.

Hold fast to those truths that are self-evident.

Study the trees.

Before the marches last weekend, my sister, niece and I walked through the Muir Woods National Monument, an old-growth redwood forest north of San Francisco. Redwoods can grow as tall as 380 feet from a seed the size of a tomato seed. The majority of the trees located in Muir Woods National Monument are between 500 to 800 years old. The oldest tree in the protected forest is over 1200 years old.

focus on the good

Last Saturday, The New York Times ran a story in which a dozen women explained, in their own words, why they voted for the president-elect. It is a bit of a curiosity, that question. After I read it, I noticed that the article was not open to comments. No sense in everyone getting riled up.

He’s not perfect, one woman said. He does some terrible things. I don’t agree with him on very much. But that’s the thing about relationships, she seemed to say. “You get through the bad and you focus on the good.”

Reading that reminded me of what my own mother would say after my father did something cruel, insensitive and selfish, which was pretty much all the time. “He really loves you,” she would tell us. Her words were like a wish blown onto a dandelion.

I’ve read the piece several times since then, looking for the “good” that attracted these voters and I couldn’t find any. They didn’t seem to be motivated by the good at all, but by the bad. Most were expressly anti-immigration, some were anti-Obama or anti-Obamacare, one was clearly anti-welfare, and nearly all were anti-Hillary Clinton. They were afraid of the whole world, or at least America, and looking for protection from the enemy who moved in next door.

In the days immediately following the election, someone wrote a conciliatory comment on my then-Facebook page, where people were posting about how terrified they were by the outcome. Although I voted differently, this person said, I did it out of concern for your safety.

And so the fear has been unleashed upon those who were not yet afraid, not yet exiled or outcast, not yet silenced or disenfranchised, not yet bound and gagged, imprisoned or forgotten. What can we do in the face of this overwhelming, incapacitating fear?

I will focus on the good, which will forever outweigh and outlast the bad. I will be marching with my sisters this Saturday in the Bay Area: Oakland in the morning, San Francisco in the afternoon. We will move our feet and raise our fists and sing out the truth. The forecast is for wind and rain. For sore throats and aching feet. For darkness and dejection. For courage and endurance. The forecast is for a long winter and a frosty spring. But one day, a field of dandelions.

***

If you’re marching in one of the hundreds of protests planned in cities around the world this Saturday, let everyone know in the comments.

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the lie

I’ve been very lucky in my life. I have had many teachers.

When I was a college senior, a teacher offered me a job grading papers. He was not a good teacher; in fact, his classes were notoriously bad. He offered me $2.50 an hour for a few hours a week. My budget at that time left no room for error, and even a dollar misspent would leave me without the cash I needed to wash my clothes or buy a meal. This teacher might have known what students thought of him; in any event, he was grateful for my help. When I was about to graduate, he asked if it would be okay if he set up some job interviews for me.

This was 1978, and there were no jobs for college graduates. My first interview was with a man who had a small public relations agency, although he had a big reputation. He had been president of the local PR association, and everybody knew him. I can’t recall anything we talked about except that when I told him the salary I was expecting, he smiled because it was so little. One day later he called and offered me a job. I started working two weeks after graduation. This was my first lucky break.

The office was in a nice building in a fancy part of town. My boss dressed well and drove a big car. The people I worked with were helpful and friendly. The work was interesting and seemed important. I got a raise. I learned a lot, but the longer I worked there the more uncomfortable I became. I figured out that my boss didn’t pay all his bills, or that he juggled things so that he paid what was necessary to keep things going, and ignored everything else. The problem was that I was the one who hired the suppliers for our projects—the photographers, the printers, the artists—and he was the one who didn’t pay them. This was something I couldn’t fix, and it troubled me. I felt like a liar, a con, a cheat. After about a year, I began to look for another job and found one. When I told my boss I would be leaving, he gave me a farewell party.

A few months later, I got a call from a former client at the PR agency. He told me that he had asked my old boss about me, chiding him for letting a good one get away. He wanted me to know what my old boss had said in case it ever got back to me. “He said that you had a nervous breakdown and that he had to send you back to your parents.”

***

It was ridiculously, even insanely, untrue. Here I was, sitting in another office not three miles away, working for someone else well-known in a relatively small field. But in one sobering instant I knew that as long as I worked in that city, I would have to defend myself against the lie. I had seen behind the curtain, and he had reached out in retribution to steal what little I had: my name.

Perhaps it was luck. I never again went looking for another job. Never had another interview, never asked anyone for a referral or recommendation. The next career move I made was to start my own business with an honest partner. I was 23. I kept that job for nearly 20 years.

I never even thought about my first boss, but he still hung on. Bad business practices don’t necessarily put you out of business. One day I met someone else who had worked for him long after I left. He had told her about me, she said. He had told her the lie.

The guy died in 2010. He had a very long resume.

***

Why would someone keep lying? Liars have to lie, it turns out. They have to keep lying because they are lying to themselves. They have to keep lying because they are a lie.

Over the many years since I learned this lesson, I’ve tossed nearly every bit of the name that was besmirched. In the end, nothing was lost, and the experience gave me a pretty good handle on the truth.

There is a ruckus in the news these days about lies and liars. Should the press call a lie a “lie?” Should they call a liar a “liar?” Should they call cheaters “cheaters,” traitors “traitors,” thieves “thieves,” racists “racists” and monsters “monsters?”

I’ve been very lucky. I’ve had many teachers, and so I can answer the question. Yes.

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