Posts Tagged ‘samsara’

the world enters us

June 23rd, 2020    -    2 Comments

Hold the sadness and pain of samsara in your heart
and at the same time the power and clarity of the Great Eastern Sun.
Then you can make a proper cup of tea. —
Chogyam Trungpa

As long as you think that all the trouble and turmoil in the world is outside of you, beyond you, separate from you, then you support the world of samsara, the world of greed, anger and ignorance. Now this is not to blame you, this is to encourage you. It is vital that, since you have been led to the Dharma, you truly commit yourself to your practice, because only through this practice can we see that this world — which appears to be beyond us and outside of us and against us — is not separate. It is the world of oneness.

Right now there is momentum to make a better the world a better place, a noble aim. But I’m here to tell you what my teacher once told me: you can’t do that. You, that separate you, that ego that you carry around, is not the agent of change. As long as you carry that separate self forward, driven by your own beliefs, ambitions, and expectations, you don’t change the world.

I remember years ago when I was first asked to give talks, I told my teacher (because this is the voice of someone who’s quite full of themselves) “I just want to help people.” I thought that was the thing we were supposed to say and supposed to do. And he said, “Maezen, you can’t help anyone.” This was a shock to me, because I had testimonials! I had perfect strangers writing to me and saying “You helped me so much.” But what he was telling me was this: “Maezen, you, with what you think you can do, with your idea of help, striving for purpose and to make a difference, which is all ego, you can’t help anyone.”

But this is not the end of the story. Is it impossible for the world to change? No. It is impossible that it won’t change. What matters is how we move forward and what we share.

An excerpt from the last in a series of talks given during this, the first wave of the pandemic.
The World Enters Us dharma talk
Photo by Quincy Alivio on Unsplash

the treasure

June 8th, 2020    -    2 Comments

We sustain each other. We uphold each other. We are not separate, but rather living and breathing as one.

Nowadays I wake up even earlier than usual to check the news. It’s an obsession but it feels like a duty; I’m a sentry in a war zone, scanning the horizon for smoke and fire. Threats multiply every day. The world seems locked in a death spiral. I feel overwhelmed and, to be honest, complicit. What have I done to alter the course of human ignorance, greed, and hatred? Clearly not enough.

Then I go sit.

As Buddhist practitioners, indeed, as citizens of planet Earth, we might wonder if there’s a better use of our time than sitting still in silence. Shouldn’t we be raising our voices, righting wrongs and fighting the good fight? There are people to help and causes to champion, protests to organize and injustices to correct. Turning our backs and facing a wall sure looks like escaping reality and avoiding responsibility.

Formal practice—in a meditation hall, surrounded by a sangha—has long been criticized as socially disengaged, morally indifferent, and even selfish. Besides, as far as meditation goes, there are apps for that.

Whenever we’re confused about the point of our practice, it’s time to question our judgments and beliefs. We are taught to take refuge in buddha, dharma, and sangha, and many of us make vows to do so. But is there true refuge in our refuge, or are we just reciting words? Is practice our living reality or just an intellectual pastime? We must continually answer these questions for ourselves, or the buddhadharma dies.

Do I really believe in Buddha, the awakened mind that frees sentient beings from the suffering of samsara?

Do I really believe in Dharma, the path of practice that leads us out of egocentric delusion and into lives of clarity and compassion?

Do I really believe in Sangha, the harmony of oneness that underlies all things?

As taught in the Eightfold Path, the right view changes everything, because when we know that our actions and beliefs have infinite consequences, we live differently. Practice is the place where we can begin to see the truth of this, and each glimpse subtly transforms our lives and the world.

Changing the world is not likely to be our first intention in coming to a practice center. We might want to change a niggling little aspect of ourselves—be more productive, less distracted, less angry, or less anxious, for example. But a funny thing happens while we sit silently struggling with our runaway thoughts and emotions. What keeps us in place is the person sitting next to us. We don’t move because they don’t move. If we weren’t sitting in a group, we would probably walk out. The same is true for everyone else. We sustain each other. We uphold each other. We are not separate, but rather sitting, breathing, and living as one.

And it doesn’t stop there. When we chant, we broadcast the benefits of our practice throughout the universe. We know it works, because our actions and beliefs have infinite consequences. Little by little, our view widens beyond our own desires. What starts as a self-help project thus becomes the work of a bodhisattva: taking on the suffering of the world. That means we respond to the needs that appear in front of us. It doesn’t matter if our actions seem big or small, enough or not enough. We shouldn’t be fooled by what we think.

Practice is a marvelous vehicle—it goes everywhere and includes everything. It donates time and money, signs petitions, and joins marches. It visits the lonely and sits with the dying; it listens, smiles, laughs, and cries. It votes. Far from disengaged, a living practice is intimately engaged because it is you.

The never-ending greed and hate of samsara make the need for practice clear. Without you there is no Sangha, no Dharma, and no Buddha. As the late Zen teacher Kobun Chino Roshi said, our personal responsibility is so great that “naturally we sit down for a while.”

This article originally appeared in the Spring 2020 issue of Buddhadharma: The Practitioner’s Quarterly.

Your True Self is Selfless a new dharma talk

the urgent work of crying in the night

June 1st, 2020    -    2 Comments

The Urgent Work of Crying in the Night dharma talk

reality dawns

March 18th, 2020    -    6 Comments

Daylight followed by darkness followed by daylight.

Many years ago, more than I can entirely recall, I went to one of my first meditation retreats in the mountains. It was to be the longest retreat I’d ever sat, more than a week. I was riding the edge of newness and enthusiasm about this thing I was doing, making myself well and happy. I half-hoped something would happen to me while I was there, some kind of wonderful thing. I’d spent a long time waiting for something wonderful, maybe my whole life.

The conditions were tough. It was winter, cold and dark. Sometimes it snowed. Sometimes the wind blew all day and night. My meditation seat was near a window, and I could see out of it. All day long, from the dark of early morning, to the bright of midday, to the shadows of the evening, in my still, silent spot by the window, I could see.

Somehow, seeing what was in front of me, hour after hour, day after day, I wasn’t afraid of the mountain or the deep winter or the sharp cold. I wasn’t confused about what to do. When the retreat was over, a friend asked about it. Did anything happen while I was there? Yes, something had happened.

Daylight followed by darkness followed by daylight.

These are hard times. I won’t compare this to any other time, or any other source of fear and uncertainty, or any other kind of pain, sickness, loss, or trauma. Comparing is pointless. I haven’t read the news today, so I don’t know how bad it is today. Bad is bad enough. Hard is hard enough.

Last Friday, as this new reality dawned, I heard from people. One was a stranger. She had read a book, and would I be willing to talk to her about it? Sure. We set a date in April.

April now seems like the dark side of the moon. It’s full of things once imagined that will never see the light.

A few minutes later, she contacted me again. Could we talk on Monday instead?

Her name is Kristen Manieri. She asked very good questions, and recorded our conversation for her podcast, 60 Mindful Minutes. I hope you listen, because if I had an hour to spend with you today, this might be how our conversation would go. It helped me to connect, share, listen, laugh and breathe. I hope it helps you.

You can listen wherever you listen to podcasts, if you do, like Spotify, Apple Podcasts, or iHeart Radio. Listen right here, in the middle of eternity, as unknowable as it is, on this great earth and under the vast dancing light of the everchanging sky.

Photo by Marcus Cramer on Unsplash

everything is viral

March 9th, 2020    -    9 Comments

Sometimes people ask me whether or not Buddhists pray. I can tell you that I often break into prayer when I wake in fear or worry at night, or all those times I wash my hands during the day. The prayer might begin Dear Lord or Enmei Jukku Kannon Gyo or Our Father Who Art In Heaven or Sho Sai Myo. To me, the words don’t matter. What matters is the intention, the elicitation of aid beyond my limited means, which is to say, beyond my ability to accomplish or understand. I do this because all things are viral, not just bad things. All thoughts, words and actions spread, so I don’t want to be stingy with the good stuff right now. It’s never a good time to be stingy with encouragement, a hopeful wish, or what in better times might have actually been your own hand, freely given.

I have a faint memory of sitting in the hallway of a county health building many years ago. My mom and sisters were with me, and we were waiting to get shots. A little googling this morning makes me think it might have been during a measles epidemic in LA County in 1966, when 50,000 doses were given to kids through age 10. It’s hard to imagine, but there hadn’t even been a measles vaccine until a few years before that. We waited a long time in a long line snaking through that hall, maybe most of the day. Everyone did. I wasn’t afraid because I wasn’t alone. I didn’t feel lonely or isolated during those days. Everyone seemed to do pretty much everything together. We shared libraries, pools, parks, sidewalks and schools; fire, earthquake and bomb drills. There were fears, sure, met with trust and belonging. I suppose you’d call it community.

I have a nearly invisible scar on my upper left arm from a smallpox vaccination. Every one of us had it growing up. Once a year in school we’d be called into the cafeteria where nurses from the health department would administer a tuberculosis test using a kind of gun (yes, they called it a gun) that would leave us with a circle of six tiny holes on the inside of our wrist. These were the early, miraculous days of vaccines and disease eradication. Things are done differently now.

Absent dire threats or emergencies, we don’t seem to behave in the same way, that is, with common purpose and concern. Instead, we choose sides, face off, criticize and demonize. Communities have become small, self-chosen, and more than likely, nonexistent except for ideological affinities maintained online. But that can change, and it will, if we see this virus as a gift to reconnect with the real lives we share.

Which reminds me: I saw a wonderful story in the newspaper yesterday about a man who loved a certain homemade soup so much that he took it to work for lunch everyday for 17 years. The story came with a recipe that has probably already gone viral. I’m making it tonight. Perhaps you’ll join me?

Photo by Toa Heftiba on Unsplash

sitting enough

February 20th, 2020    -    8 Comments

 

Nowadays I wake up even earlier than usual to check the news. It’s an obsession but it feels like a duty; I’m a sentry in a war zone, scanning the horizon for smoke and fire. Threats multiply every day. Environmentally, socially, politically, and technologically, the world seems locked in a death spiral. I feel overwhelmed and, to be honest, complicit. What have I done to alter the tides of human ignorance, greed, and hatred? Clearly not enough.

Then I go sit.

As Buddhist practitioners, indeed, as citizens of planet Earth, we might wonder if there’s a better use of our time than sitting still in silence. Shouldn’t we be raising our voices, righting wrongs and fighting the good fight? There are people to help and causes to champion, protests to organize and injustices to correct. Turning our backs and facing a wall sure looks like escaping reality and avoiding responsibility.

Formal practice—in a meditation hall, surrounded by a sangha—has long been criticized as socially disengaged, morally indifferent, and even selfish. Besides, as far as meditation goes, there are apps for that.

Whenever we’re confused about the point of our practice, it’s time to question our judgments and beliefs. We are taught to take refuge in buddha, dharma, and sangha, and many of us make vows to do so. But is there true refuge in our refuge, or are we just reciting words? Is practice our living reality or just an intellectual pastime? We must continually answer these questions for ourselves, or the buddhadharma dies.

Do I really believe in buddha, the awakened mind that frees sentient beings from the suffering of samsara?

Do I really believe in dharma, the path of practice that leads us out of egocentric delusion and into lives of clarity and compassion?

Do I really believe in sangha, the harmony of oneness that underlies all things?

As taught in the Eightfold Path, the right view changes everything, because when we know that our actions and beliefs have infinite consequences, we live differently. Practice is the place where we can begin to see the truth of this, and each glimpse subtly transforms our lives and the world.

Changing the world is not likely to be our first intention in coming to a practice center. We might want to change a niggling little aspect of ourselves—be more productive, less distracted, less angry, or less anxious, for example. But a funny thing happens while we sit silently struggling with our runaway thoughts and emotions. What keeps us in place is the person sitting next to us. We don’t move because they don’t move. If we weren’t sitting in a group, we would probably walk out. The same is true for everyone else. We sustain each other. We uphold each other. We are not separate, but rather sitting, breathing, and living as one.

And it doesn’t stop there. When we chant, we broadcast the benefits of our practice throughout the universe. We know it works, because our actions and beliefs have infinite consequences. Little by little, our view widens beyond our own desires. What starts as a self-help project thus becomes the work of a bodhisattva: taking on the suffering of the world. That means we respond to the needs that appear in front of us. It doesn’t matter if our actions seem big or small, enough or not enough. We shouldn’t be fooled by what we think.

Practice is a marvelous vehicle—it goes everywhere and includes everything. It donates clothing and food, signs petitions, and joins marches. It visits the lonely and sits with the dying; it listens, smiles, laughs, and cries. It gives money and time. It votes. Far from disengaged, a living practice is intimately engaged because it is you.

The never-ending greed and hate in our world make the need for practice clear. Without you there is no sangha, no dharma, and no buddha. As the late Zen teacher Kobun Chino Roshi said, our personal responsibility is so great that “naturally we sit down for a while.”

***
Compassionate Heart: A Zen Retreat near Toledo June 25-28

Essay originally printed as “True Practice is Never Disengaged,” in Buddhadharma: The Practitioner’s Quarterly, Spring 2020. Photo by Tom van Hoogstraten.

a glimpse into the cosmos

September 3rd, 2019    -    7 Comments

A couple of weeks ago my phone died. I didn’t even know it was dying because I don’t use my phone for much. One day, I noticed that I got a text about eight hours after it was sent. A day or so later I figured out the phone wasn’t holding a charge, and soon after, it wouldn’t turn on.

I was on vacation with the only people I typically hear from via text, so I wasn’t too bummed. Hopefully we could revert to spoken word for an awkward interim, despite the time-suck of talking face to face.

When we got home, my husband went to the phone store to get my little friend replaced. He came back saying that the LG Cosmos is not in stock at the Verizon store and I might have to upgrade. We both knew this reckoning would come. To those few who know me in real life, I’ve been a cellphone embarrassment for 13 years, a creaking relic of the telephonic past. Nevertheless, I persist.

By now you probably know my peculiar aversion to smartphones and everything they cost us personally, socially, intellectually, spiritually, financially blah blah blah here she goes again. Now some influencers in Silicon Valley, admittedly just a few very rich outliers, are saying this too.

There’s a movement underway called “ethical tech,” which may not be a movement per se, but just a digital detox workshop. At any rate, some people who have scored megabucks as part of Big Tech are realizing that their fancy ideas didn’t make the world a better place. This happens whenever they look up from their phones and see a whole universe of people looking into theirs, subsumed, addicted and inert. They call this outcome “human downgrading” and they feel bad about it.

My husband went on Amazon and found a new battery for the phone and when I switched it out, the phone worked again. It cost $8.88 with free shipping. I didn’t have to upgrade after all and I felt hugely good about it.

I was afraid to see the dozens of messages I’d missed during my days without the Cosmos, but there was only one. It was a text my husband had sent a week earlier from the grocery store. The sight of it made me wonder: in the unforeseeable world beyond ours, would intelligent beings puzzle over the content of advanced communication in the digital age, the way we study hieroglyphics and cave paintings?

Ralph’s is out of roasted chicken so I’m going to Whole Foods.

***

Photo by v2osk on Unsplash

a prayer for the last responders

August 6th, 2019    -    13 Comments

To see what is in front of one’s nose needs a constant struggle.—George Orwell

We now recognize it. It is the quiet of the dead after the gunshots stop. It is the horror of what we have become, the silent scream of disbelief, and worse, belief. We really can believe this happened again. Of course it happened again. It is allowed and yes, even encouraged, to happen over and over again.

The words we say have all become clichés. Active shooter. Thoughts and prayers. Victims and families. First responders. Their very utterance is our condemnation. We are so damn well rehearsed in the theatre of it, the pathetic script of it, the hollow sounds that hide the heinous horror of life in America.

These are the words that feign concern for those for whom there is utterly no concern: the actual people who are now and forever gone. People who did something completely unheroic and unremarkable, like wake up on a Saturday morning or go out on a Saturday night. Get groceries, see a friend, buy school supplies, go to church, go to a garlic festival for god’s sake, pray in a synagogue, dance, drink, flirt, listen to music, go to school, go to work, be a teenager, be a first-grader, be alive. And they did this as though they were free! We all do. We live as though we are free when all the while there is a target on our backs. We are not free. We are imprisoned by blind greed and exalted self-righteousness. It is callous and cruel to the point of bleak comedy.

It is the self-interest of wicked profiteers. The petty pretense of certain clueless or crassly cynical daughters. The lame defense of ex-governors or future ex-governors, the piteous pantomime of senators, the fakery of the fakest fake who ever pretended to give a shit. And then of course, it is us, some of us, who fall back on the Charlton Heston version of misanthropic rage that equates the loss of a single, beloved firearm with death itself. Pry it from my cold dead hands, the battle cry goes. But haven’t we seen enough real death by now? We have, and yet, we haven’t.

We the people are the last responders.

So I heed the calls for thoughts and prayers, but my prayers are for the last responders. I pray that we will see and cease from evil, and that America will once again be a safe place to buy pencils.

***

Photo by Daria Nepriakhina on Unsplash

fall

October 22nd, 2018    -    3 Comments

I had a long flight home last Monday. After landing at LAX I got a text from my husband saying there had been a bad windstorm while I was away. It had left the yard a wreck, the power out. So it goes with the Santa Ana winds, easterly gusts that whip up from the desert and mow their way to the coast. Hot and dry, Santa Anas ignite wildfires, allergies, insomnia, anxieties, anger and worse: conflagrations of the flesh and spirit.

Here, they mean days of hauling limbs and leaves from the ponds. The job, like the wind, is insistent. It must be done. And it gives gratifying results: stacks of tinder, mounds of muck. But as the surface of the water clears, it reveals the even uglier side of what’s beneath—the rot and sludge from years before. Things I never saw, work I never did.

“Isn’t it a shame that we have to go through this to see what a beautiful place this is,” a friend says while looking up. The wind has polished the sky into a perfect jewel glittering above the golden hills.

I’m not surprised by what falls to earth—it all falls—but by how much the world is made better for it.

This is the truth and a parable.

healing community

March 23rd, 2018    -    3 Comments
Thorndale, Texas by Adrienne Breaux

 

For where two or three are gathered together in my name, there I am in the midst of them. — Matthew 18:20

I’ve had this verse on my mind since I spent time in the hospital. I wasn’t in the hospital being a patient, mind you, but rather being patient, cultivating one of the virtues required of us in difficult circumstances.

A friend was having major surgery, and I accompanied her into the hospital and sat beside her as she mended for a day or so after. Although I didn’t do anything while I was there, I learned some things.

I learned, for instance, that a hospital is its own country, with its own language, symbols, rituals and time, its own days and nights. The outside, with its calliope of circus distractions, doesn’t exist. The first day I just sat in a waiting room with strangers whiling away the time. I was alone until a family came up to me and asked if the empty seats nearby were taken. We shared the lengthening hours then, talking about weather and pets, bound by our communal experience of waiting and worry.

It is a beautiful thing to see how much you have in common with people you’ve never met and know nothing about. People you might not see again and would likely never recognize. The circumstance connects you in a clarifying way, and you can see beyond appearances, beyond what you might otherwise judge on face value.

I learned that even the most confident doctors can pray, and that their shoulders carry the weight of our urgent faith.

I saw that even after 12 hours on the job nurses still enter sick rooms with a smile and leave with a thank you.

I watched a phlebotomist take blood so gently, so tenderly, asking permission and making apology while causing no pain, all because, she said, “I put myself on the patient’s side.”

I learned that it is always possible to be kind, and that most people already are.

The hospital gave me hope, tremendous hope. Not hope in miracles, but hope in healing. The hope that we can turn this thing around, that we can begin to heal one another even if only by twos or threes, which is the really good news, because that means we can do it right now where we are with the first stranger passing by.

Life in community

I read one pastor’s take on this Bible verse and I really liked it. She said that the verse instructs us to live our spiritual lives in community, with others, where there is conflict and contention to be reconciled. It’s in our differences, you see, that grace is revealed, that we are rescued and redeemed from our self-interest and thus able to love a neighbor with equal devotion.

In Buddhism we call this sangha. It is honorable for its harmony, and it is everywhere.

What is killing our communities? I wondered about that this week when I read the story of the unrepentant Austin bomber, isolated and frustrated by his life living in a town reminiscent of one I once knew.

Reading that he was from Pflugerville, Texas, reminded me of Thorndale, Texas, just 30 miles northeast, where my mother’s people had lived. Both towns were founded by farmers in the late 19th century for the sake of common interests: to have a school and a church, a general store and a post office, a bank, a cemetery and a cotton gin. These were real communities that arose out of real needs, needs met by being shared among the many.

Thorndale hasn’t changed. Progress passed it by. But not so Pflugerville, where real estate developers arrived in the ’80s to remake it into an Austin suburb. A city of 60,000, Pflugerville is now rife with master-planned communities, neighborhoods of sameness secured by fences and gates, valued for what’s left out as much as what’s put in.

What does living in community mean any more? There’s no grace, no spiritual good when we make our community out of one ideology or income bracket, and Lord knows there’s no salvation to be found in Facebook, either. These days the word, community, is used for everything while meaning nothing.

I spent two days watching how it works in a hospital, and this is what I saw. We have to get real, people, to get better, and we have to do it together before it’s too late.

You might want to watch a beautiful film, The Florida Project, about a community left on the fringe after Disney fashioned a make-believe world.

being well

March 9th, 2018    -    9 Comments

All shall be well, and all shall be well and all manner of thing shall be well. —Julian of Norwich

Last weekend I sat in a meditation retreat with a beautiful group of people. Three were in pain from back injuries. Two had recently lost close members of their family. One had a chronic illness; another, cancer. Others were facing vexing uncertainty in employment and finances. Several were overwhelmed with the care of elderly and incapacitated parents. Our youngest participant, a 20-year-old college student, said that because she has difficulty managing her attention and anxiety she was pretty sure she was doing it all wrong.

In short, we were exactly alike, doing what we needed to do in the only place we could be.

Stop weaving and see how the pattern improves. — Rumi

My doctor’s office called a few weeks ago saying that I was overdue for a physical. My last visit was in 2016. How had a whole year disappeared?

I knew how. The year had vanished in a lethal flurry of hurricanes and floods, fires and mass killings. It was swept away in a cyclone of fear, behind a wall of rage. It was crushed by greed, ignorance and ineptitude; infected with hate; buffeted by chaos; and pounded by gale-force lies. Oh yes, I understood why I might have lost track of normal. The world—with me in it—was sick and on life-support, in organ failure, beyond medical intervention. The family had been called in to pray.

We need to find God, and he cannot be found in noise and restlessness. God is the friend of silence.  We need silence to be able to touch souls. —Mother Teresa

At the beginning of every retreat, we set out a blank sheet of lined paper with the title “Sick List.” Everybody is invited to write the names of people to chant for who are sick or suffering, that is, anyone other than themselves. The trick to wellness, you might know, is to see beyond yourself and your sickly preoccupation with your own fear, pain, inadequacy and sorrow. Only then can you see what to do.

Adopt the pace of nature: her secret is patience. —Ralph Waldo Emerson

At first, the names appear slowly, a dozen or so, the people and pets we know for certain are worse off. Their names are chanted in our morning service. Then, in the mounting hours of silent stillness, our hearts soften and we think of many more. Now there are two dozen names on the paper. We might recall those people we didn’t think we could help, or even want to. Difficult people, distant or estranged, overlooked and then suddenly seen in a sympathetic light. Three dozen, four, five. Spoken, the names flow like a spring river over two sides of two pieces of paper, and fill the room.

Little by little we let everyone into our warming hearts until the last day, when we arrive at a great and humbling truth: that as soon as we stop thinking about ourselves we are one piece with the entire world and everyone in it. No one is left out or forgotten; no one remains unworthy or unloved. And then we can’t help but smile, because we are not sick, we are well and whole.

The way I see it, if the greedy, angry and ignorant can unleash this much evil in the world, each of us, by our own selflessness, can deliver this much good.

Winter Sun Zen Retreat, Madison WI, March 4, 2018

to keep our children safe

February 15th, 2018    -    9 Comments

Across the fields a cry heaves up as young bodies bleed out on native soil
What can we do
ten thousand echoes pound the sky
to keep our children safe?

I watched the news this week, and this is what I saw.

On Monday, a short black man stood on a stage in Washington DC and spoke words that were hard to hear. The microphone was positioned for a person much taller than him, and because he was either too nervous or polite, he did not draw the neck of the mic down to his own mouth. He gave a speech barely heard and returned to his seat, but then stood up again with unseemly insistence to interrupt the next speaker so he could say the one thing that had to be said.

“My mother,” he began. His chin quivered and mouth broke.

This was Kehinde Wiley, the painter of Obama’s portrait for the National Portrait Gallery, the son of a single mother with six children who ran a junk shop in South Central LA, the survivor of a notoriously dangerous neighborhood who had become one of the most successful portrait painters in the world.

“My mother . . . she bought me paints,” and now he is crying as he looks at her, knowing that the pigments were his sole power and privilege.

“She bought me brushes,” the word itself fluttering with impracticality, the whisper of impossibility. His face shines with tears. He doesn’t have to say more. The portrait is already drawn, and we’ve seen the invisible mother, we know her heart and the dire hope it held, the hope that her children would be safe.

Two days later, in one of the safest neighborhoods, one with good lawns and great schools, home of the lucky and best, came the terrifying report that repeats each week, of children killed in the hour they should be most alive and free, followed by the cynical insult unique to this country, the blatant lie that nothing can be done to stop the mass executions of the innocent except what is too early or too late or not enough or must be pried-from-my-cold-dead-hands. This familiar drone, so dull to the senses, subdued by the next day’s disaster, is forgotten, until the child among us stands up and says the one thing that must be said. “You are the adults. Do something.”

###

As it turns out, the famous portrait artist went to the same high school my daughter attends, a public arts school that by its very creed welcomes the free and shelters the brave. There, as a self-described “chubby 16-year-old,” he painted himself into the portraits he practiced on, painted himself as a nobleman, a conqueror and a hero. True, each of us creates the world we inhabit with whatever tools are in our hands.

What power have we handed to our children, I ask you, the power of goodness or villainy? The color pours out from our schools, streets and homes, and beauty lives or dies.

how to be useful

January 28th, 2018    -    13 Comments

I’ve been thinking about writing a post for a long time, which is a good way to not write a post. Last week I felt sick and overwhelmed, but I couldn’t quite put my finger on either the “sick” or the “overwhelmed.” People really are terribly sick all over but I’m not. The heater has been broken for five days and won’t be fixed for another three, but you can’t get much overwhelm out of that when you’re wintering in California with a high of 80 and a low of 50. No, it was more that I had accumulated unreturned messages and unanswered letters and I knew too many people who were praying for real help, miracles and such, tumbling into sorrow and fear, and doubted that any of my pearly words could repair the broken. I didn’t think there was much I could do.

My teacher has always made a point of emphasizing why, whether we know it or not, we come to a spiritual practice, which is the very same reason Shakyamuni Buddha began his spiritual practice which is the very same thing that not a single one of us can do anything about. Namely, that we get old, get sick and die. Come face-to-face with that and it might tie up your tongue for at least a week or two.

I have been wondering lately what I’m supposed to do with my little old self, and I’ve lit upon an answer. I want to be useful, just a tiny bit useful, and you might argue that I’m already handy in that way so what I mean is that I want to be a tiny bit more useful. Useful is always good, you see. It’s not fancy, but it gets right to work for better and not worse.

And about the time you hit on the word, useful, up comes a chance to do something useful, and not because you’re feeling right-minded or decent, either, but just because you look up and see what you need to do.

In early December I heard that an old friend of mine had died without warning and all alone. He had been a priest with me until he left the temple and made his life as best he could on his own. He was without close kin but had an ex-wife who was big-hearted and she called me after it happened just to talk about all the things that had been left to her to iron out. I told her I would help, and I didn’t do much, but she felt she had some company in taking care of what comes after. Everything got sorted out and we did as much as we could to dignify his life and distribute the leftovers. She kept insisting that she wanted to pay me for my trouble, my mileage or my time and I refused because I hadn’t done a damn thing. But last week a card came from her with a crisp bill taped inside that had one of your more electrifying presidents printed on it. I shook my head and maybe muttered a curse or two but I said thank you because I could, in fact, use up a $100 bill in a single trip to the grocery store. I put it in my wallet.

The next day I was coming up to the corner of Lake Avenue and the 210 overpass when I saw my regular buddy working his spot where we cross paths two or so times per week. The light was red and as I stopped beside him I reached in my wallet for a dollar. I rolled down the window and we exchanged our familiar hellos and when I asked how he was doing he cocked his head and said “Well . . . ” Seems he’d just been given a $250 ticket for walking into the second lane of traffic when someone had waved three dollars at him and he hadn’t seen the patrol car until it was too late and he was cited for being a pedestrian outside of a marked crosswalk. The ticket was going to make him late on his rent. He was old and often sick, but he and a partner had worked themselves to the precarious point that they had a place to sleep with a roof over it, and every single day was a test of whether or not they could keep it. And then I remembered what I’d been given, and how I could share the merit of a friend’s life, pass on the generosity of another, and be a tiny bit more useful in this crooked world.

I handed him the crisp $100. He looked at me in disbelief and concern, which you can actually see when someone is thinking of you and not themselves.

“Are you sure you don’t need it?”

And then I was really sure.

###

You might find it useful to read what a friend of mine wrote after his son died from the flu: “What I learned when my son died.”

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