Ming Zhen Shakya speaks on….Expectations & Martin Buber


Ming Zhen Shakya speaks…On Expectations


by Ming Zhen Shakya, OHY

What backsliding is to religious conversion, recidivism is to penal rehabilitation. Both represent failure, and Zen priests who have a prison ministry can be losers on both counts.

Often we are moved to tears when we give Precepts to a man who receives his certificate with such profound gratitude, with such pride that he has been accepted into Buddhist ranks, who vows with such sincerity to try with all his might to conform his conduct to the requirements of the Path, and who does not show up for another meeting. We never see him again. We might learn that he’s espoused another faith, which, frankly, is better than hearing that in the exercise of Buddhist ethics as he understood them he got himself tossed into solitary confinement.

The same inability to predict the future informs our cheery bon voyages when a prisoner is released. Good luck we say to him certain only that he’s going to need it.

And so we wonder if the man will stick with Zen or attach himself to another group, or if he will successfully re-enter civilian life or revert to the kind of behavior that got him incarcerated in the first place. We doubt that we have understood him at all – else we should not be so uncertain. We’re supposed to be spiritual physicians who diagnose illness and recommend whatever nostrums are necessary to effect cure; but often we don’t have a clue.

Not only in prison ministries does this doubt occur. In our civilian sanghas we are frequently surprised by the unwonted actions of a member we thought we thoroughly understood. We miss seeing his face at a meeting and when we inquire about his health or his whereabouts we’re told that he has joined another Buddhist group or even another religion – maybe even one of those that regard Buddhism as devil worship. Or else he sends his regrets that he cannot attend meetings on our scheduled evenings because he’s taking a course in Continuing Education in order to satisfy a curiosity he has always had about Eighteenth Century French literature. What was going on in his mind when he bowed so reverently to Guan Yin and chanted so joyfully? Was there a tip-off that we missed? A signal that we failed to see?

In his essay, What Is Man, Martin Buber, that indispensable thinker, gives us some direction, a hint of where to look. If we read the work for its academic or literary value, we’ll, of course, find it interesting; but without some specific ‘cases’ to which we can relate the information, we’re not likely to find it useful. It is true that Buber mostly speaks of “epochs” of man, periods of complacent belief and periods of penetrating inquiry; but the old alchemical rule nevertheless applies: “As it is in the macrocosm so it is in the microcosm.” The general, after all, sums particulars.

It never hurts to see a problem from a different perspective.

The conduct of two men associated with the prison sangha had puzzled me for a long time. It disturbed me that I couldn’t even begin to predict how they’d react to civilian life when they were released. They had left in their psychological wake a jumble of dots that I just couldn’t connect. Then I happened to remember Buber’s essay; and after re-reading it, the prisoners’ dots lined up to station themselves into a recognizable pattern.

Buber begins his discussion by reciting Immanuel Kant’s four-question formula for the “knowledge of the ultimate aims of human reason.”

“What can I know?” the answer to which Kant intends metaphysics and not epistemology to supply.

“What ought I to do?” which ethics will answer.

“What may I hope?” which religion presumes to solve.

“What is man?” The first three questions are essentially contained in this fourth.

In order to answer these questions, a man has to ask them first. He has to wonder, says Buber, about “his special place in the cosmos, his connection with destiny, his relation to the world of things, his understanding of his fellow men, his existence as a being that knows it must die, his attitude in all the ordinary and extraordinary encounters with which the mystery of his life is shot through.” It is the man who feels himself alone who is most disposed to engage in such self-reflection. This is the man who does not inhabit, who, Buber notes, “lives in the world as in an open field and at times does not even have four pegs with which to set up a tent.”

As we read, we understand that the man who has the security of a protective “philosophical” house appreciates its walls and roof and does not wish to blow them down with gusting questions. If he sees the horizon he is content to fantasize about what lies on the farther side of it. And if his fantasies begin to bore him and thus cease to satisfy, he may investigate that farther place to find new sources of comfortable illusion. He seeks only to gratify his ego’s superficial needs as he stays within the safe boundaries of his religious expectations. If he sees the stars he may regard them as sources of entertainment or, perhaps, as serving of some utilitarian purpose. But he does not marvel as the Psalmist marvels, “Lord, when I consider thy heavens, the work of thy fingers, the moon and the stars, which thou hast ordained; what is man, that thou art mindful of him?

As Buddhists we know that we must ask these questions and feel this overwhelming awe; for without having our lives “shot through” with these perforating inquiries, we inflate, our Buddhist ego-image swelling buoyantly into a complacent stratosphere. We become contented in our habituation, domesticated by the routines and appliances of religion – the wafting incense on our altars, the artful wall hangings and statues placed in the corners of our sanctuaries, the gestures, the vestments, the liturgy. We sit upon cushions in our meditation halls as if we are safely inside Plato’s Cave watching flickering shadows on the walls. We do not allow ourselves to wonder what dramas are unfolding outside that comfortable theatre, what else we might hope for, what more we ought to do, what knowledge of self lies behind the silhouetted images we study.

The man who does ponder the unknown declares his independence and in his own eccentric way becomes a free agent. He is not satisfied with firelight. He wants to see the Sun.

The two prisoners whose temperament I could not gauge both attended meetings of our medium-security prison sangha, but only one had taken Buddhist Precepts.

The one who officially became a Buddhist was intelligent, well groomed, polite, and faithful in attendance. His conduct in and out of chapel was uniformly good and owing to this exemplary behavior he had been granted parole and would be released as soon as a place opened for him at a halfway house. He very much wanted to join a Buddhist sangha when he was released and, because he had much affection for Vietnamese culture and was somewhat familiar with the language, I suggested that he join a Mahayana Vietnamese temple that had recently opened in our town. This news seemed heaven sent to him, and he asked me to inquire whether they would be averse to having an ex-con in their group. I didn’t see why they would be, but I visited them anyway and asked. They did not object and in fact, since they spoke very little English they looked forward to having a bilingual American there in their increasingly American congregation. They gave me a few brochures, a little Vietnamese dictionary, and their meditation schedule – they were open to the public three nights a week. He received this information with great joy. Future possibilities were becoming realities. He was particularly excited to learn that the temple “haven” was located just a few blocks away from a restaurant in which he had been promised a job.

Then, several weeks later, before a meeting someone told me a rumor that he planned to go to Buenos Aires as soon as his probation period was completed. After the meeting I asked him if he did, indeed, plan such a journey. “Yes,” he said, “as soon as my parole’s up, I’m going to Argentina.” I raised my eyebrows. “Why?”

“I know some people who live there.”


“No, just some people I met once in Dallas. They send me a Christmas card every year.”

I was speechless. Finally I asked, “How are you planning to get there? You’ll need a passport and visas–”

“–I can get a passport after I complete parole.” He said this as if it were going to be a perfectly simple thing to do. Why would the State Department prevent him from leaving the U.S. and why would another country refuse to put out the welcome mat for a penniless American ex-convict.

“What about money? And how do you plan to get there?”

“My sister has a camper parked in her driveway. It won’t fit in the garage. She said it needed a little work, but if I fix it up I’m sure she’ll let me borrow it.”

Drive? This was bizarre. “Do you know where Argentina is?” The question was rhetorical. I was referring to the immense distance, one quarter of the earth’s surface east and one half of the earth’s surface south from where we were.

“It’s in South America.”

“There are a lot of countries between here and Argentina and every one will require a visa and a hefty fee to bring in a recreational vehicle, not to mention insurance. If you have an accident they won’t just let you leave, trusting you’ll come back for adjudication. They’ll want to see evidence of your ability to pay any debts you incur. You’ll also need money for gas and oil and food and car repairs and bridge tolls and ferry boats and all the rest.” “I’ll have money from my job delivering pizzas.”

Delivering pizzas? This was not quite the same as working in a restaurant. “Do you have a car?”

“No, my sister has a new Escort I’ll use. As soon as I finish at the half-way house, I’m moving in with her.”

“Isn’t your sister married… with kids?”

“Yes. I’ll bunk in the camper until I can afford my own place. I’ll be working six nights a week, maybe seven. It shouldn’t take me long.”

The Vietnamese meditation schedule suddenly became meaningless. To me, his entire life-plan became meaningless.

We walked out of the chapel and I recall standing in the sunlight squinting, stunned. I didn’t know what to make of his previously stated intentions and this new fantastic scheme.

In civilian sanghas we sometimes find the same aborted volition, the instantaneous switch from one goal to another. A plan, enthusiastically conceived, dies of neglect, a pitiable orphan. Projects designed to raise money – publishing a newsletter, selling homemade religious articles, construction of accommodations for guest members – are suddenly abandoned. Those who fathered the plan deny paternity and leave the residual responsibilities to others. Their generative abilities are needed elsewhere.

The other man who puzzled me only occasionally sat with our group. He was an American Indian of the Sioux Nation who had been in prison for more than half his life. Sentenced, at eighteen, to twenty years, he was now thirty-eight. He had applied repeatedly for parole but had always been denied – for while he was manageable enough not to warrant being sent to a maximum security prison, he was still considered sufficiently incorrigible to warrant early release into the civilian population.

To call his appearance “sloppy” would be to ‘condemn it with faint praise,’ to borrow Shakespeare’s line. He was a mess. His coarse long hair pushed the ‘unacceptably unkempt’ envelope that the prison staff itched to open. Several of his front teeth had been knocked out in one or more of his frequent fights; and although the prison dentistry service had given him a partial plate, he preferred not to wear it and risk its destruction. He kept it in a treasure box in his cell. Once, however, he did wear it to show me, and I could see that wild handsomeness that I think Emily Bronte imagined when she created Heathcliff – not as Olivier played him – a passive, effete and pensive gentleman who happened to find himself in unfashionable garments – but a kinetic, electric, brooding man whose thoughts, behind those darting eyes, no outsider could ever apprehend.

At one meeting he gave me an Indian Prisoner’s Rights manifesto he had drafted and asked if I would edit it; but it required no correction that I could see. He had acquired an education in prison; and he used it to lobby for official recognition of Native American religious forms of worship. His ceaseless agitations had paid off and down at the end of the prison yard, near one of the watchtowers, was a little sweat lodge he and other Indian men had finally been permitted to build. I was told that he functioned as a kind of shaman in the sweat rituals and that he “could really zone out” during the proceedings. He kept track of the sky and knew when Venus was the Morning Star and when the Evening. Information like this was the criterion by which he gauged all other data. Compared to this, of what significance could he possibly assign the news that half the buttons on his shirt were missing?

I remember asking the warden as he boarded the exit bus, “How do you think he’ll do on the outside?” And the warden answered, shaking his head, “He’ll get in a fight before he gets off that bus.”

We hope for the best about people who are practically strangers to us. It is the nature of our service. In most Zen congregations there is little social interaction between pastor and congregants. We have few bake sales, hymn-sings, pujas, boy scout troops, or other community activities; and Darshan (dokusan) is limited to a few minutes of discussion about meditation practices. Rarely does a teacher encounter students in those social occasions that reveal most about their personalities. Usually, then, we are left to gauge intelligence by the quality of questions asked in forums; to gauge fidelity by attendance; generosity by contributions to the collection box; cleanliness by the appearance of robes; and so on. In short, in the span of two hours per week, we are required to form opinions about a person’s character – perhaps even to write letters of recommendation – based upon such brief, structured encounters and flimsy evidence. In a prison setting, it is even more difficult to determine character. There are few after-service chats and, aside from snail-mail, no communication between meetings.

As I re-read Buber and thought about that strange jaunt to Argentina, I saw that what I was missing was that a man who is secure doesn’t have to wonder about his place in the universe. He has no anxiety. He is a believer, a creature of habit, a regulated dreamer, an accidental guest – a person who is sanguine about the future that, owing to the largesse of others, always seems rosy. He trusts that everything is going to work out so why worry?

But why is he so secure, so enthusiastic or so casual about unlikely schemes that he presents as realistic goals – schemes which might at first seem reasonable but will later evidence a grandiose or unacceptably presumptuous nature?

How does a man experience the Real? Buber says simply that man has a threefold living relation. “First, his relation to the world and to things; second his relation to men – both to individuals and to the many; and third, his relation to the mystery of being – which is dimly apparent through all this but infinitely transcends it… The Absolute or God.”

The person who is afflicted with worldly fantasy is mired in the first ‘living relation.’ No matter how his behavior seems to conform to society’s standards, he sees the material world through acquisitive eyes. He objectifies even himself as a created image, which he assumes that other people will also accept as substantive and genuine. He identifies with desirable objects; and he objectifies even people who become to him mere ways and means, tools to fulfill his needs and desires. We may see him in a prison or in a commercial workplace. He may go to church or to the Zen center every week. He may sit in meditation or bow his head in prayer, but what is he thinking? It is things – his garments, the incense, his breakfast, the weather.. and how these things affect him, or how he can alter or use these things to his advantage. We find his likeness in all forms of literature. He’s Williams’ Blanche DuBois who affects gentility while plying the skin trade, depending upon “the kindness of strangers” and, ultimately, the coerced hospitality of her sister. The only constant is the need to cling to the self-image of superior bearing. Perhaps he starts out innocently like Thurber’s Walter Mitty who seems outwardly to be quite happy performing such ordinary tasks as driving his wife to the beauty parlor; but what is he thinking? Only his body is behind the wheel of his sedan. The rest of him is at the controls of a dive bomber that is now engaged in desperate combat in the skies over Europe. He’s not a dutiful husband sitting in a hotel lobby waiting for his wife to be beautified, he’s a famous brain surgeon performing an operation that his colleagues lack the skill and courage even to attempt. Thurber let his short story end in one of these imaginative adventures; but if he had written another chapter to the story, Mitty might easily have sought the rewards of fantasy heroism in the real-life adorations of a co-worker or a lunchroom waitress. His wife and children – if he had any – would become strangers, creatures from that “other” world, the one that could not satisfy his fancy.

It is such self-absorption that evicts from consideration those who fulfill laborious obligation in order to give residence to vagrant dreams.

Yet, in a curious way, these fantasies often have a real-world, practical function. They provide leverage and set the stage for contrived conflicts that provide excuse for change. If we look hard enough we can find method in the schemes. Consider the possible manipulations in the proposed trip to Buenos Aires. The ex-prisoner would move in with his sister and it would take about 2.5 hours for her husband to express an intense desire to get him off the property. But there is a problem. No one wants to be known as the kind of person who would turn a brother out, especially one who is “trying to get his life together.” Prodigal Sons and Lost Sheep and Good Samaritans will be marched onto the front lawn like so many pink flamingos or plaster gnomes. Biblical precedents will picket the house. It will be the sister who must deal with categorical imperatives.

The request had been merely for the brother temporarily to occupy the camper- a request that seemed too simple to deny. But he will come into the house to eat; to shower, shave and use the toilet, to watch television, to talk on the phone; to do his laundry, and if it is too hot or too cold, he will come in to sleep on the couch. What will it cost her and her husband to eliminate this expensive invader of their privacy while retaining their reputations as decent people? He says he wants to take the camper on a long trip. Well, that will get rid of him. But wait! Their names are on the title – which means they’re responsible as owners of the vehicle. What if he doesn’t keep up the insurance? He wants to buy the vehicle from them and to pay it off in monthly payments. He offers to commit himself legally to pay; and with a great flourish will sign a promissory note which, as the saying goes, will be like a verbal contract – not worth the paper it’s written on.

But will he pay? It is no more likely that he will honor his debt than it is likely that anyone will ever examine the appropriateness of his need or his proposition. He wanted his sister’s camper and he found a way to get it. He invoked familial sentiment when he made the request; and that sense of security, of entitlement that is inherent in the request will obviate any sense of responsibility to pay. This is not mere cynicism. This is precisely the course that is followed by a person whose living relation is confined to things.

He is unable to empathize – to consider the negative effect his presence or his debt will have upon his sister – for that would be the second stage of “the threefold living relation.” Society will aid him in his self-absorbed goals. Always, the one who is asked to give is reminded more forcefully of the “duty” to be charitable than the one who desires to receive is ever reminded of the obligation to be self-supportive or to lessen his requirements.

In the world of things we find strange participation mystiques, the imbuing of an object with animate qualities with which the person then identifies and associates. Not only does the person believe that the quality of a thing magically adheres to the possessor who becomes unique or important in direct proportion to his evaluation of that symbol or object, but he must also advertise his identified allegiance to that magical element. Especially in prison we find men who have used their own flesh to commemorate an identity with and commitment to such other-worldly power: They are “illustrated men,” tattooed not with the usual salute to Mother, service motto, girl, flag or rose; but with serpents that entwine entire limbs; lightning bolts that discharge from an earlobe and strike the chest; birds of prey that seize a nipple in their talons; blood dripping daggers and swords; and, most incomprehensively, a variety of chains and barbed wires that encircle arms and necks. Allegiance to people can alter. Today’s benefactor is too often tomorrow’s adversary; but the eagle is an emblem of power that will never weaken. The blitzkrieg is forever.

To dismiss this as jailhouse machismo is to overlook those symbols of identity – the designer labels, the expensive cars, the “conspicuous consumption and honorific waste’ which characterize leisure class possessions. To whatever extent an owner invests these showy objects with his own identity, he, too, is an illustrated man.

It is not the goal of penal authorities to manufacture saints in prison. They do strive, however, to deliver men and women to the second stage of living relation: to establish a relationship to the world of men. This requires empathy – an ability to understand and accept The Golden Rule, an ability to put oneself in the shoes of another and feel his joy or sorrow, his comfort or pain, and then to act so as to alleviate his sorrow or to appreciate his joy. Empathy allows a man to see the world through the eyes of other men not merely to see his own reflection in their eyes.

We do find in prisons those who keep The Golden Rule – who treat others as they would have others treat them. Men do strive to better themselves, to become aware of what they do not know – and need to know – and to educate themselves accordingly, to form friendships that are not predicated upon survival but upon common interests, to find, as Buber said, their “special place in the cosmos” and “connection with destiny.” We even find men who attain the third category of “living relation,” who transcend the first two stages and establish “a relation to the mystery of being, to the Absolute or God.”

The Sioux Indian did not get into any fights on the bus. He went home to the northern plains to live. After he was out a month he called me to say that he was doing fine. Yeah… yeah… he had met a nice gal and was getting set to move into her trailer. He also got a job delivering building supplies and was saving up to put a down payment on a used pickup truck. But what was really important – what he was calling to tell me – was that he had gone to Wisconsin to see Miracle, the white buffalo heifer. He had actually seen her with his own eyes. Did I know that she was not an albino, an anomaly or some freakish creature – but was a testament to God’s inexplicable power to affect change, cleansing change, black to white change – a merciful and beautiful purity! – like the white lotus flower rising out of the muck!?

I said I knew and understood.

A few months later I heard from him for the second and last time. We talked a little about spiritual matters and I could still hear the wonder in his voice. “You’re doing well,” I said, “I can tell.” Then he casually stated every enlightened man’s credo. “I’m a king. I’ve got a good woman, a clean house, a steady job” and then, as a concession to the exigencies of commerce, a little pride of ownership crept into his voice and he added, “and a pickup truck that only needs paint.” 

Being Resolute

Personal Note

When I first came in contact with Ming Zhen Shakya, our late founder and my teacher, I had read this particular essay written by Ming Zhen. I read it several times and after each reading I said the same thing to myself, “this woman knows something I don’t know.”

It is, in my humble opinion, a brilliant essay on karma…on taking action…decisive action. It is about being resolved and about follow through on being resolved. It is also a prelude to several other essays that will follow this one.

I also want to add that Ming Zhen and I did not always readily agree but we were both willing to stay in the room with whatever was arising until one or the other or both of us saw the Dharma that was at that time our field of interest.

I recommend reading this essay even if you have read it before. It offers us all the wisdom of resolution and the missteps of irresolution. And as already mentioned it is the first essay of more essays on karma. 

I used this image below as a recognition of the high bird from which Ming Zhen lived and still holds influence for those of us who are her heirs in Dharma. Thank you, Ming Zhen, our old Sun.

Om Namo Guru Dev Namo



Part 9: Being Resolute
by Ming Zhen Shakya

(Taken from commentary on the Hagakure: The Book of the Samurai translated by William Scott Wilson)

Perhaps the most deceptively simple verse from the Hagakure is 1:41, quoted fully near the conclusion of the film, Ghost Dog:

“There is something to be learned from a rainstorm. When meeting with a sudden shower, you try not to get wet and run quickly along the road. But doing such things as passing under the eaves of houses, you still get wet. When you are resolved from the beginning, you will not be perplexed, though you still get the same soaking. This understanding extends to everything.”

Ideally, in Samurai or Zen culture, whenever a man has the authority to act and is required to make a decision – not a guess, but a decision – he considers both the positive and the negative consequences of his choice, and, weighing them, decides accordingly. He does his best to secure a good result, but he is not affected by the outcome or by the responses of others. In any case, he stands behind his decision. This is being resolved from the beginning.

Often, even in the simplest affairs of men, a person will take a course which he has not fully considered. Influenced, perhaps, by those who are conflicted by their own self-interests, he makes a choice, sanguine in the expectation of success. When a good result follows, those who influenced him will claim their share of the credit; but when a bad result follows, all the blame will be his, and the others will abandon him. He is confounded in either case. This is the perplexing aspect of irresolution.

How, then, does a man become “resolved from the beginning so as not to be perplexed.”? For the man who has already achieved the egoless state, indomitable resolve is a simple matter. But achieving that necessary selfless state is not so simple. Zen and the martial arts traditionally have been connected because a student in either discipline requires a master’s spiritual and psychological insights to guide him through the difficulties.

When a student begins training, regardless of his age, his new Code of Conduct requires that he develop a self-reliant character – with the specific goal of attaining the egoless state. He learns how to accept responsibility for his decisions and for his reactions to unexpected calamities. When the rain comes, he walks boldly through it, not seeking to mitigate its effects by running through the drops or hiding under eaves. He learns to recognize the true nature of praise and blame and to understand that both are meaningless. Whenever he allows them to have value, in either case, he will get soaked.

The student is taught to be constantly aware of his actions. He may not shift the burden of his errors onto others; but this discipline requires that he understand that it is his own nature that he must struggle against. It is not enough to stand up and admit to error; for what the outer man admits, the inner man may deny. It is in his own inner nature that a man unconsciously shifts the blame for his actions onto others. In his own unconscious mind, using psychological defensive tactics, he shapes that blame into a missile and then projects it into his environment onto some unlucky target. If left unchecked, such tactics will curtail his progress.

Although the Hagakure relates numerous anecdotes in which a leader’s egoless resolve is illustrated, the definitive text on the subject is a film made fifty years ago, Abandon Ship. No film, before or since, has come close to documenting the exigencies of ego-less resolve in leadership. We’ll take a moment to discuss the film because, though long out of circulation, it is still an important work.

Ten years after he gave his transcendent, 1946 portrayal of Larry Darrell in Somerset Maugham’s, The Razor’s Edge, Tyrone Power decided to make, at his own expense, Abandon Ship, a film about a disaster at sea. (The film was cheaply made, proving that throwing money at a project has no relationship whatsoever to the quality of its art. It was shot in black and white and, despite being about a disaster at sea, was filmed entirely in a studio in England.)

In The Razor’s Edge, Power had portrayed a man who sought spiritual liberation, the vaunted egoless state, and found it, finally, in India. Acclaimed for this role, he was disappointed to be cast subsequently in a series of swashbuckling films, popular at the time with movie audiences. Believing that a man of character, under any circumstances, could find within himself this selfless dedication to purpose, Power grasped the opportunity to portray a young lieutenant upon whom command had been suddenly thrust.

Abandon Ship’s reality-based plot details the events of the post WWII sinking of a cruise ship, The Crescent Star, which had carried 1076 passengers.

As the film opens, we see the ominous presence of a derelict mine floating in the Atlantic. It strikes the ship and detonates. There is a chaotic churning of the water, the screams of victims, and then the quiet bobbing of flotsam, a few gasping survivors, and a circling shark. The Crescent Star has required only seven minutes to sink.

Only one small boat, the Captain’s personal ship-to-shore row boat, meant to accommodate no more than nine people, remains to pick up survivors. Twenty-seven people and a large dog have crowded into it or are hanging onto a rope that circles the boat. The excessive weight makes the boat sit impossibly low in the water, and the sea laps over its gunwales.

The Captain, mortally wounded, gives command to young Lieutenant Holmes (played by Tyrone Power) with the order to save as many people as possible. Holmes accepts the command. When a nurse, with whom Holmes has a romantic relationship, confirms the Captain’s death; they lower his body over the side.

Holmes has never before commanded any kind of vessel. Instinctively he tries to reassure the passengers as he assesses the situation. The ship’s radioman is traumatized, and in his confusion gives the impression that he had sent an SOS signal to a ship some two hundred miles away. According to this information, rescue should take no more than seventy-two hours. Aside from floatation collars and life preservers, the little boat contains a pound of biscuits, some sugar and cream, a gallon of water; a flare gun and a small first-aid kit. Holmes orders the supplies to be rationed. He also orders the able-bodied men to take shifts in the water, hanging onto the rope which circles the boat.

Six of the passengers are critically injured. A woman whose upper arm had been badly cut during the explosion, has had a tourniquet placed on it; but no one has thought to loosen it. After remaining tied for three hours, her arm is swollen and in the incipient stages of gangrene. As the nurse tends to her, the radioman regains his composure and reveals that no signal whatsoever had been given. They are fifteen hundred miles and weeks away from the nearest land.

Another critically wounded officer tells Holmes that they are so over-weighted they cannot possibly make landfall. To reach land, they must row, and the boat is too low in the water. He advises Holmes to”evict” some of the passengers who are either feeble or critically injured and unlikely to survive. Holmes rejects the advice. The officer tells him that it is better to save half their lives than it is to lose them all. He stands and tells the others that the weakest of them must be cast adrift for the salvation of the others, and then he leaps overboard. His advice has obviously had no self-serving motive.

When the woman whose arm is now gangrenous wants more water, Holmes refuses, realizing that it is pointless to waste water on someone who is going to die anyway. His refusal is called “outrageous” and”heartless” by the passengers who mostly fail to appreciate the desperate position they are in. They persist in their demand that he”do something!” But having more than two dozen people and a seventy pound dog in a row boat does not give a man many options.

Their situation is made clearer by the presence of the dog. One man who has been in the water begs to be taken aboard in place of the dog. Holmes says no. The passengers object to his refusal; but Holmes is adamant: the man must stay in the water until his shift is over, and the dog will remain on board. One passenger, an officious retired general, demands that he explain such an inhumane decision, and Holmes replies simply, “We’re likely to be at sea for a long time. We can eat the dog.”

An approaching gale forces Holmes to reconsider the “eviction” action. Laden as it is, the little boat cannot withstand the fury of an Atlantic storm. The waves splash into the boat, and it is no longer possible to allow the men in the sea to hang onto the rope since they are dragging the boat even lower.

Aside from the woman with gangrene, a few passengers are sick from having swallowed petroleum or inhaled searing smoke. A few have broken bones. One, the dog’s owner, is too seasick to take his turn in the sea or even to bail. Against everyone’s objections, Holmes orders that they be given the floatation collars and “in God’s hands” to be cast adrift. The passengers call Holmes a cold blooded murderer and try to impose their “civilized” philosophy on him. They remind him that it is the responsibility of the strong to care for the weak. He counters that the extremity of their situation favors the strong who can row, since rowing and keeping the bow pointed into the waves is their only chance to keep from capsizing. No one supports him in this action. Only at gunpoint does the crew obey his order; but in the mutinous confusion, the dog jumps into the water and several able-bodied men fall overboard and are lost.

The gale is quickly worsening and Holmes orders the remaining passengers to row or bail; but one passenger who is armed with a knife, continues to object and irrationally insists that they go back and retrieve all the people in the water, clearly an impossibility. Frantic, he stabs Holmes in the chest. Holmes shoots him and he falls overboard. The boat’s occupancy is now down to fourteen.

Throughout the harrowing night of fierce wind, lightning, and huge waves that break over the boat, Holmes, despite his wound, continues to man the tiller and to direct the actions of the terrified passengers.

In the morning, with the sea calm again, the exhausted passengers are jubilant to see that they’ve all survived. Unanimously they credit Holmes with saving their lives, congratulating him profusely for having the courage and foresight to make his grim but necessary decision.

Of all people, it is the nurse – the woman he loves – who begins to second-guess him. Perhaps they would have made it with the others still aboard, who is to say? Perhaps the storm would have edged past them. Something else could have happened. Holmes says, “But the storm did happen. I did what was right.” She responds, “I don’t know what was right or wrong.” He sees even more clearly how alone a leader is. He also understands that his wound has so weakened him that he has become a liability, and he calmly accepts the same fate that he decreed for the others. He transfers his command to the radio operator and then drops himself overboard. A few passengers jump in after him and pull him back aboard. In another moment an ocean liner is seen on the horizon.

Now that rescue is imminent, the passengers begin to fear that their effusive praise has made them complicit; and one by one they recant their commendations, claiming that from the outset hey had vehemently opposed his action. As to whether or not he was right in doing what he did, that, they hasten to remind him, is for the courts to decide. Holmes has been as abandoned as his ship. When asked if he requires assistance to board the liner, he says, as stoically as a samurai warrior, “I can make it alone.”

A voice-over commentator discloses that once they were safely back in England, Holmes was tried for murder. (He was found guilty but in consideration of the circumstances, given only a six months’ sentence.)

The question of his guilt or innocence, while interesting, is not at issue here. It is his previously untested indomitable and selfless resolve that concerns us. Whether by talent or training, Holmes avoided the psychological traps that often ensnare those who strive to become enlightened.

The first trap that the Zen master or Samurai mentor eliminates is one that other teachers frequently encourage: displacement of aggression. In an unconscious shift, a person who is frustrated by his inability to strike back at an antagonist will release his anger by hitting or kicking a helpless individual, a wall, or punching bag. Instead of using a surrogate victim, the samurai student is taught to acknowledge his own inabilities; to consider the situation from all aspects – including his antagonist’s; to seek to resolve the conflict honorably; and to increase his martial arts’ training in order to meet the next challenge.

The second one is projection. In this trap, the student is guilty of some objectionable behavior… lying, perhaps. Instead of trying to understand why it was that he felt obliged to lie and to set the matter right, he internally and unconsciously shifts his guilt onto his Enemy Shadow archetype (Seventh World of Chan Buddhism – psychology section ). Once there, it is quickly projected onto someone else who is a likely target for the attack. The student, unaware of the dynamics of this shift, feels genuine contempt for the innocent scapegoat. “If there is one thing I can’t stand, it’s a liar.” The teacher, recognizing that all emotional displays indicate one form or another of projection, meets privately with the student and counsels him accordingly.

Rarely does a person comprehend that his contempt manifests unconsciously. In our Zen prison sangha, as we discussed these traps, one of the men suddenly realized why he despised a poor old man who couldn’t work and who was reduced to picking up discarded cigarette butts and smoking them. He called the man “a cockroach.” (It is the Shadow’s function to make a perceived enemy sub-human so that he may be destroyed with impunity. Usually we refer to our enemy as a creature that steals our food or fouls our den… “a rat, a snake, a skunk, a bitch, a roach,” etc. We never refer to him as a panda or a giraffe.) The man in our Zen sangha had been trying unsuccessfully for years to kick the truly dirty habit of chewing tobacco. He immediately understood why he hated the old man and had constantly referred to him in such disparaging terms. He felt so bad about shifting his own guilt onto him that he bought the old man a few packs of cigarettes.

The third mechanism the ego uses to defend itself is one of the most difficult to deal with: Reaction Formation. The mechanics of this trap are well concealed. Freud studied anti-vivisectionists (persons opposed to using animals for medical experimentation or surgical practice) and found that they were uncommonly cruel individuals. This peculiar shift is seen often in anti-abortion demonstrations in which some protesters are so motivated to end abortion in the name of the sacredness of human life that they approve of murdering the doctor and other medical personnel. When a Zen or martial art’s master encounters this kind of exaggerated “conviction” in a student, he generally has long, private talks with him – not the usual “darshan” (interview with the master called dokusan in Japanese) but gentle reflections in which he offers the points of view of the despised persons. The master’s aim is to get the student to see that he, too, shares some of the traits he so vehemently despises. He does not tell him “to use” his anger on the mat.

The fourth trap is regression. In this shift a person who is going through a difficult period in his life reverts to an age in which he was free of such problems. For example, a man who is entering middle-age and cannot face his increasing signs of physical deterioration, may suddenly turn to the martial arts as if he were a young man again. Usually, he harms himself trying to perform the various physical exercises in the dojo. The master recognizes his true motivation and, while welcoming him into the group, assigns him less strenuous exercises until he can gain the required ability. He talks to the man, accentuating the wisdom of maturity and gets him to look at his problems more objectively. He does not encourage him to believe that youth is a quality that can be had by associating with the young.

The fifth trap is repression. In this tactic, the person simply buries a grievous insult or injury so deep in his mind that he forgets it completely. He honestly cannot remember the incident. He may, however, in response to the repression, exhibit great disdain for something he associates with the subject. If, for example, a person had nearly drowned as a child at the beach, he may grow up completely forgetting the incident but being a radical proponent of saving the wetlands and prohibiting ocean-front development. Whenever a student demonstrates strong emotion, the Zen master suspects that he has fallen into a trap. With gentle private talks he can gauge the depth of the pit and try to help the student to extricate himself by remembering that long forgotten injury.

The sixth ego trap is rationalization. In this, the student simply invents a justifying cause for his contemptible behavior. He is open about his actions and may ever exaggerate them, but he excuses them automatically by casting blame upon others. For example, after hitting a child with his car, he may say, “If the kid had been properly supervised, he wouldn’t have been playing in the street ” or, “If John hadn’t called me on my cellphone, I wouldn’t have taken my eyes off the road.” If he has been particularly brutal in a fight, he may claim that he taught his victim a lesson for having insulted his Master or his school, a claim that he invented but nevertheless believes.

The seventh trap is somatization: Guilt and fear easily transform into physical symptoms. The ego finds it easier to deal with a sick body that can quickly gain sympathetic attention than it does to deal with guilt that it prefers to hide. The martial arts’ master soon learns which students frequently attempt to excuse poor performance by claiming illness. If the student is young and believed by his parents, the master is not likely to succeed in counseling him.

The stoicism of the resolute samurai was also well depicted by Forest Whitaker in Ghost Dog. Vowed to protect his master, he would not even defend himself when his master decided to kill him.

A leader must be as one-pointed in his determination to fulfill the duties of his commitments as he is prepared to accept their consequences. In order to do this, he must remain free of emotional projections. It was the belief that his only real enemy was the one he harbored within himself that enabled a samurai to commit Seppuku with such indifferent coldness.

See: Those Who Serve

NOTE: Some of this explanation is dated and perhaps a bit too reductionist. It, however, serves us as a recognition that when we are over-emotional, over-heated, over-wrought we, in a general sense, are working out our inner conflicts and wounds. A teacher is an essential and priceless gem especially before the student reaches the ego-less state.

The key point is to know that the work of Dharma is always with oneself as discussed in the piece Those Who Serve.

AND…the Five Remembrances must be clear, alive recollections that are part of one’s understanding; this essay being about karma.

Om namo guru dev namo

Humming Bird

Exhibitionist Politics by Ming Zhen Shakya, OHY



The More Things Change,

The More They Stay the Same



December 20, 2003


When a dog bites a man, that is not news… but if a man bites a dog, that is news.

                    — John B. Bogart


In mid-November, Norway, frustrated in its attempts to mediate a peaceful solution to the civil strife in Sri Lanka; reluctantly halted its diplomatic mission; and the world was treated to the spectacle of militant Buddhist monks burning a Norwegian flag. That it wasn’t Old Glory going up in flames came as a novel relief to Americans in general; but to us American Buddhists, it came as a small but meaningful vindication of our belief that Buddhists are human beings, after all. They can get angry and they can fight. Ahimsa doesn’t mandate catatonia any more than, in the case of flag-burning, it mandates common sense and decency.


The sight of Buddhist clerics doing something as contentious as destroying Norway’s flag was considered so unusual that it warranted world wide news coverage. This misses the point that it was, in fact, unusual. The Associated Press photographer who took the picture could likely have gone the length and breath of Sri Lanka and not found another instance of flag desecration.


The same type of disproportionate attention is given to the pronouncements of people who are famous for things other than their political insights or who are otherwise newsworthy by virtue of some momentary exhibitionistic act. These self-proclaimed arbiters of national policy have always been troublesome to a majority of people who do not share their views.


Lanka is a name dear to Buddhists. It is said that on this island off the southeast coast of India, The Buddha once delivered a beautiful sermon, “On Entering Lanka” (Lankavatara).


In the days of European imperialism, the three separate nations into which the island was divided were combined into one, called Ceylon. It was never a happy grouping. In the north, the people were Hindu Tamil, members of an Indian religious sect whose principal deity is Skanda, the son of Shiva. Skanda is a charismatic war god; and his militant followers, the Tamil Tigers, keep that inspirational source ever in mind.


The greater part of the island, however, is Buddhist – Sinhalese and Theravadin in nature. Their counterpart to the Tigers is the National Bhikku Front.


An admittedly oversimplified account of the conflict is that the Tamils want independence and the Buddhists want Union and majority rule; and in these causes there has been considerable violence.


Some of the POW’s of Hell Fire Pass. Prisoners would work 16 to 22 hours in straight shifts. When they fell down they would seldom get up because they would be kicked to death. Many prisoners were tortured for the smallest offenses. The Japanese commander’s motto was “if you work hard you will be treated well, but if you do not work hard you will be punished.” Punishments included savage beatings, being made to kneel on sharp sticks while holding a boulder for one to three hours at a time and being tied to a tree with barbed wire and left there for two to three days without any food or water. Photo courtesy of Bruce Langslow at HellFirePass.com.


It came as a curious coincidence that in the very same days that Norway abandoned its attempt to broker an end to the civil war, Public Television showed a documentary about the hundred thousand Allied Prisoners Of War – British, Australian, Dutch, American and Asian – whom the Japanese starved, tortured and worked to death building a Thai-Burmese railroad and its infamous bridge over the River Kwai; while a switch of TV channels revealed network news coverage of a hundred thousand people massed in London apparently to vent their hatred of the United States. The protesters had prevented the Queen from riding with the President and Mrs. Bush in her golden ceremonial carriage – an honor, the news media showed – she had been able to extend to the Emperor of Japan who had overseen those atrocities in Thailand. We saw old footage of the crowds who happily cheered Hirohito and live coverage of people who called George Bush a murderer and carried an effigy of him posed in the familiar likeness of Saddam Hussein’s Baghdad statue.

The subject came up at my prison sangha. How could anybody make sense of this baffling series of coincidences. I didn’t see much that needed explanation beyond the media’s quest for things controversial and the usual defense mechanisms we see around us every day.



Anti-war demonstrators in London’s Trafalgar Square on Nov. 20th, 2003 parading with a statue of a fallen President Bush, likening him to Saddam Hussein in the famous photos of American troups toppling his statue in Bagdhad during the war. Photo courtesy of CrimeLynx.





An event, to be newsworthy, has to be startling, something we can all talk about in check-out lines or around water coolers. If an ordinary dog bites an ordinary man, nobody cares. That’s a commonplace occurrence to us, if not to the man or dog involved. But if a man bites a dog? Ah… it may not warrant a 5-inch banner, but the media will cover it.

The defense mechanism that drives a man to “bite a dog” takes a bit more in the way of explanation.

There are definite reasons why the emotion displayed by a crowd of demonstrators seems always to be greater than the sum of its parts. People, with opposition that varies in both kind and in degree, may assemble to protest, but the people we notice are the most vociferous or visually outrageous. Many people on those London Streets were not voicing hatred of anybody. They were there to register their considered opposition to a foreign policy with which they obviously disagreed. These citizens constitute the loyal opposition, vital to democratic governance. Had they been the only ones demonstrating, the Queen would have taken the President and Mrs. Bush for a ride in her golden carriage.


Reasoned protest is interested in making its reasons known. It states its point of view, perhaps its fears about the consequences of the present course, or its support for those who, it believes, have been unjustly treated; but whatever its reasons, politicians are wise to take note.


But many of the protesters in London displayed excessive emotions, some absurdly so, that in no way could have been construed as reasoned opposition, a fact noted by the men in the prison sangha and also by a few law abiding citizens who contacted me. How did it happen that the Queen could honor Hirohito, Adolph Hitler’s greatest ally, and be prohibited from extending the same honor to the President of the United States, then, as now, England’s greatest ally?


Sometimes, the answer is – to use the analogy of believing a coiled rope to be a coiled snake, (the ancient model of mistaking the false for the real) – that when we see what appears to be violent opposition, we are not seeing opposition at all.


Particularly in the religious life, we learn to suspect that public shouts are made to muffle private whispers, indications that an ego-protecting defense mechanism has been activated:


A vehement denunciation of a “shameful evil” frequently compensates a hidden inclination to indulge in that very evil, the classic Freudian “reaction formation.”


A vitriolic attack upon the character of an authority figure is often a displaced criticism, one which the individual is impotent to direct against his true antagonist.


Juvenile acts of mischief or wildly dramatized claims and charges usually signal regression, a reversion to a former, more carefree lifestyle. (We see the same type of regression in a “mid-life crisis” when the inability to deal with the demands of maturity drive a man to buy a sports car and frequent singles’ bars.)


An assortment of unsavory charges can unconsciously be projected onto another individual in order to avoid the pain of accepting responsibility for having had similar desires or having done similar deeds.


The common denominator of all of these mechanisms is publicity. It almost seems as if the fact of being unaware of having shifted guilt onto a surrogate requires a man to broadcast the result; and the more outspoken his statement, the more convincing it is to him that no such shift has occurred. The one who has shifted the guilt becomes exactly as innocent in his own mind as the one upon whom he has shifted it becomes guilty.


And so we find among those who peacefully assemble to march and demonstrate opposition, a peculiar fringe group that needs instead to pose for willing cameras to show off bizarre costumes, signs, and props, and then, to insure greater coverage, to provoke the police by rioting in the streets.


We are not speaking here of hypocrites, the charlatans and con-men. They know who they are and it remains for us merely to recognize them. The people we have to fear are those whose guilt is so buried in their psyche they could pass a polygraph – the ones who seduce us into helping them to gain that required publicity, who seem at first to share our concerns, but who unconsciously fulfill another agenda, one that propels them into outrageous behavior.


Whenever we lend our names to a cause we need to be prepared to encounter this element.


In the early days of my ministry, I was asked to attend a meeting “to form an advisory council” that would protect the interests of “women in jeopardy.” The invitation specified that the purpose was to influence municipal spending priorities. Without proper guidance the city fathers would succumb to special interest lobbyists – and naturally we responsible folks had to champion the needs of homeless women and children and, of course, the battered women’s shelter. Without sufficient prodding, city money would surely be spent on fountains and shrubbery. Not being against beautification projects; but being definitely for assisting battered women and homeless kids, I agreed to attend the organizational meeting.


The group convened in a private home. I signed in and took a seat in the living room and chatted while the room filled up, some two dozen women being finally present. At the gavel, the chairperson stood and announced, “Ladies, there are lives at stake!” I nodded in affirmation and then sat back in disbelief when she announced that the lives that were in jeopardy were the personnel of an abortion clinic. Police protection for the clinic was the priority item. Her voice began to rise in a seductive cadence. It had been discovered that an employee (whom she did not name) of the clinic was actually a “Pro-lifer!” – but this was more than a variation of industrial espionage. The Pro-Lifer had gained access to the clinic files; and she would no doubt give names and addresses to her confederates. Patients, doctors and nurses would be harassed and possibly even harmed. On and on she ranted about this Pro-Lifer’s deceit.


A “Pro-choice” manifesto was passed around and I noticed that my name was already printed on it. Aside from a general statement in support of “women at risk” there was no mention of assisting homeless women and children or a shelter for battered women. It was all about police protection and criminal prosecution of employees who gained access to confidential files through misrepresentation of their credentials or sympathies. Whether I agreed with this goal or not was beside the point. This was not one of those meetings that had been initiated with one goal in mind and then, as sometimes happens, had gone into a related but tangential direction. From the outset, this was the sole purpose of the meeting, and I had been deliberately deceived into attending it. As I read the document, astonished to see my name among the signatories, I heard several of the women plan a protest march and additionally to institute a campaign of harassment against the suspect employee. Telephone calls could be made through the night, products ordered and delivered to her house; trash cans overturned, and if she had a dog, a left-open gate would let it run loose. I told them to take my name off the letter and said simply that if they didn’t remove it, I’d get a lawyer. As I walked to my car, I saw several women also leave the meeting.


I never heard anything more about the group. Their protest march was overshadowed by another incident: a police officer had refused an order to restrict certain protest activity on grounds that it conflicted with his religious principles. He believed that it was his duty to protect the innocent – and that, according to his conscience, included unborn children. The town was considering the pros and cons of disciplining him when it was revealed that he was considerably in arrears in his child support payments. This revelation left the Pro-Life group in disarray and then public interest moved on to other matters.


If, in fact, there had been a spy in the abortion clinic and that person was responsible for harassment or harm to patients and clinic personnel, I hoped she’d be held responsible; but as I saw it, deceit is deceit as terrorism is terrorism. Tormenting someone with 2 AM phone calls and planting a bomb on a plane are acts that are different only in degree. They are not different in kind.


We have entered a new age of media-conscious terrorism . A hate-filled fanatic can command a passenger plane to be turned into a missile and in doing so can commandeer the world’s television screens. And the danger here is that in this larger-than-life presentation of himself, he can forge archetypal connections to the emotionally unstable. He is powerful; and his strength supports their fragile egos and redeems them. His cause becomes the target upon which they can unconsciously plot the trajectories of their own psychological weapons. The more they discharge, the more emptied of hate their arsenal appears. Though they have been wretchedly helpless to deal with their own enfeebling guilt, in this catharsis their strength returns; and it does not matter at all that they have misdirected their anger, it is enough that they are relieved of its burden.


We don’t know how Norwegians felt about seeing their flag being burned by Buddhist monks; or how the sincere demonstrators in London felt about a few protesters whose excessive actions converted the right of political expression into a threat upon the lives of the Queen and the President. To us, watching on TV, it seemed strange that all the violence and hatred that were so graphically demonstrated in support of Saddam Hussein’s regime were done in the name of an appeasing peace.

Humming Bird

Author: Ming Zhen Shakya

ZATMA is not a blog.

 If for some reason you need elucidation on the teaching,

please contact editor at: yao.xiang.editor@gmail.com

Violating Trust by Ming Zhen Shakya


The personality disorder that is now called “passive aggression” used to be called “deviling.”


I like the term deviling better. It more accurately describes this peculiarly insidious way one individual strives to harm another. It also allows for an erupting, active component of attack. Not all passive aggression remains passive.
That deviling is a furtive, dual invocation of the shadow’s enmity and the persona’s pride comes as no surprise to us. The devilor, with his sleek self-image and his crippled rage, is too vain to allow himself to be charged publicly with jealousy and hate, yet he is so filled with such base emotions that his thin skin is stretched to capacity.


What to do? What to do? He cannot – like the rest of us – explode like an overfilled balloon in a fit of temper. No, he must quietly open the measured valve of spite, carefully releasing his pressured malice. The devilee will not hear the faint hiss.


What often does surprise us is the range of victims of such covert attacks. People will devil their own children, spouses, parents, co-workers and neighbors. They will also devil their confidantes – priests or psychiatrists – people to whom they have appealed for help.


Unlike overt hostility that announces itself from the moment the person feels aggrieved, passive aggression proceeds in stealth, always prepared, in the event it is detected, with an excuse that seems reasonable or an apology that seems spontaneously genuine. When the aggression ceases to be passive and identity and intention are revealed, the devilor concocts a benign motive, claiming that he was forced to act in the cause of some great communal good.


Deviling is not a fist. It is a poison pen letter or a thousand petty acts which range from stealing a piece of a picture puzzle that someone is working on, to losing messages or misdirecting mail, to making “slips of the tongue” in which confidential information is “inadvertently” disclosed, to turning off a clock’s alarm so that someone oversleeps, to hiding someone’s eyeglasses or keys – and my favorite from years ago before the age of transistors – to a neighbor who secretly removed a little tube from the back of the TV set each workday morning so that his wife couldn’t watch television in his absence. He led her to believe that she was too stupid to operate the set properly. (In those days there were many picture adjustments to make.)


But the singlemost terrible element of the act of deviling is not the strategy or the tactics, it is the ready acceptance of collateral damage. Deviling is not a surgical strike that confines injury to a specified target.


Let us say, for example, that a man buys tickets to take his wife and children to a show; and his aunt, who lives in his home, feels that she, too, should have been included in the party. She may secretly chafe so much that she spitefully destroys the tickets. It gratifies her to see the family prepare for an event that will not occur; and on the appointed evening, when the man discovers that the tickets are not where he put them, she may affect alarm and make a grand gesture of helping to search for them. The family is distraught. Her grievance was with the man – not with his wife and children; but their disappointment is irrelevant to her. She may even reason that since he values their happiness and is distressed to see them so upset, this collateral grief is actually a bonus.


And even more than this, if it should have happened that the man’s son showed those tickets to a friend, suspicion will fall upon the son for he will have been “the last person to have seen” the victimed tickets. The boy is virtually indicted. We may logically know that the last person to have seen the tickets was the person who destroyed them; but what protest of innocence from the boy can remove the presumption of guilt that clings to him? He is blamed. And his misery is of no consequence to the aunt. When is the last time we heard of a trial being interrupted by someone who steps forward to confess to the crime because he cannot bear to subject an innocent man to further ordeal?


Two kinds of deviling are of special interest to pastors and counselors: one is practiced by a person who is psychologically predisposed to assert moral or intellectual superiority over others but who, unfortunately, is as bereft of ideas as he is of integrity. He is not unintelligent, but he is sorely handicapped by a lack of imagination and courage and by the additional burdens of envy and contempt. Thus encumbered, he dare not try to establish his own sangha or write his own articles, which would unnecessarily expose him to peer review. He therefore resorts to reconnoitering various groups until he finds a likely staging area for his show of superiority. Beyond accessibility, a group requires no other qualification.


In a sangha setting, he initiates the relationship with great enthusiasm, hailing the group’s written works as nothing short of revelatory, engaging priests in spirited discussions, ingratiating himself with offerings and with praise. Carefully he elicits personal opinions about various aspects of the Dharma. Daily he sighs with enormous relief that he has finally found clerics he can unreservedly appreciate.


And then, overnight it seems, from out of this foundational relief, a superstructure of unassailable rectitude rises. From atop it, he discerns the iniquities and inadequacies the sangha has tried so cleverly to conceal. As if broadcasting a public-service message, he accuses and condemns; and the sangha members learn that the joy he once expressed at having encountered them was not occasioned by compatibility but by his having found a few more fakes to expose.


Often the quack complaints are ludicrous. I once received a curt email from a woman who, inflated perhaps with the notion that she was a reincarnation of Torquemada, accused me of heresy. Heresy? Zen has no universally accepted dogma and tenets, no single governing scripture, no Vatican-like council or Pope that sits in judgment of doctrinal variance. Further, Buddhist scripture sanctions a complete array of approaches to the divine – from the conservative, ‘right-hand’ or solo (single cultivation) path which we follow, to the ‘left-hand’ sexually engaged and explicit (dual-cultivation) path of the esoteric groups. There is virtually nothing under the sun that can be described as heretical within Buddhism’s myriad schools. Members of one sangha are free to disapprove of the paths of others, but not with the intention of charging them with heresy, unless, of course, they are trying to be funny.


There are other forms of stealth. We hear of priests who, soon after taking formal vows of celibacy, decide to take a “principled” stand against this requirement and publicly criticize their religion’s hierarchy for persisting in such absurdly medieval practices. They seek “modernization” and “relevance in contemporary society.” When, we wonder, did these priests first discover that they were members of a religion whose priesthood was celibate? Surely it was after they were invested with the dignity of office. Throughout congenial years in seminary or monastery, they voiced no opposition to the rule and pretended a readiness to conform their lives to it. Because they have been so patient in their manipulative strategy, these ‘reformers’ suppose that no one will notice the ploy, that no one will ever suspect them of being opportunistic and duplicitous. Naturally, they see themselves as heroic.



In everyday society deviling individuals may suddenly appear as “made-to-order” friends, persons we meet who share so many of our interests, whose generosity exceeds our own, whose intelligence and refinement both comfort and inspire us. Once we open ourselves to them, they strike; and we recoil, feeling the sting of their betrayal, painfully aware that we were much too easily deceived. In a religious setting, we know these persons did not have a corrective epiphany.


They are as they were from the beginning: people who crave attention, who need to dominate, who enjoy inflicting pain, who stalk their prey at night but by day are careful to appear indolent. The pity is that this peculiar flaw in character, like a cracked windshield, does not submit to correction. It is always there, distorting their worldview.


The second kind of deviling is practiced by a person who comes to a cleric asking for help. Often he will say that he is seeking guidance but in truth he is seeking authorization to do what he is already doing or intends to do. Although a cleric may not openly speak about conversations with him, he is not similarly constrained. He is free to twist statements out of context – an innocent remark being deliberately misunderstood so as to give license to an unlawful or unethical action. A nod of commiseration gains the force of imprimatur, becoming an official endorsement of the validity of his opinions. A figurative remark takes on literal construction, a metaphor is concretized in fact. Before the cleric knows it he has endorsed euthanasia, divorce, adultery, and putting elderly parents in nursing homes.


A more serious problem may arise with a person who approaches a cleric in genuine distress. Conveying the details of personal calamity, he commands much attention during the weeks or months his life is so unsettled; but then, when finally he is restored to stability, he feels compelled to make adjustments to the historical landscape. He now sees himself as a granite monolith – not as the conglomerate rubble revealed in all those conversational bits and pieces. He regrets having imparted such intimate knowledge of himself, of having confessed his guilt or disclosed his vulnerability.


Fearing this detailed information – this cache of weapons stored in the cleric’s armory – which may one day be used against him, he launches a pre-emptive strike. The attack comes out of nowhere. At about the same time the cleric is feeling good about having led a person through some very rocky terrain, he learns that he’s been branded a meddling gossiper, intrusive and shameless in his need to slander innocent parishioners. The cleric is not a shepherd – he is a sheep that requires guidance. And his once desperate parishioner must warn the world of his pastoral imposture.
It is as if someone whose heart had stopped beating were to file assault charges against the bystander who, using standard resuscitation techniques, had thumped upon his chest – with such obvious but lamentable success. The bystander cannot deny that he pounded on the fellow’s chest. The worrisome thing is that any still photograph of the encounter might be interpreted as evidence of the charge.


The cleric recovers. He or she is usually too busy with sincere persons to linger in regret. But for the person who cannot resist the need to be duplicitous, to harm in payment for help, there may be an unforeseen consequence; for a counselor, once compromised by such a breach of trust, can never again be of use to him.


Years ago I had a student who claimed he was a struggling writer and needed Zen to help him through his stressful times. He had heard that I recommended yoga as part of a spiritual regimen and asked for some basic yoga instructions.


We discussed various books – there were not then many on the market – and I showed him my favorite one – an old, out of print book that was particularly rich in yogic lore. I gave him a printed hand-out, the directions for a dozen asanas, but he returned the following week saying that when he tried to focus on a posture, too many questions scattered his thoughts. He needed more detail, specifically the kind of information that was contained in my favorite book. He pleaded with me to borrow it, pledging that he would return it the following week. I lent him the book; but the next week he said that he was still studying it at home. When I saw him again weeks later I immediately asked for the book; but he affected surprise, saying that he had already returned it. Dramatically he showed me precisely where he had placed it on the sofa; but I knew that he had not returned the book. I never saw him again.


Months later I did see a new paperback book on yoga. He was listed as the author. I was incredulous. I looked through the book and in various places read uncomfortably familiar passages. I wondered what I would say to him if he ever contacted me again. A few years later, from hundreds of miles away, he emailed me asking for advice about a serious marital problem he claimed he was having. I was polite but fearing that my response was intended to furnish textual material for another book, I could give only standard platitudes about marital obligations.


Email, too, presents extraordinary opportunities for mischief. Computer scientists are understandably proud of their ability to trace a document to its source and to authenticate it. They have devised sophisticated security systems. They encrypt. They decode. They follow subtle electronic trails that to them are as obvious as footprints in fresh snow. The technical complexities of such protection are astonishing – something the Louvre or Fort Knox would appreciate.
But the average man does not fear the loss of DaVinci’s Mona Lisa that may or may not be hanging in his living room.


The average man is not concerned about the gold bouillon that may or may not be stored in his basement. He fears the pickpocket on the street or the waiter who improperly adds a check to give himself an extra twenty dollars. And so it is with email – the Feds may be prompted to act in matters of espionage or child pornography, but they are unlikely to show up to trace the source of an email that purports to contain someone’s allegation that his neighbor poisons cats. The deviling “pickpocket” version of this computer crime may involve no more than the printing of two emails, one from one person and one from another, and then affixing the top of one to the body of another and photocopying the composite. To the unaided or non-scientific eye the resulting document appears authentic.


The person who accomplishes this low-tech feat can make any correspondent appear to have written anything. For his victim, proving otherwise is a prohibitively expensive matter especially if he may not become aware of the forgery until months later. A sanctimonious third-party guarantee of authenticity – of having reproduced correspondence between others exactly as it was transmitted to him – is usually a devilor’s warranty.


When the problem is not authenticity, it may be even more pernicious, involving a kind of entrapment, a duplicity that allows one person to shape communication between himself and his victim so that it fills a predetermined form. It is as if one person is secretly taping a conversation between himself and another unsuspecting person, a person whose disposition he well knows. He scripts a dialogue and cleverly induces his respondent to recite the needed words. He disguises leading questions and bends responses so that they seem to follow the torsions of his plot.


The effects of devilment are always sad. We look at the person who has gone to so much trouble to inflict an injury and say of him what we often say of a con-man: “If only he had put that much effort into honest work, he would have made a fortune.” But we understand that it is not merely the need for money that motivates the con man. It is something else – that secret satisfaction of tricking others, of making them suffer, of imputing to them some guilt or despised stupidity that not only absolves him of blame but lauds him for giving them the fate that they deserved.


For as long as Buddhism has existed, these troublesome people have caused problems within a sangha or wherever else they go. The Buddha clearly recognized them and anyone who has to withstand their assaults can find comfort in his acknowledgments.


From the Dammapada Canto XXI: 291:
He who desires happiness for himself by inflicting injury on others, is not freed from hatred, being entangled himself in the bonds of hatred.


From Canto V: 73, 74:
Unwise is the monk who desires undue adoration from others, lordship over other monks, authority among the monastic dwellings and homage even from outside groups. Moreover, he thinks, “May both laymen and monks highly esteem my action! May they be subject to me in all actions, great or small.” Such is the grasping desire of a worldly monk whose haughtiness and conceit ever increase.


What do we do, then, when we fear that we’re the victim of deviling? First we need to scrutinize our own psyche, searching for those feelings of inadequacy that made us vulnerable to flattery, to needing to be needed beyond some prudent limit. Likewise we reflect upon our own speech: were we too effusive in our praise, too incautious in our remarks? Do we need to be more disciplined in our expressions, avoiding ambiguity and extravagant metaphor? And we must also wonder whether a fear of positional instability has inclined us to cleave so strongly to anyone who seems to offer support.


We do not want to retreat from friendship or, when asked for help or advice, to be inhibited from giving it. Ultimately, we know that we cannot help others who are in peril without exposing ourselves to danger. We, too, have to make up our mind to take critical heat or to get out of the Dharma kitchen.


We ought not to participate in devilment by tolerating it. We should not silently acquiesce to accusation or savor as fact any tidbit because it is deliciously prurient.


And when we find a devilor in our midst, what should we do? Do we assume that his flaw in character will admit to no remedy? Perhaps it will – but only if he repents of his actions. But there we have the stymied qualification. It requires courage to confess, and a devilor, by definition, is a coward. What is needed to change him is a divine act of Grace.


Sometimes our best course is to pray for this even as we turn away from him and from his acts.
Not even the Buddha held out much hope for engineering a better plan:


According to Canto IX: 123.
As a merchant who has limited escort, yet carries much wealth, avoids a perilous road, as a man who is desirous of living long avoids poison, so in the same way should the wise shun evil.

Humming Bird

Author: Ming Zhen Shakya

Image credits: Fly, 2020

ZATMA is not a blog.

 If for some reason you need elucidation on the teaching,

please contact editor at: yao.xiang.editor@gmail.com

A Religion Called Zen Buddhism by Ming Zhen Shakya

Welcome to this wonderful, iconic essay of our late teacher Ming Zhen Shakya. Many may know this article was published on the Chinese Buddhist website here.

Also, for those who do know of Hank Hill please go here.

This posting is an edited version of the original which is on the Chinese Buddhist website.


Hank Hill, television’s Man For All Seasons, is a man of honor and as such does not gossip; and this is why his wife Peggy – who frequently pushes “clueless” into negative numbers, fell victim to that species of Urban Legend we often call, “Accrediting the false through familiarity” or something like that.

Everybody in Hank’s neighborhood knows that Dale Gribble is being cuckolded – everybody but Peggy and, of course, Dale.  Usually it is difficult to condone adultery but Dale manages to lend a certain facility to the task.  Chain-smoking and paranoid, skinny and with the sexual allure of a tangled bunch of coat hangers, Dale helps onlookers to regard with sympathetic acceptance his wife Nancy’s “medical needs” – Nancy regularly is seized by migraine headaches that seem only to relax their grip when she receives the curing touch of a handsome Amerindian Faith Healer, John Redcorn.  Dale, as generous as he is obtuse, is actually grateful to John for attending to Nancy’s needs.

And Peggy?  She sees nothing peculiar in the Indian’s frequent house calls even when they are concluded by rapid window exits.  Imagine her surprise, then, when she accidently discovers Nancy and John, en flagrante delicto.  Uh oh, trouble in Arlen, Texas.  Peggy, stunned, hastens to another neighbor, Minh, and breathlessly announces, “Nancy is having an affair!”  Minh is incredulous.  “Oh my God!” she responds, “Nancy is cheating on John Redcorn?”

Thematically, this is one of the oldest urban legends in circulation:  it arouse in the era before electronic identification of bank checks.  Signatures used to be examined for authenticity by clerks, and the story was that an embezzling bookkeeper had so often forged the signature of the usually absent business owner that when the owner actually came back and presented a check for cashing, the teller deemed it a forgery – it bore so little resemblance to the signature he was used to seeing.

And this is rather a long way around to get to the point of this complaint:  Zen Buddhism and Meditation are a married couple; and the guest who comes to their house is Health Benefit.

But in recent years Health Benefit and Meditation are so often found en flagrante delicto that Zen Buddhism begins to look like a superfluous but otherwise enabling motel desk clerk, one that provides a setting for the assignation.

Buddhist priests and other members of Eastern religions are rigorously prodded, poked, and tested as if they were abductees on an alien spaceship.  The report that follows the examination, however, doesn’t appear in UFO digests; it is published as a feature story in the health section of a news magazine or an in-depth analysis in Lancet.  What about insomnia?  High blood pressure?  Curing cancer?  How does Japanese Green tea, a Zen staple, affect the immune system?  Psychologists view Zen meditation from a more social aspect.  Anger management?  A less judgmental personality?  The merits of Zen Buddhist meditation are rated in a kind of Consumer Report’s lab evaluation.  How does it stack up against other mind control techniques?  If the name “Buddha” were not found in the name of our religion, we’d have no religious identification whatsoever.

Buddhist congregations are photographed as if they were sitting at biofeedback or EEG machines – and sometimes they actually are.  Those who study the pictures assume that the subjects have gathered to get control of bad habits or hypertension.  The Zen Buddhists that we know – the faithful who work hard to gain salvation and weep with joy when they reach it or who bow daily in gratitude to the Merciful Guan Yen – may reverently whisper, “Buddham saranam gacchami” but to the outside world they’re saying, “Look Ma! No Prozac!”

Buddhism is an ancient religion which has eight separate disciplinary steps that comprise a single Eightfold Path.  The Eighth of these disciplines, Right Meditation, is a collection of introspective techniques used for achieving higher states of consciousness, which, together with the other seven disciplines, leads to spiritual liberation.

All religions offer introspective techniques for achieving spiritual ascendance.  And if it should happen that these techniques provide additional benefits such as calmness, grater immunity to disease, or lower blood pressure, that’s fine.  But this is not why they are performed.

And when Buddhists lead themselves to the study of meditation’s benefits, that’s ok, too.  They are contributing to the common good and no conscientious Buddhist would refuse to share the benefit of his discipline.  But when the medical uses of the discipline suddenly take precedence in the public’s regard and Buddhism becomes not so much a religion as a therapeutic regimen – or worse, as merely the source of a therapeutic regimen, we’ve got a problem.

We don’t demand respect.  We don’t even ask for it.  But surely we have a right to object when our religion is stacked on the same supermarket shelves as non-religious health aids, and treated with glib, left-handed compliments and amused contempt as it is by Joel Stein in an article in Time Magazine. (Just Say OM, August 4, 2003)

First, the Sanskrit word for meditation is Dhyana which is roughly pronounced as Jana, a term which the Chinese reproduce as Jan or Chan and the Japanese as Zen.  Chan (or Zen) is also the specific name of one kind of Buddhism that was founded in China in AD 520 and which, since its inception has emphasized the practice of meditation in any of its many forms.  But for so long as the Buddha was Indian, our religion is an Indian, “eastern” religion.

Just say Om,” leads off Mr. Stein, “Scientists study it.  Doctors recommend it.  Millions of Americans – many of whom don’t even own crystals…” Excuse me?

Om is a sacred syllable to those who follow Indian Paths to salvation.  A very sacred syllable…but one that Mr. Stein will later call “creepy” because it is foreign.  How does he feel about “Kyrie Eleison”?

Let’s take a look at Time’s presentation.  Mr. Stein begins with a cute contradiction:  He’s sitting in a yoga studio with forty people, most of whom are pretty women, and he considers it an accomplishment that he is “not thinking about them.”  But in the next sentence he says that once he gets beyond thinking about the pain in his foot, he also lets his “thoughts of the hot women go.”

“Yoga,” means union and the specific union it means is with God.  And, indeed in the midst of this sexual challenge, something fuzzy happens to Mr. Stein.  He has, “this epiphany” which is, “I could be watching television.”

We may never understand why Time Magazine published an article that contained such mocking references to Buddhism and to other eastern religions that emphasize the practice of meditation.  Much respect is accorded those businesses that offer classes in meditation or that study meditators as if they were creatures in a petri dish.  Perhaps Mr. Stein is doing some extra public relations work for those authors who have written secular books on meditation he so nicely advertises.  Time needs to investigate to determine if a conflict of interest has compromised its journalistic integrity.

We can’t speak for the other religions, but Zen Buddhists are not clownish freaks or flakes whose activities warrant their being subjected to this kind of sleazy reporting.  Zen Buddhists were the first American religious group to volunteer to care for AIDS patients – when other religious groups were sneering “Gay Plague.”  Every day Zen Buddhists work without pay in hospices and soup kitchens and prisons.  Everyday people consult Zen websites and receive without any fee whatsoever Buddhist guidance and literature; and, in our Internet ministry at least, people receive Buddhist Precepts and sangha membership at absolutely no cost to anyone except the priests of our Order who personally bear all of the expenses associated with our ministry.

Mr. Stein’s comments are disturbing. “As meditation is demystified and mainstreamed, the methods have become more streamlined.  There’s less incense burning today, but there remains a nugget of Buddhist philosophy:  the belief that sitting in silence for 10 minutes to 40 minutes a day and actively concentrating on a breath or word or an image, you can train yourself to focus on the present over the past and future, transcending reality by fully accepting it.  In its most modern, Americanized forms, it has dropped the creepy mantra bit that has you memorize a sacred phrase or syllable; instead you focus on a sound or on your breathing.”

“Demystified”?  Uh oh…Meditation is divorcing Zen Buddhism.

“Dropping the creepy mantra bit”?  This certainly simplifies Zen training.  Who needs sacred words in the “Do it yourself” Health Benefit business?

“A nugget of Buddhist philosophy remains”?  And that philosophical nugget is not found in Buddhist ethics but in a scientific estimate of Buddhism’s philosophy – to “transcend reality by fully accepting it?”  Gee.  Why didn’t we think of that?  And, since other religions practice similar forms of meditation, what nugget of Judaic philosophy remains after Mr. Stein dispenses with the dross?  What nugget of Christian philosophy remains?

Perhaps the editors of Time Magazine would kindly reread those insulting, misleading, and inaccurate comments and explain to us “American” Buddhists why they chose someone like Joel Stein to write about religion.  Calling an article The Science of Meditation and putting it in the Health Section ought to have limited the references to religion.  Instead, while the piece provided scientific information about meditation, its slant was clearly directed against traditional religious practices and in favor of secular, business-oriented groups and authors.

So here we are, after having furnished the bodies, setting and lore for all that scientific data, advised by Mr. Stein and others of his ilk to dump our religious pretensions.  We are just another health benefit group and we might as well accept our lowered status gracefully or risk further derision in Time Magazine.

Hank Hill, a Man For All Seasons, would doubtless be fair in his appraisal of Time’s article.  And in judgment of Joel Stein’s flippant comments, Hank Hill would undoubtedly conclude, “He needs his ass kicked.”

And so he does, Mr. Hill.  And so he does.



Humming Bird
Author: Ming Zhen Shakya

If for some reason you need elucidation on the teaching,

please contact the editor at: yao.xiang.editor@gmail.com







It seems fitting that during the week the President of the United States was impeached by the House of representatives, that we return to Ming Zhen’s essay on The Habit of Seeking Truth. A few read throughs might enliven you to several periods of self-examination on what your personal duty is right in the middle of the life you live. It’s my hope, anyway. Enjoy!





People who write homilies and other spiritual tracts have a wish list:

We’d like a license to skew our grammatical constructions to allow for amphiboly. Ah… to be as oracularly correct as Delphi.

Think of it: A Greek general, contemplating war against the Persians, asks, “Which side will win?” Quoth the Oracle: “Apollo says, ‘The Greeks the Persians shall subdue.'”

It’s the sort of advice the CIA usually gives. That’s why they’re never wrong.


Also on that wish list there’d be a safety net that would catch us before we went into self-contradictory free fall – as when we rhapsodize about a spiritual experience, claiming that it is absolutely ineffable, and then plunge into the murky depths of pages trying to describe it.


We’d also like to call something ‘utterly unambiguous’ and be able to describe it in the photographic flash that that description suggests.

It would be wonderful to wish into existence a writer’s right never to be wrong and always to be succinct and clear.

Sometimes an essay is like putting a message in a bottle and casting it adrift. We’re never quite sure if, or when, or where it will be read and what effect it will have upon the reader.


I was sitting in a bordertown cantina, doing what folks generally do in a bordertown cantina, when I was approached by an off-duty Mexican motorcycle cop. He was young, handsome, fluent in English, and pleasant; and if this were not enough to induce conversation with him (and it certainly should have been) he regularly read our webpages. He had a question for me regarding the Lex Talionis essay: he wanted to know how to qualify and quantify desire. “If desire is so integral to the process of like-retaliation,” he asked, “what happens when we do the right thing for all the wrong reasons?”

Good question. I tried to look knowledgeable, wanting to say something oracular, like: “The Buddha says, ‘Desire must a man destroy.'” For, oddly enough, amphiboly provides the means for ruthless self-examination. The I Ching works so well because it is precisely so ambiguous. I could maybe let this police officer read into the answer the solution he was seeking. Stalling for time, I asked him to give me an instance of the problem. What specific experience had made him ask the question?

It seems that while he was on crowd-control duty outside a stadium, stationed there with several other police officers, four American tourists exited the stadium. One of them, a woman, was carrying a camera. Another, a man, had signaled a cab and called to the others to hurry and get into it. The woman asked him if he spoke English and when he said that he did, she asked if he would be kind enough to take the camera to the lost and found. She gave him the number of the seat under which she had found the camera and also a general description of the man who had been sitting in the seat. And then she hurriedly left.

The camera, he said, was a Hasselblad… and it was in mint condition. Immediately one of the other officers whistled enviously at his good fortune. Heaven had opened, and a very valuable camera had fallen into his lap. He was an amateur photographer. This was a crisis in faith.

He said that a variety of thoughts crowded into his head at that moment. “First, we have a saying, ‘For every peso another officer lets you get away with, he will demand payment of a hundred pesos later.'” He looked around at the three other officers and knew that if he kept the camera, sooner or later they would demand of him that he ignore much more serious misdeeds of theirs. He did the math and it was staggering. For the price of this camera they would own him, body and soul.

Still, the lost and found office was a quarter turn around the circular stadium. He could say that he was going to turn it in and then simply hide it in his motorcycle bag. No one would know. But, naturally, sooner or later somebody would find out that he had a Hasselblad and the truth would be out.

As he stood there examining the camera, one of the other cops said that if he turned it in, the attendant who accepted it would keep it for himself – the real owner would never get it one way or the other. And then he thought, yes… and if the attendant who accepted it didn’t keep it, one of those officers could easily send a friend to claim it. They all had heard the seat number.

So he righteously announced that he was going to turn the camera in and started off on his cycle; but once out of sight of the other three officers, he again considered hiding the camera. If he didn’t want to be caught later with a Hasselblad he could always take the camera into the U.S. and hock it. Then he said he disgustedly thought, “Jesus… why don’t I just hold up a bank and be done with it.” And so he dismissed that idea… and by this time he was at the office.

Very officiously, he proceeded to document the transaction. He demanded proof of identity of the attendant and he recorded it in his log book. He obtained a receipt for the camera… and on both the original and the carbon, he made the attendant write the seat number and description of the owner and the details about the camera’s make and style. “In short,” he said, “I covered my ass.”

But then, as he drove back to the others, satisfied that he had done the honorable thing, it occurred to him that honor had had nothing to do with it. “I should have done my duty because it was my duty. I shouldn’t have even considered taking the camera. This is the new Mexico. I’m proud to be a Mexican police officer, and there I was ready, willing, and able to act like a ladron, a common thief. So I did the right thing… but for all the wrong reasons. Instead of being glad to do right, I was just afraid to do wrong.”

Yes, Hamlet, Conscience doth make cowards of us all.


Fortunately there is a point at which we cease having to confront ourselves with the advantages and disadvantages of doing our duty, a point at which we do what is right because to do otherwise is simply unthinkable. That point comes when we figure out the common sense of religion and when, armed with that information, we revalorize the people, places and things of our lives. We acquire this strength of character in stages.

In the beginning of our Dharma journey, our ability to make ethical decisions can be calibrated on a scale of 1 to 10. A “1” usually thinks it is incumbent upon him to express moral judgments about everything. He’s read somewhere that Buddhists are non-violent and so he’s firmly against capital punishment. Not while he was around could anybody drive a stake through Count Dracula’s heart. Let the world swarm with vampires. The Buddha said we must not harm living things, and the un-dead surely qualify.

And beginners also have trouble with discretion: when to keep their mouths shut and when to speak out. I remember years ago when laws against marijuana possession were way out of proportion with the nature of the offense and a young man had been caught with half a kilo in his possession – and for this faced ten years in prison. I was in the jury pool waiting for the first group of temporarily seated jurors to go through the Voir Dire process, when one young man in that group haughtily informed the prosecutor that he was a Zen Buddhist and, further, that he thought the laws against marijuana possession were unconstitutional. He was immediately excused and as he walked past me out of the courtroom, I remember thinking, “Kid, if you were seated in that defendant’s chair, you would have wanted somebody like you on the jury.” I later wondered if he had ever bothered to learn that the boy had been convicted. Yes, discretion is always the better part of valor.


In matters of morality, we are like people standing by the edge of a lake noticing a drowning man. Always our first impulse is to jump in to save him. This is the natural inclination of Dharma. It is in the second moment that we should calculate our ability to accomplish the rescue. If we are strong swimmers and if we’re prepared to handle the panic of a drowning man, we can dive in. If we’re not strong or if we are ignorant of the facts of panic – that panic and ethics don’t co-exist, that panic prevents constructive thought or genteel deference, that a drowning man will push down his rescuer to stand on top of him to get air – then if we go out there, we’ll drown with him. (Of course, he just might save himself at our our expense – the First Aid equivalent of turning state’s evidence.) Weak, untested resolve soon gets us in over our heads.

A friend wants a slightly illegal favor. We say, “What the hell…” and then get sucked into the vortex of his swirling troubles. Later we’ll lament our lack of foresight.

But instinctively, if we keep our priorities in mind, we’ll learn to evaluate morally dangerous situations. With habit, we do the right thing automatically. It comes with having a cerebral cortex.

But suppose, I asked the motorcycle cop, he had kept the camera and one of the other police officers had come upon a wallet that contained a lot of cash… or a stash of cocaine… and that officer wanted to keep it. Having already compromised his own integrity, how would he have responded? Or, if after he turned in the Hasselblad, one of the other three police officers had asked a friend to claim it. When he learned about it, what would he do? Would he sacrifice a friend for the sake of a camera’s worth of integrity?

He assured me that he had been unable to think about anything else since that wretched gringa dumped the problem on him.

But he, in effect, had already “pre-emptively” answered his query. I pointed out to him the obvious: he had turned in the camera because it was the right and honorable thing to do. He had taken the attendant’s name to deter him from becoming a thief. He had obtained a receipt to protect himself and the owner of the camera. He had carefully recorded the transaction in order to discourage the other police officers from attempting to exploit the opportunity to get the camera. “When you got back to the others,” I asked him, “did you tell them exactly what you had done?”

“Yes,” he said, a little amazed that he had been so judicious.

“Then what makes you think you did the right thing for all the wrong reasons?”


The Buddha’s Five Precepts are eminently practical. If we don’t cheat on our faithful wife, we’re not likely to get AIDS. If we don’t get drunk, we’re not likely to drive off a cliff while intoxicated. If we don’t lie, we not only don’t have to remember what we said, we’re not likely to be convicted of perjury. If we don’t steal, we’re probably not going to be shot as a burglar. And if we don’t hate, we won’t murder… and then have to get bankrupted by the legal system.

But he insisted that especially when our actions involve persons whose friendship or loyalty we value, the ethical abscissa remained… the line on which confusing and conflicting negative and positive desires existed. “How do we clarify the ambiguities and decide which is the correct course to follow?”

We use our brain and force ourselves to become aware, to consider every aspect of the problem, and if we’re smart we anticipate the worst. We do just what that police officer did. Cynically, we play the Devil’s Advocate. We remember Hsu Yun’s story of the man who stole food for his family and his friends in order to gain their love and admiration. Many ate well and often; but when he was caught, none came forward to make restitution or spend a single night in jail for him. Worse, they all condemned him for being a thief.


We take a child through a toy store, and everything he sees, he wants. We know that if we yield to his desires, we will harm him psychologically. We want to be generous parents, but how do we say “No”? This is a drowning man problem. If we are strong swimmers and can handle panic, we’ll jump in. We’ll stop and talk to the child and reach an accord. He can pick one toy not to exceed a specified price. Does he understand? Sometimes he’ll astonish us and respond, “Can I have two toys that add up to that amount?” “Yes,” we’ll say, envisioning, “My son, the Secretary of Commerce!” An incompetent Dharma swimmer would yank the kid’s arm, scream at him, make false promises, and eventually drown with him.

But if, after all our analysis and expectation, we are still confused, we can rely on our instinctive ability to supply intelligibility even to the most enigmatic presentation of conflicting choices.


Philologist Benjamin Whorf once examined the logically absurd expression in English, “The exception proves the rule.” What does it mean? It was once a clear statement: “to prove” used to mean “to put on trial” and the saying indicated that an exception tested the validity of a rule by demonstrating its merit or lack thereof. But then came a semantic change: “to prove” no longer meant “to put on trial” as it did when the expression originated. “To prove” now meant “to establish the existence of a fact.”

We could have dropped the expression as being meaningless; instead we examined it and discovered new sense in it. So that when we now say, “The exception proves the rule” we mean that were it not for the exception we wouldn’t be aware that a rule even existed. It would be as if every baby at birth measured exactly 14 inches in length. Who would bother to measure the length of babies? It would have been as superfluous a bit of information as stating that Mrs. Jones gave birth to a human child. But not until someone delivered a baby that was a startling 18 inches long would we have realized that this exceptional child was exceptional precisely because he did not follow what was, for us, the rule of 14 inches.

Just as we know what is meant by “The Buddha says, ‘Desire must a man destroy,'” the Buddha’s audience, assuming that he ever made such a silly statement, would also have instinctively known that the “negative” element was desire and that the imperative was not that desire ought to destroy a man, but rather that if a man didn’t destroy desire, it would likely destroy him.

The man of conscience considers his actions and acquires the strength of character and the skill to handle any thrashing temptation. But if, on occasion, he still feels confused, he knows that with effort he can find insight into deeper meanings, just as he can calibrate desire.

If he repeatedly scans for intuitive insight into compromising situations, he’ll find that it’s rather like learning music well enough to get a billing in that great theater in the sky. He will find clarity in ambiguity.

The confused tourist asks: “How do I get to Carnegie Hall?”

The wise New Yorker answers, “Practice! Practice!”

Humming Bird
Author: Ming Zhen Shakya

If for some reason you need elucidation on the teaching,

please contact the editor at: yao.xiang.editor@gmail.com


I had never heard the entire poem. I had heard only the opening line which Fa Shi (Gisho Senderovich) had recited in the course of conversation. “Ah, yes,” she had said, “it’s just as I first wrote, `I’ve come to see the pigeons ride a crested wave of air, to fish for ocean memories…'”

I forgot the conversation but I did not forget that line. It came to mind frequently, always as an incantation that conjured up images of forgotten summers at the Jersey seashore: sea birds – sunlight glinting off their flapping wings – a handful of confetti tossed into the air: hungry birds, hovering over the surf, then dipping – the beach a smorgasbord of tiny shellfish.

The images were so pleasant that the mere remembrance of the line could improve my disposition. I was sufficiently moved to attempt a city-dweller’s haiku.

Fa Shi’s surfing pigeons
Devour worrisome crabs
On sun-drenched sidewalks.

It wasn’t much – too bad I can’t say that it suffered in translation – but it did have that virtue of mediocrity: it was sincere. Someone gave her a copy of my little salute and she graciously thanked me. I was feeling rather pleased with myself until a month later when I got a copy of the entire poem. “What a great fool she must have thought me,” I announced after I got over the impact of the piece. Her poem was an agonized prayer whispered in extremis. It was definitely not intended to be a pretty little mnemonic for childhood pleasantries.

Of course, like those of all fine artwork, its lines are deceptively simple. Surely, we think, a stroke here, a dash there, and it was finished. Fa Shi cannot comment upon the creative struggle: she has no recollection of writing it. She can only explain that she composed the poem while sitting on a Southern California beach. “I was verging on suicide,” she says simply and without poetic license, “I had been falling through space for a long time and then the ground obliged me by coming up to meet me.” She adds, smiling, “It was quite a collision.”

It would have had to be. Gisho Senderovich sets high standards for calamity. She is a Jew, born in Poland in the Thirties, a survivor of the Holocaust.

The “free fall” and the depression about which she now so casually speaks was, this time, occasioned by the self-persecution of hopeless love. The man whom she had worshipped (not too strong a word to describe her obsession) had suddenly, and with stark cruelty, terminated their relationship. Confused, grieving, she began walking around Los Angeles and found her way to the beach at Santa Monica. Whatever hold she still had on reality, she let go of at the beach. She gave away all her money, and then as if to lost her identity, too, she threw away her purse. For three days she sat on the cold sand; then someone called the police who came and put her in a hospital’s psychiatric ward. A week later, coherent – but not much more than that – she was released into her daughter’s custody.

Fa Shi remembers little of the hospital and those days on the beach. She remembers only the lines she composed and that it was Passover and the moon was full.

I’ve come to see the pigeons ride
A crested wave of air
To fish for ocean memories
That are no longer there
To beg pardon of the setting sun
That it must go down to rise
And ask the moon ascending
If it will shine for me tonight
And hesitant, though willingly,
I too await the tide
That, inexorable, washes in
No matter where I hide.

The theme of this exquisite poem is resurrection and the redemption which resurrection implies. Though the words are taken from a universally understood religious vocabulary, they are particularly meaningful to Mahayana Zen Buddhists. Of all Buddhists, we are most devoted to Amitabha, He of the Infinite Solar Light, and to his divine, lunar emanation, the Bodhisattva Avalokitesvara, whose name is variously translated as the “Savior Who Is Seen Within” or the “Savior who looks down from above.”

What is there about the moon that so attracts us, especially when our defenses are down? Why, when torment separates us from our rational selves, do we come finally to appeal to the moon for help? What racial memory, what code-transmitted message of salvation speaks to us when our distress is so extreme? Why, poor moonstruck lunatics, do we turn to that one face which countenances us when all other faces have turned away?

To understand Fa Shi’s poem, we must first consider the origins of our moon-dependence. Surely it was in times as ancient as our phylum that the moon began to fix its awesome hold upon our psyches.

To recapture a little of the essence of this attachment we need only imagine ourselves living – cut off from all things modern – in some remote agricultural community.

During nights and dark winters the moon would be our principal source of light, often our only source. Out of doors, without the moon we would be immobile.

We would number our days and mark our seasons by a lunar calendar and we would even take a lunar cue for planting seeds.

We would see that it was by lunar command that the tides ebbed and flowed and that women menstruated and were fertile according to the same directive. We would count from the time of conception until the time of birth exactly ten lunar cycles, one for every finger on our prayer-pressed hands. We would labor hard by day, but in the evening, by moonlight, we would know the kind time, the time when, with family reunited, we could rest, eat, drink and love. It was the moon that presided over the best hours of our lives; and we would know we owed it more than veneration.

April is the cruelest month, if, of course, you have survived March. And March is only bearable to those who were not among February’s winterkills.

By the autumnal equinox, we would harvest crops and stockpile fuel, praying that both would last us not only through the winter but far enough into the spring to sustain us through the reaping of our first planting. But which of us would have laid-in enough? By the vernal equinox, we would all be trembling with hunger and uncertainty. This is when the passion begins. Around the northern hemisphere, there is no day so holy as Passover.

Fasting is a spiritual exercise. All religions recommend it especially to those who crave the sights and sounds of divine fantasy. (On or about the fifth day of fast, the human body produces a substance similar to lysergic acid.) And so, with so many starved into spirituality, we observe Lent (Spring’s “lengthening” of days). As long as we have nothing to eat, we might as well fast.

The priests would guide us. They would remind us of our sins and we would offer our hunger in atonement for them. But we would fear, with dreadful anxiety, that if this sacrifice were not enough, the Moon, sickened by our iniquities, would wane and die and enter Nirvana, leaving us to suffer forever in nocturnal darkness. The Rites of Spring are sacrificial rites.

Two weeks later the moon would indeed die, and for three terrible days and nights there would be no moon. But then, our Bodhisattva would hear our cries and, foregoing the pleasures of celestial paradise, would return to help us. Just as the full moon always rises at sunset, the new moon always rises at dawn; and so, on the third dawn, the morning yet dedicated by many to the Goddess of the Dawn, Eastra, our Lord would appear to us anew. (Also Sprach Zarathustra!)

Zen’s connection to Judaism and Christianity is not mere coincidence. Proselytizing Persians brought the salvation cult of Mithras (Maitreya) to China. This is why there is still debate about Bodhidharma’s nationality. Was he an Iranian or an Aryan from India? Aryan, Iran, and even Erin, are all cognates – the Chinese ideogram signifies their common meaning, “noble”. There in the land where Zen was born, the lunar, salvific attributes of Mithras were assimilated to the Guan Yin androgyne, Avalokitesvara, even as Ahura Mazda, the Solar figure, fused with the Buddha of the West, Amitabha. (Recall the many silver, “argent-moon” statues of Avalokitesvara and the golden images of haloed Amitabha.)

There are but three places for the heart: heaven, hell, and purgatory: Nirvana, Samsara, and the slough that separates the two. At critical times in our lives these places meet. We usually locate them through the coordinates of grief.

So, Gisho Senderovich (she was not yet Fa Shi) found herself at the beach where ancient elements converged. There, on the sand, by the sea’s edge, in the chilling ocean air, she brought her passion’s burnt offering: Earth, wind, water, and samsaric hellfire for the ego’s immolation. It was the time for great reckoning.

Gisho had been guilty of the worst sin that a mature person can commit: idolatry. She had failed to detach herself from the things of this world. She had not turned her ego-mirror around to let it reflect the Buddha Self in whose image it had been made. Instead, in the way of adolescents, she continued to look outward at things and people in order to give herself definition and purpose. She had not yet learned that we may need and worship nothing but our Buddha Self. “I am the Lord, thy God; thou shalt have no other gods before me!” Indeed.

She had bankrupted her spiritual resources. She had emptied her vaults to squander adoration upon another human ego. And so, sitting amidst the converging elements, she watched the pigeons and contemplated the sun which had not yet set and the moon which had not yet risen.

The persons of her poem are none less than the Holy Trinity; God or Godhead – represented poetically as the setting sun, Amitabha, the Buddha of the West; the redeeming Savior or Bodhisattva, divine offspring, represented by the moon; and the Holy Spirit, the expression of divine love that is breathed into each of us, which is represented here, as it is universally, as a sacred bird – dove, phoenix, quetzal, among others.

Ego-dead, Gisho submits to judgment. She explains, “I’ve come to see the pigeons ride a crested wave of air..” The image is lovely. The Holy Spirit is borne upon a crown of spume-filled wind.

“To fish for ocean memories that are no longer there.” The lines tantalize us. Who is fishing? She or the birds? Both, for they are one in the same. She has lost everything. Not even in the depths of her unconscious `ocean’ is there a minnow’s worth of sustenance. “To beg pardon of the setting sun that it must go down to rise.” Here is the great mystery of the human condition. How we regret our need for divine sacrifice, that vital death and transfiguration without which there can be no salvation.

“And ask the moon ascending if it will shine for me tonight.” This is the poet’s crisis. She begs God to intercede and send the Savior.

Will the Moon rise for her? Will He illuminate her darkness? There can be only one outcome. The Bodhisattva of Compassion will hear her cry and He will come. He will look down upon her and she will find in his face the comforting assurance of the ancient covenant. The tide will flood, a baptismal cleansing. With understandable anxiety she awaits completion of the sacrament. She need not fear. Such is the mercy of our Lord that even if she were to hide, she could not escape His mercy.

The conclusion is always “inexorable.” Those who have been delivered know this to a certainty. (Recall Thompson’s Hound of Heaven, “I hid from Him, and under running laughter… I sped… From those strong Feet that followed, followed after.” Huysmans, too, in his introduction to A Rebours – that disturbing `yellow book’ that Wilde places in Lord Harry’s hands in Dorian Gray – confirms the same ineluctable conclusion. “… while certifying that the will is intact, we must nevertheless allow that the Saviour has much to do in the matter, that he harasses the sinner, tracks him down, shadows him, to use a forcible phrase of the police.” Huysmans, famous and successful after publication of his masterwork on decadence, left Parisian society to enter a Trappist monastery.)

To those who are bereft of resource or habitat there remains the primordial medicine: the healing solace of nature.

Can man be born again? Can his deadened body be filled with life again and can his spirit be redeemed? Of course. It was not long after this remarkable seaside communion that Gisho Senderovich, splendidly tranquil, became Fa Shi, a Buddhist renunciate.

The pigeons were doves of peace.

Gisho Senderovich’s poetry is published under her American name, Gloria King.

Humming Bird
Author: Ming Zhen Shakya

If for some reason you need elucidation on the teaching,

please contact the editor at: yao.xiang.editor@gmail.com

Time to Resurrect This Teaching on Love

File:Amanita muscaria a.jpg


It certainly sounds bizarre: the ritual consumption of food or drink that symbolizes or transmutes into the body and blood of a god. Atheists love to mock the ritual and inexperienced theologians try to find rational explanations for it, but the answer to this seemingly barbaric practice is best answered by endocrinologists and perhaps a few priests who have witnessed the exclamations of mothers and the confessions and orations of lovers.

First, there can be no historical beginning for the ritual. Communion celebrations are surely as old as man’s capacity to feel and to demonstrate love. For as long as the parasympathetic nervous system has provided an undeniable connection between adoration and eating, there has been an innate desire to assimilate the beloved, to have him or her in every cell in the lover’s body. Nobody screams “cannibal” when a new mother cuddles her baby and nibbles playfully on the baby’s foot, cooing, “I’m gonna eat you up!” If there are six billion people in the world, they each have a mother and it would be nothing short of sensational to find even one of these mothers who did not make raspberries on her baby’s belly and say “Momma’s eat her little peachy cake all up! Yes, she is!” or something equally sinister.

In the mammalian world, the first post-partum meal is the exchange of flesh: the baby drinks its mother’s milk and the mother consumes the nutrient-rich placenta, raw, cooked or dried. While the practice was mostly discontinued a few hundred years ago, human placentophagy was revived during the 1970s. On Google’s pages and in YouTube, information about preparing the placenta for consumption can readily be found.

Likewise, in the first overwhelming stages of sexual infatuation, cannibalistic terms of endearment are used. A female will gush, “Oh, he’s so cute I could just eat him up!” and a male will start to call his beloved delicious food names… “Sugar,” “Sweetheart,” “Honey,” or even, in a return to the original, “Babe.” Putting one’s salivating mouth upon the beloved’s body, biting, sucking, licking, and nibbling – it’s all part of the parasympathetic nervous system’s accommodation of love and nutrition, the hormones of ecstasy and feeding. The verbs we use for eating are also used for love making.

Additionally, in the delirium of this infatuation, we find cases of urophagia as an expression of adoration – of merging substantive identities with the beloved by taking the beloved into oneself – actually digesting and assimilating what had been part of the adored body. The links between sex, food, and urine consumption are most clearly seen in the ancient holiday practice of drinking the urine of anyone who was brash enough to eat Amanita Muscaria (a.k.a. fly agaric, the toxic, red and white Santa Claus mushroom) – in order to appreciate its wild, maenadic erotogenic properties.

Throughout much of the world, wherever we find birch and pine forests, we find frenzied religious rituals associated with this mushroom. Sometimes the mushroom would be boiled or fed to a deer so that the animal’s kidneys would filter out much of the toxic ingredients; but often the shaman would consume the mushroom and then, using his own kidneys to process the substance, he would urinate for his congregation who in turn would pass on their urine to others. It is an elixir of this hallucinogenic mushroom that is claimed to be the “Divine Soma” imbibed in Vedic India. Robert Graves, an authority on Greek myths who had steadfastly believed that the wild celebrations of Dionysus and other gods were alcoholic but otherwise drug-free orgies, re-evaluated the evidence and now acknowledges that mushrooms had indeed made their hallucinogenic way into Hellenic rituals. Further, as Wikipedia notes, “The Dead Sea Scrolls scholar John Marco Allegro also proposed that early Christianity sprang from cultic use of the fly agaric in Second Temple Judaism and that the mushroom itself was used by the Essenes as an allegory for Jesus Christ.” There is virtually no civilization in the northern hemisphere that does not have in its ancient history religious rituals that involve the consumption of mushrooms and sacred urine. The fly agaric high was, sexually speaking, stratospheric and quite beyond the reach of mundane socio-religious law.

Set against this practice, the Last Supper request to consume bread as the body and wine as the blood of the Savior seems a distinct refinement in the practice of theophagy.

In Southern School Zen Buddhism, the Communion ritual follows the early Christian practice of “dismissing the catechumens.” While confirmed Christians were permitted to participate in the ritual, the newer members of the congregation were dismissed (hence, calling the Mass “the Missa” in many European countries). In Zen Buddhism only ordained members may participate. Lay members of the congregation are dismissed and the temple doors are shut. Altar boys pour water into a goblet and the officiating priest, after reciting the required mantras and making the required mudras – and often slapping the water with a small willow branch – consecrates the water which becomes the amniotic fluid that nourishes the Future Buddha – which was the ancient supposition regarding the function of amniotic fluid. The ritual, then, unites the priest with the gestation of Mithras-Maitreya-Miroku, the Future Buddha. However, for the ritual to be a valid communion and not just a liturgical drama, the participants must respond emotionally, and this requires gratitude and love for the hero-savior who did, in fact, save them from a life that had become unendurable.

Especially in Zen Buddhism, where participants are usually not raised in the religion, the ceremonies and rituals are not followed as a matter of custom. Most of us are converts to Zen, and our conversion comes as a rescue. We found ourselves depressed and agitated, disappointed in our relationships with family, friends, and work. We felt either unwanted or used, betrayed or ignored, filled with both regrets and accusations, and grudgingly tolerated by those who had become increasingly intolerable to us. Like Yudhisthira in the Mahabharata, we found ourselves standing amid the smoking ruins of our life and could not see a way to escape the desolation. And then we turned to Zen and the Bodhisattva’s great mercy filled us with new life. Rescued? You bet. Grateful? More than we can ever express. This new life, this rebirth, is of the Future Buddha now gestating within each of us.

Christians who assert that they have been reborn in the spirit claim also that they feel the same gratitude and love when they consume the sacramental bread, and whether or not they believe that it becomes the living body of their hero-savior who was sacrificed specifically for their redemption, the ritual accomplishes its purpose.

In Sir James Frazer’s overview of such universally observed rituals, The Golden Bough, we find under the heading, “Eating the God,” many examples of the sacramental regard of flesh and bodily fluids. The ritual is known among the more obviously primitive societies among us, as well as those who are the most religiously refined.

Frazer asserts that one motive for these rituals is simply the belief that the food source itself, “is animated by a conscious and more or less powerful spirit, who must be propitiated before the people can safely partake of the fruits or roots which are supposed to be part of his body.”

Breatharians notwithstanding, another motive is the obvious fact that we are made of whatever it is we eat and drink. Extending this into a spiritual realm, it becomes unassailable to some of us that feeding upon the flesh of a hero-savior imparts whatever spiritual property there was within him or her. The question then concerns the manner in which we consume the heroic savior or the divine inhabitant of grains or animals upon which we depend for survival. It may be a symbolic theophagy achieved by a special preparation of certain foods, or in ancient practices by the actual flesh of a sacrificed person who has been chosen to represent the divinity, or through a miracle of Transubstantiation of foodstuff into flesh.

Our atheistic friends always seem to confuse Communion rituals, which are, by definition, expressions of gratitude and love made by those who have been saved from sin, starvation or a deplorable existence, with cannibalism as a menu choice. There have been instances, probably many more than we know about, in which under conditions of extreme hunger people have resorted to consuming the flesh of the dead. The most publicized instance of such an event was the 1972 airline crash two miles high in the Andes mountains. Sixteen people survived the crash and during the two months they were stranded in the barren snow and ice, they subsisted on the flesh of the crash victims. All Roman Catholics, the men decided to consume the flesh ritualistically. Survivor Nando Parrado wrote, “Shortly after our rescue, officials of the Catholic Church announced that according to church doctrine we had committed no sin by eating the flesh of the dead. They told the world – as Roberto [Canessa] had argued on the mountain – that the sin would have been to allow ourselves to die.”

The statue features Mary holding her child's dead body

The attempts by atheists to link such extraordinary acts of spiritual exaltation with vampirism or cannibalistic lust fail because those of us who know better also know that those who disparage the rite are simply unlucky souls who have so far been excluded from the joy and peace of redemption. They have denied themselves the beauty of Michelangelo’s Pietá and Dali’s Corpus Hypercubus; they have limited their appreciation of the Parthenon, Hagia Sophia, Tikal, and Notre Dame to architectural considerations. They are deaf to Mozart’s Requiem and Bach’s B Minor Mass. Against their sophomoric arrogance stand mankind’s most wonderful accomplishments. Were we to eliminate all the religiously inspired art, architecture, music, and literature from all the world’s civilizations – from the caves of Lascaux to the stage of La Scala – we would not have a brave, new world of clever atheists but a world that lacked awe and was more than a little dreary.


Maybe someday they will understand. It is devoutly to be wished.

Humming Bird
Author: Ming Zhen Shakya

If for some reason you need elucidation on the teaching,

please contact the editor at: yao.xiang.editor@gmail.com

Detachment and McCormack’s “Selling Heaven” by Ming Zhen Shakya


Irish poet Brendan McCormack, our brother in the Dharma, has pushed the ego’s “bitter and painful” consciousness-of-self to its time-bound limit. Next step is transcendence, often a bridge too far for Irish poets.

Perhaps because so few can bring themselves to swap sentimental attachment to their well-mapped landscape for the terra incognita of Detachment – or as it is more commonly called, Holy Indifference, or Ego Death, it will be interesting to see how McCormack uses his Zen acquired insights to cross that border.

Detachment first requires Humility. Pride goeth before a fall, we’re reliably told; and indeed, we find the landscape on the earth side of Nirvana littered with those who take pride in their achievements – their vaunted piety and superior knowledge, and the credentials that evidence such excellence. It surprises no one that they can spit out the muck to speak with absolute authority on the subject of Enlightenment.

Those who make it to the frontier survey the smoking ruins of their lives and have the decency to drop to their knees and say, with tears and agony, Mea culpa. It’s not a particularly notable admission. Usually, as their personal histories reveal, they’re the only ones left standing.

At the border, McCormack presents his passport. He doesn’t know whether or not it will be stamped. He knows only that he has at least earned the right to present it. He extends the precious book with Dublin wit as in his The Portrait.

I’d like to paint you.
Go ahead, I said.
Having a woman paint me
Would be a rare treat.

When she was finished
She showed me a painting
Of a dog licking his balls

And he had eyes that
Reminded me of someone.

There are other essentials. Detachment requires us to get our emotional teeth and claws out of the people and things of the material world and to get their teeth and claws out of us. For so long as we derive our sense of self, our identity, in terms of our relationships to other persons or things, we bind ourselves to the future and to the past. We attach our ego, like an umbilical cord, to whatever is “other”‘ and we reduce ourselves to fetal creatures who are dependent on those “others” for our sustenance. Attachment, therefore, is to possess or be possessed by someone or something outside ourselves.

“My” establishes that dependency. We forfeit our right to appreciate anything for what it is, and bestow upon the “other” the right to determine when we shall be happy and when we shall be miserable.

We enjoy baseball. Fine. But when it is “my” team that is playing, we surrender our enjoyment to the prejudices of winner and loser. It isn’t baseball any more. It is self-esteem, self-satisfaction, or else it is the whipping boy upon whom we hurl our anger and contempt.

Attachment says, “My team is better than your team.” This isn’t love of the game. It’s jingoistic nonsense, a vicarious participation. I have given “my” team the power to make me happy when it wins and to make me miserable when it loses. In this way we are bound to hope and reverie, future and past. The second hand sweep of our wristwatch tells us that time is inexorably moving, future-past, future-past. For those who are attached, there is no “now.”

Only when we are not prejudiced, when we have not prefixed a person or a thing with “my”, when we can observe with eyes that are not veiled by ego, can we observe clearly in that state of Holy Indifference. One does not have to be a balletomane to appreciate the beauty of any well executed double play. It is only when we attach ourselves to a specific team that the beauty of, say, a 4 to 3 to 5 play becomes dependent on whether “my” team is on base or whether “my” team is playing defense. And it is the same with everything we believe that we possess. It is always future gain and loss, or past gain and loss; and we oscillate between the poles of future and past until we’re stricken with an existential motion sickness, a “Sickness Unto Death.”

What do we attach to? Some things admit no other description. McCormack uses the word “my” exactly 10 times in his book of poems. Ten times and only once per use: “my mother”; “my father”; “my girls” (daughters); “my brother”; “my mind”‘; “my hand”; “my finger”; “my back yard”; “my window”; and “my pages.” Already we see him removing those tentacles of inane prejudice that suck our souls into monstrous oblivion. We find no “my friends:” or “my country” or “my religion.” Sentiment is leeching out of him. He wants to love for what it is and not for what it does for him.

Of course, Holy Indifference has its own Mount Everest. The moment we luxuriate in the Now we hear Kunti’s voice in the Mahabharata. “When one prefers one’s children to the children of another, war is near.” There is a reason Zen is a cauldron of boiling oil over a roaring fire, and achieving its goal, Detachment, is that reason.

What is true is Real. The Real World is defined as that which is unconditional, universal, immutable, and eternal. Eternal is to be outside of time; and this can occur only in the “ego-absent” immediate moment.

How do we arrest the flow of time and enter the Eternal Moment? What is the Wall that we must surmount? Why did Bodhidharma come from the West? Where is the Light that leads us out of darkness.

McCormack brushes aside facile explanations. Why did Bodhidharma come from the West? Sure, just as we assign directions – heaven is above and hell is below, the ancient mind sees hope in the east and fulfillment in the west. Student at dawn, master at sunset. He came to teach us The Way to surmount the Wall that lies on the other side of sunrise, to awaken us. The answers come from that “spiritual West.” But such explanations do not help us gain the goal.

It cannot be mere coincidence that someone who Quests finds himself in West Berlin during the 1980s. There is East and West and Wall and Ego Death and, though he did not know it when he arrived, there is Light in a museum.

As he first enters the Western sector he encounters the bombed out Kaiser Wilhelm Church which has been left as it was in 1943 to be a war memorial. In West Berlin, 1988, The bus takes him to:

The center of the half-bitten city
Where a headless Church
Prayed with its wound open
To the sky and history,
Unlike our own entombed vaults.

He grapples with the enigma of Time. We’ve all been there. The boring dead-end job versus the need to earn a living. Sometimes we find ourselves so desperate to get free of the painful monotony that we become an animal who’s foot is caught in the jaws of a steel trap. Freedom requires us to gnaw off our foot.

McCormack does just this, In Pizza, West Berlin, 1988, he gets yet another dreary assembly line job:

I worked in a pizza factory
Where no Italians could be found.

His challenge? To put olives on the rolling belt of three-at-a-time pizzas.

I went mad for eight hours a day,
Until they moved me…

And like the trapped prey,

…I put my finger into a machine, That slices cheese, and me.”

Time, Light, and the Wall. The Berlin Wall would be demolished in 1989, but in 1988 McCormack is still trapped in samsaric illusion, searching for the Way to spiritual liberation. And then, in an awesome conjunction, he discovers the spiritual fulfillment of West, the Eternal Moment, Ego Death, and a golden Light.

In Rothko, Orange his own ego death merges with the artist’s, imagined then and there. For, as he prowls the exhibitions of an art museum –

“Seeking, – something

After finishing another eight hour shift
In a West Berlin factory
Filling cardboard boxes with
Empty shampoo bottles.

In front of me
The orange space

Squeezing sorrow from me.

In a West Berlin Museum,
Near to the Wall,
Rothko killed himself.
I don’t know if the painting killed him
Or he killed himself
While the painting watched.

I didn’t know.
Outside, the towers watched,
Men in grey watched
1988 became 1989.”

Humming Bird
Author: Ming Zhen Shakya

If for some reason yon need elucidation on the teaching,

please contact the editor at: yao.xiang.editor@gmail.com

Orange and Yellow by Mark Rothko
Photo credit: www.radford.edu/rbarris


There is a Zen story that needs telling here:

A Zen master had become famous for the special tea he brewed, and another master, having heard about this wonderful tea, sauntered into his room one day carrying a cup of his own tea. “I’ve heard people rave about how delicious your tea is,” he announced. “I’d like to try it for myself.”

“Very well,” said the Zen master, “You are welcome to it. But first you must empty your cup of tea before I can fill it with mine.”

There are a few men of science, it seems, who don’t get the point of the story. They stand in the doorway of religion, their cups sloshing over with whatever it is they’re drinking, and then presume to judge the beverage that’s being brewed deep inside the room.

It isn’t as if they come prepared to render a disinterested opinion. No, they reached their conclusions long before they approached the door. They examined the dregs they found in the Zen Master’s garbage and, regarding themselves qualified to apply inductive methods, they determined that their reconstituted beverage was by nature distasteful. Of course, what was good about it was coursing through the veins of the Zen Master. But when you’ve already decided that what is garbage always was, there is no need to investigate further.

So they stand in the doorway and gag a bit. No duchess ever looked at bugs, to quote Tarkington, the way that Sagan, Asimov or, unfortunately, Kaku looks at the life of the Spirit.

Years ago I watched a TV interview in which a young and vigorous Carl Sagan who, with titanic, Epimethean gaze, stared back through two and a half millennia into the pious eyes of old Pythagoras and chastised him for having squandered his scientific abilities on mystical superstitions. Pythagoras, (yes, that Pythagoras) you see, was fascinated by the number “3”… he was all atingle with triangles and Trinities.. This made him look very foolish to Carl Sagan. Fermat and Fibonacci had meaningful obsessions. But 3? Pythagoras had imbued the number with a kind of divinity – a magical quality of the same ilk one might expect from a gambler’s Lucky 7. Religion had stultified the old man’s insights. Think of where he might have gone had not his path been so skewed by mystical tangents.

Never mind that that old man had imbued “3” with a glory that dazzled his eyes in right-angled Trinitarian insight, enabling him to see what no man had seen before – that the square of the hypotenuse was equal to the sum of the squares of the sides. Never mind that Carl Sagan had never once set his well-shod foot inside a building that did not owe its structural integrity to the principle put forth by that old man’s sandaled genius.

Sagan could not resist mocking him. He mentioned a few of the old man’s ludicrous superstitions. What a waste, he lamented.

One would think that Isaac Newton could escape Carl Sagan’s snide comments. One would be wrong. In his book, Intelligent Life In The Universe, speaking of historical perspectives on extraterrestrial life, Sagan says, “Even Isaac Newton thought the sun was inhabited.” Really. All that time that Newton messed around with prisms and lenses and light and never once – no not even when he was strolling across the Quad on a July afternoon – noticed the sun was hot… very hot.. maybe even fire-ball hot. Or perhaps Newton was speaking religiously of “that other Sun” (to quote Rumi) the one that alchemists know. It was a point Sagan was not prepared to yield. If you can sneer down Pythagoras, why not Newton?

I pick at random (really, one does not wish to research sarcastic saganisms) as Sagan struts his invective, which he clearly thinks is extremely witty stuff. In the same book he recounts the expert testimony he gave for the prosecution at the trial of a Nebraskan whom he calls “Helmut Winckler”, a fellow of German ancestry who sold agricultural implements. Winckler one day encountered a flying saucer that had just landed a party of Saturnians. Eventually, the Saturnians would disclose the location of a quartz mine the contents of which would cure cancer and the shares of stock in which would bring Winckler to the bar of justice. Sagan’s testimony was needed to refute Winckler’s claims to other adventures with the Saturnians. They took him to oceanic Russian missile bases and other Arctic sites, and then, reports Sagan at his most obtuse and insensitive best, — I reprint it here exactly as he states it:

“On another expedition, the Saturnians took Winckler to that Mecca of the occult, the Great Pyramid of Gizeh in Egypt. They mingled with a group of tourists being guided through the interior of the pyramid. (I have a vivid mental image of this procession: Egyptian guide, two middle-aged ladies from Dubuque, some assorted French and German tourists, six Saturnians in flowing robes, and, bringing up the rear, Helmut Winckler in levis.) At a certain intersection of pathways, the tourists went in one direction, and Winckler and the Saturnians in the other. They were confronted with a blank wall. Appropriate pressures were applied to appropriate bricks, and the wall slid open, revealing a chamber within. The party entered, and the stone door slid silently shut behind them. In the room were (1) a small, one-man flying saucer, quite dusty with age; (2) a large and equally ancient wooden cross perhaps ten feet high; and (3) a toroid of thorns about eight inches in diameter. The saturnians offhandedly explained that one of their number had attempted a mission to Earth some two thousand years ago. He had met with somewhat qualified success.”

I don’t happen to be either a Muslim or a Christian; but if I were either I think I’d explain to at least the ghost of Carl Sagan that Mecca is a holy place to which Muslims make pilgrimages. People of all religions get a little uncomfortable hearing that Sunset Boulevard is a Mecca for whores; for all of us know that, despite Bethlehem’s number of pilgrims, we should not like to hear Sunset Boulevard described as a Bethlehem for whores. This flippant appropriation of the name of an Islamic holy place to serve the purpose of rhetoric or some feeble attempt at humor is, and should be, offensive to Muslims. The Pyramid at Gizeh is many things to Islamic Egyptians who are justifiably proud of it; but referring to it as a “Mecca” attractant for weirdoes is doubly churlish. The ladies from Dubuque would have no difficulty, I’m sure, in decking Carl Sagan should they have cared to show what they thought of his big-city hubris; but Christians might be appalled and saddened, I think, to hear Sagan’s smart-assed reference to Christ’s crucifixion crown as a eight-inch diameter toroid of thorns.

What Sagan had to say – and the way that he said it – mattered. Sagan, a media darling, became the unofficial spokesman for scientists, the missing link between the elite corps of Nobel laureates and what he seemed to regard as the Neanderthal public. But his disdain for religion tinged everything he said. He could not conceal it. And, ultimately, despite the window to science that he opened in everyone’s living room, a chill wind would blow through it. That bitter taste of tea-dregs.

Which brings us to Isaac Asimov, an admittedly classier guy than Sagan. Asimov had the greatest respect for Newton, yet he couldn’t account for Newton’s spiritual bent. What anomaly was this? Surely it was the senility of a “tottered” mind, for in his Chronology Asimov states, “Newton spent much time, particularly later in life, in a vain chase for recipes for the manufacture of gold. He was an ardent believer in transmutation and wrote half a million worthless words on chemistry. He also speculated endlessly on theological matters and produced a million and a half useless words on the more mystical passages of the Bible.” Well! That ought to get him chiseled out of Westminster Abbey!

Asimov consigns two million of the great man’s written words to the trash bin of mystical alchemy and Christian scripture. Never mind the Principia, Opticks, and the Calculus or a commanding knowledge of metallurgy that enabled him to regulate British coinage when, in the last years of his long life, he agreed to be Warden of the Mint. Asimov decreed that when Newton wrote about spiritual matters what he had to say was either “worthless” or “useless.”

But Alchemy is a spiritual regimen despite its being encoded in terminology that is bizarre to us. And if Newton was obsessed with it, so what? How can we ignore our own obsessions, be they science-fiction or football, and both denigrate and challenge Newton’s right to occupy himself with whatever fascinated him? But Spiritual Alchemy offers considerably more than sport or hobby. Those arcane yantras, mantras, and chemical changes are still fascinating and as such continue to be used to induce altered states of consciousness. (Fascination leads into concentration which leads into transcendent meditation, and this state leads directly to samadhi’s orgasmic ecstasy. Beyond this, it hardly needs a raison d’être.)

Mystical Alchemy is deliberately cryptic because the incredibly erotic nature of it necessitates secrecy. “Our Gold is not the common Gold” was the motto to which all spiritual alchemists agreed. But no uninitiated outsider ever believed them. Why is this now so difficult to understand? If those Saturnians had come down to earth and looked at a play book for an encounter between Bears and Lions and saw those x’s and o’s and curved lines and arrows, what would they think? And if they saw a video of 70,000 screaming fans, faces painted, wearing peculiar colors and carrying pennants and other regalia, chanting in unison because someone threw an inflated pigskin… what sense would they make of the amount of time, money and emotion expended on such an event?

We cannot examine the box scores of a game with which we are entirely unfamiliar and recreate in our minds the excitation of the participants or spectators. But we ought to yield some recognition to that human obsession that drives participants to physical injury or financial ruin or to acts of heroism regardless of the goal. Does Spiritual Alchemy seem like a terrible waste of a brilliant mind’s time? Well, Sir Edmund Hillary is no dunce… but what did he do for the world when he scaled Everest? Precisely nothing. Why did he even want to climb the mountain? “Because it is there.” And that is a good enough answer. He didn’t need to justify his quest any more than Newton needed to justify his. Elway, Namath, Ali, Jordan and Pele never tried to discover the cure for cancer; and while they may at least have entertained millions, what are we to say about chess players? They don’t even do that and yet they “waste” hours or years of their lives pushing little wooden carvings around a chequered board. But we understand these obsessive avocations. Newton’s eludes us.

According to the tradition of his day, Newton wrote much in Latin; but he also wrote in English and when we read, in his own hand, such expressions as “Spiritual Semen” we ought to suspect that he’s got more than beakers in mind, or when he says “the Menstrual blood of a sordid whore” we really ought not suppose that he’s referring to one of Mendeleev’s Periods.

Here is a sample of what Asimov finds “worthless” (Mercurius is the androgyne or “hermaphroditic” divine child, called in Zen and Daoism the “Blue Pearl” or Immortal Foetus or, in other religions, the Philosophical Son or Lapis.) Writes Newton, “Our Mercury, by reason of the sulphur which by our art it is impregnated, is an Hermaphrodite, including in it both an active and passive principle distinguishable by the same degree of digestion for alone by a circumambient heat it coagulates itself after the manner of cream of milk, there being, as it were, a subtile earth swimming upon the waters, and in this coagulation gives either silver or (by further decoction) gold according to the pleasure of the operator; but being joyned with sol in the same degree of heat it softens melts and dissolves it… The Magi contemperated the malignity of the air by Diana’s Doves and thereby mixed life with life, moistened the dry by the moist, vivified the dead by the living, actuated the passive by the active, and so the heavens became clouded over for a time, and after large showers became clear again. Thus came out an hermaphroditical mercury.” This may be worthless chatter to a scientist, but not, I assure you, to a person engaged in the Microcosmic Orbit’s or in Kundalini Yoga’s discipline.

Talk about Shikantaza or Bodhidharma’s wall gazing! I read somewhere that Newton’s secretary said at the end of the day he could often leave the old man sitting “concentrating” in his lab, staring straight in front of him at a test tube’s contents; and when the secretary returned to work the next morning he could swear the old man had not moved so much as an eyelid. Would anyone be surprised to learn that Newton possessed such prodigious meditation powers?

I leave his million and a half “worthless” words on the Bible to those who are more qualified to interpret them.

Michio Kaku, in one of the mystical life’s ironies, (he looks just like the Future Buddha Maitreya/Miroku, i.e., the mercurial child) nevertheless lets a few inanities dribble down his adorable chin. In Hyperspace, after expansively cooing about ten dimensions which, he generously allows, mystics somewhere along the line might have entered, he suddenly contracts and burps, “Higher-dimensional space became the last refuge for mystics, cranks, and charlatans.” Now, this isn’t quite the same as grouping, say, “Physics teachers, child molesters, and pension fund embezzlers” but it does manage to consign spiritual persons to the garbage heap of the disreputable.

In his concluding chapter, in the section called Science and Religion, he demonstrates his inability to comprehend even the most basic facts of spiritual life. He is totally unable to distinguish between the mystical experience, which by definition is limited to an individual’s private, interior existence, and the social-political aspects of religion’s public, communal activities.

“Because the hyperspace theory has opened up new, profound links between physics and abstract mathematics,” he muses, “some people have accused scientists of creating a new theology based on mathematics; that is, we have rejected the mythology of religion, only to embrace an even stranger religion based on curved space-time, particle symmetries, and cosmic expansions. While priests may chant incantations in Latin that hardly anyone understands, physicists chant arcane superstring equations that even fewer understand. The ‘faith’ in an all-powerful God is now replaced by ‘faith’ in quantum theory and general relativity. When scientists protest that our mathematical incantations can be checked in the laboratory, the response is that Creation cannot be measured in the laboratory, and hence these abstract theories like the superstring can never be tested.”

(Weaseling in that little possessive “our” at the end I suppose is his equivalent of an ordination certificate.)

This man eats too much Pablum for breakfast.

Kaku has given the God problem a good deal of thought and has decided that God comes only two ways: He is either a God of Miracles or a God of Order, the latter being the one Einstein referred to when he spoke of “The Old Man, the subtle but never malicious God” who maintained Cosmic law, whereas, says Kaku (after no doubt having been stung by the same comedic scorpion that got Carl Sagan) “the God of Miracles intervenes in our affairs, performs miracles, destroys wicked cities, smites enemy armies, drowns the Pharaoh’s troops, and avenges the pure and noble.” Kaku, having exhausted his repertoire of definitions of the divine, throws his weight behind the God of Law and Order.

Buddhists may insist that the Buddha to whom we externally bow is the Buddha within us, and Christ may have said that the Kingdom of God is within, but Kaku’s knowledge of religion does not encompass anything “inside” anybody. Perhaps he supposes that when we take refuge in the Buddha we run to a temple crying “Sanctuary!”

Curiously, Kaku enthusiastically invokes the theories of Biologist Edward Wilson who has actually wondered whether there is any scientific reason why humans cling so fiercely to their religion. Says Kaku, referring to Wilson’s works, “Even trained scientists, he found, who are usually perfectly rational about their scientific specialization, lapse into irrational arguments to defend their religion. Furthermore, he observes, religion has been used historically as a cover to wage hideous wars and perform unspeakable atrocities against infidels and heathens. The sheer ferocity of religious or holy wars, in fact, rivals the worst crime that any human has ever committed against any other.”

Well, let’s see… he says that religion was merely the “cover” for atrocities… are we blaming the “cover”, i.e., the pretext or convenient excuse? If so why is he mentioning religion at all while ignoring the relevant “hidden” reason?

But he is not indicting any other cause but religion. And in this century, one cannot speak of religious wars without indicating the pogroms directed against the Jews and those other genocidal acts and atrocities of World War II..

So we wonder, does Michio Kaku labor under the delusion that the men who went down on the Arizona or who were marched to their deaths in Bataan were killed by the Japanese in the cause of furthering Shintoism or Buddhism? Perhaps he thinks Nazi death camps should be renamed “Our Lady of Auschwitz” or “The First Christian Church of Dachau”? But wait… millions died under the atheistic government of the Soviet Union. What was the Gulag? A chain of mandatory Koranic study centers?

And if it isn’t too indelicate to ask, didn’t science serve the interests of those who carried out WWII and every other religious war we can mention? As I recall, German and Japanese military leaders faced war-crimes trials, while Werner Von Braun moved his V-2 rocket R & D project and personnel to sunny Florida and the Japanese scientists who conducted those horrible medical experiments on prisoners of war and Chinese civilians were given immunity from prosecution in exchange for handing over all their valuable scientific data. Did not many of the men who provided the theory and engineering of nuclear weapons stand tall (and rightly so) in Stockholm to receive Nobel prizes?

Kaku had to excavate “radio debates” in his discussion of scientifically avant garde 10-dimensioned hyperspace to charge the Church with wondering whether Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle would “negate free will, a question that may determine whether our souls will enter heaven or hell.” Too bad Marconi followed Galileo or we might have been treated to those debates.

We all know how thoroughly power can corrupt and that power in the hands of religious fanatics doesn’t function any differently from power in political or scientific hands. But to suggest that religion is ever the enemy of man and that science is always man’s friend is just plain dumb.

Scientists Julius and Ethel Rosenberg betrayed their country in order to provide military benefits to an atheistic enemy nation but we never hear their names being mentioned when these arbiters of religious tea sit down to discuss the subject… unless of course, they wish to insinuate further Christian crimes by implying that the Rosenbergs were convicted more because they were Jews than that they were traitors.

Again, I quote Kaku quoting Wilson: “Religion, Wilson theorizes, is so prevalent because it provided a definite evolutionary advantage for those early humans who adopted it. Wilson notes that animals that hunt in packs obey the leader because a pecking order based on strength and dominance has been established. But roughly 1 million years ago, when our apelike ancestors gradually became more intelligent, individuals could rationally begin to question the power of their leader. Intelligence, by its very nature, questions authority by reason, and hence could be a dangerous, dissipative force on the tribe. Unless there was a force to counteract this spreading chaos, intelligent individuals would leave the tribe, the tribe would fall apart, and all individuals would eventually die. Thus, according to Wilson, a selection pressure was placed on intelligent apes to suspend reason and blindly obey the leader and his myths, since to do otherwise would challenge the tribe’s cohesion. Survival favored the intelligent ape who could reason rationally about tools and food gathering, but also favored the one who could suspend that reason when it threatened the tribe’s integrity. A mythology was needed to define and preserve the tribe.”

Somebody ought to chisel this paragraph in stone and put it over the entrance to the old Reichstag, or on Pol Pot’s tombstone, or, for the kicks it would give, near Yale’s Divinity School.

Kaku archly concludes, “If correct, this theory would explain why so many religions rely on “faith” over common sense, and why the flock is asked to suspend reason. It would also help to explain the inhuman ferocity of religious wars, and why the God of Miracles always seems to favor the victor in a bloody war. The God of Miracles has one powerful advantage over the God of Order. The God of Miracles explains the mythology of our purpose in the universe; on this question, the God of Order is silent.”

And finally, we have the Very Reverend Michio Kaku leading us in a lamentation about the abandonment of the Superconducting Supercollider project near Dallas. He stamps his foot. It could have given us a Higgs particle which would have explained Creation to us.

Michio. Michio. Michio. Millions of citizen taxpayers fervently believed that the Bible had already done that to their satisfaction.

Maybe Christian taxpayers who, like the rest of us ape-like creatures, give their sons and their incomes for the defense of God and Country, do not like to have their Savior or their Bible or their clergy mocked.

Who could blame a Christian if, after reading some of Sagan’s, Asimov’s, or Kaku’s derisive remarks on the subject of his faith, he picked up a phone and called his congressman and said, “That 50-mile wide “toroid” they’re building near Dallas… that toroid with all the rebar sticking out of the unfinished concrete like so many thorns… well …I don’t want you to spend another nickel of my tax money on that project.”

Perhaps if a scientist wants to get that Supercollider project back on track or get any other massive science project funded, he ought to show a little more respect to the people he expects to pay for it. (You’ve been praying to the wrong God, Michio. You definitely need a Miracle.)

Sagan and Asimov have gone, unfortunately without benefit of introduction, to meet their respective makers. But Michio Kaku is still with us; and his mind is truly wonderful and his ability to influence the course of science is surely great.

He simply does not seem to realize how very much the public allows expertise in one field, which ennobles a man and gives him such heroic charisma, to metastasize into all other areas into which he directs his presence. We see this happen all the time. Excel at basketball and become an authority on hotdogs. Pitch a no hitter and know quality underwear. Throw a goodly number of touchdowns and become a financial advisor. Advertisers understand the phenomenon. It is called celebrity endorsement. It’ll sell toxic waste if packaged properly.

And, Doctor Kaku, the same influence accrues to a man of science when he derogates religion. So don’t do it. If you don’t understand the life of the Spirit (and trust me, you don’t) indulge your scientific curiosity and find out what it’s all about. Empty your cup. Cross the threshold. Ask what it is that the Zen Master has which has been so deliciously steeped in the Spirit.

Just don’t stand there and shoot yourself in the foot. You know what to do.

Have gun. Will travel. Wire Paladin.

Humming Bird
Author: Ming Zhen Shakya

If for some reason yon need elucidation on the teaching,

please contact the editor at: yao.xiang.editor@gmail.com


“The need begins with the man drinking saki; but soon the saki is drinking the saki; and finally the saki is drinking the man.”

— Kosho Uchiyama Roshi

It is not the fault of Thorleif Schjelderup-Ebbe that his discovery of the dominance hierarchy of chickens should have lent itself to such diverse disciplines as corporate finance, birth order determinants of success among siblings, international relations, and ultimately, to the psychology of the sane.

Thor, as we all know, was a Norwegian zoologist who watched his back-yard poultry with the dispassionate eye of a coyote. He noticed that some chickens always pecked other chickens and were not, themselves, ever pecked. Other chickens were always pecked and yet never pecked a single one of their peers. And a third group pecked and were pecked. Before Colonel Sanders could subject the birds to a final taste test, psychologists applied an electric shock regimen and determined that Chicken Group #3 could tolerate stress surprisingly well, while the others, i.e., the ones that only pecked and the ones that were only pecked, just went to pieces and succumbed quickly in that peculiar way of chickens.

A few extrapolations later it was decided that what was good for chickenkind was good for mankind: the way to survive civilization’s interminable stress was to accept the fact that we needed to walk the midline between abusing and being abused. If we could just accept our aggressive faults and then grant others the right to have these faults, too, we could live long and prosper. There was only one fly in the ointment… two, actually. The system worked well to alleviate acute stress; but despite repeated attempts, it could not put a dent in chronic stress and, in fact, worsened the effects of such stress by adding this frustration to it. And, secondly, it did not address the problem of stress that we brought on ourselves. Self-pecking constituted an order of stress that simply defied all known nostrums. And what was worse, self-pecking, as history has abundantly recorded, was the principal cause of chronic stress.

This is where psychologists and Thorleif Schjelderup-Ebbe’s chickens left us. When it came to self-pecking, we were on our own.

And still are. Sadly, even a glance at the problem reveals that it is not always a simple matter to recognize that we are the source of our misery, or, if we do manage to acknowledge our contribution to a self-inflicted wound, that we have the smarts necessary to treat it.

Except for a few of us, our problems arise because of unfortunate interactions with others. Generally speaking, we get ourselves into wretched predicaments because of three personality weaknesses. We may have an inexplicable inclination to trust people; or, when we voice a considered opinion that we should or should not follow a certain course, we have a spineless tendency to yield to nagging and surrender our position; or, we have a moronic eagerness to volunteer.

In any case, initially we are optimistic; but things have a way of not working out as we thought they would. Hope may be born in an instant, but it usually takes its time about dying. In the chaotic interim our vision becomes blurred, and we cannot always discern the cause of hope’s demise. With luck and the encouragement of our closest relatives, we will likely see how yet again we are the author of our own tragedy. The “prolonged” aspect of chronic stress then depends on whether or not we can bring the matter to a merciful conclusion. Unless we employ a successful end-game “detachment” strategy we will have no recourse but to watch helplessly as our faulty response devolves into habit and addiction. We are caught in a trap from which we cannot extricate ourselves.

Zen is not silent on the matter.

We know how many ways we can fall into our own traps. From this infinite number, let us take an example. Our driveway is expensively crumbling and we convey this information to a trusted co-worker, friend, relative, or neighbor (it matters little) who immediately rescues us from insolvency by placing at our disposal the concrete services of a highly recommended associate. Delighted to have such a resourceful confidant, we accept. There is a meeting – not of the minds, of course, – but one in which we sign a contract the fine print of which, in our euphoria, we neglect to read. We make a sizable down payment and await resolution of the driveway problem. There are numerous weather delays. Our angst mounts. Finally the jack-hammering and back hoeing start on the day that our neighbor is having a Christening party. Rubble is left in the street where the wheels of passing cars fling it into windshields. The party wall between our property and the next door neighbor’s is inadvertently rammed. The gate to our back yard is unaccountably left open and our mixed breed pit bull escapes to bite and be bitten by someone’s leashed pedigree pit bull. One of the workers makes an unfortunate comment to a passing teenage daughter, initiating an inquiry into his criminal history. We discover that we have become persona non grata in our own hood and still the driveway is far from finished. And then things really go downhill when another worker trips over a garden hose, injures his back, and sues; and we are reduced to consulting with our lawyer who reads our unread contract while whistling an expression of incredulity and alarm.

Though we desire more than anything to be able to blame the problem on someone else, Zen will say, “Neti, Neti” to all our attempts to attribute responsibility elsewhere. And then it will demand that we answer such questions as, “Who is really the gullible idiot? Who insouciantly signs his name like a tennis champion leaving the court?” and not until we answer such questions correctly will Zen supply the needed information: “Regard this as an expensive lesson. Pay your tuition; and put an end to the affair as quickly as possible even it means taking out a student loan. Learn how to fix your own bloody driveway or else select an independent contractor after you have checked with the BBB and licensing board and, by the way, never sign a contract without benefit of counsel.” This is the only safe way to conclude an episode of self-pecking.

But, you may ask, what of non-contractual pitfalls? Let us say that our spouse’s family has a pow wow in which it is decided that all members will take turns sheltering an elderly and somewhat cantankerous relative and that we have been selected, on the basis of merit, to be given the honor of “first turn.” When informed of this every instinct in our psyche screams “No! Hell no!” But we do not know how to articulate that which our every instinct demands. We weasel. “We really don’t have the room.” “Nonsense,” we are countered, “by moving x, y, and z there will be plenty of room.” We try taking a parental interest in our children. The elderly relative in question “is hard of hearing and raising the decibel level of the TV will interfere with the kids’ homework.” Ah, we are mollified, “No tenga pena. That can be remedied with one of those hearing aids which are not nearly so expensive as they used to be.” We will still be offering reasons as the station wagon is being unloaded onto our front lawn.

It need not be said that the next person in line for “a turn” will have left the country unexpectedly, and the person in line after him will be having brain surgery, and the one after that will be under indictment for some felony or other… and on and on throughout the years we continue to be saddled with an in-law who does not particularly enjoy our company. Now the risk is clearly that we have also become members of Chicken Group #2: we are always being pecked both by others and by ourselves. Zen says, “Learn how to say “No.” How? you ask. “Never complain and never explain. That is the essence of saying No.” Zen teaches us that there is no obstacle that cannot be overcome – so why do we propose an obstacle which we know will be immediately overcome as easily as we proposed it? The message is clear. Do not offer reasons for saying no. This merely provokes an argument. Say simply, “For deeply personal reasons which I am not at liberty to disclose, I must decline. But thank you for your kind consideration of me. And how about those Mets?”

If someone wants to borrow money, we use the same tack. “Gee, I’m sorry, but it’s impossible for me to be of any help. You’re a nice and trustworthy person. Just keep looking! And how about those Mets?” Again, never give a reason for being unable to accede to the request. If pressed, plead the regrettable demands of secrecy. And change the subject Use the same technique if you want to end a relationship – i.e., whether you want to quit a job or fire an employee or obtain a divorce. Do not list your grievances for seeking to sever the relationship. If you go into the boss’s office to quit, do not blame anyone, or anything, or any condition which makes your continued employment impossible. Say simply, “With considerable regret I must give notice of my intention to leave. My experiences here have been very gratifying. I’ve learned much and I’ve met many remarkable people. I just want to thank you for having given me this opportunity. And how about those Mets?” Only a fool would rat out coworkers when he is leaving and they are staying. (They will transmit the sting into every recommendation about him they are asked to give in the future.) Again, no matter how loathsome they are or how miserable they have made you, you must leave in blessed silence, putting an end to it.

A February, 2008 court case in Henderson, Nevada, shows how vital it is to confront ourselves and to terminate all forms of destruction – whether done to us or done by us. A man was sentenced to five years in prison and fined $250,000.00 for cutting down neighborhood trees which, he claimed, were spoiling his view of the Las Vegas Strip. The convicted tree killer, a sixty one year old retired construction worker, came into court in a wheel chair. Citing hip, back, heart and prostate problems, he pleaded for leniency and assured the court that he was not a bad man. His attorney reminded the judge that after all, none of his client’s actions had injured a human being. The judge was unmoved.

Out of town newspapers downplayed the crime and suggested that the man was a victim of Nevada’s skewed sense of crime and punishment. Local residents felt that he got off easy.

Zen persons considered the facts. The man’s predicament was a strange one. Most people who move to southern Nevada have come from states that are colder or wetter or have topsoil measurable in meters. Unfamiliar with the ways of desert flora, they are perplexed when the landscaper begins to plant a tree by drilling a hole into the rock-hard remains of the sea bed which is now their front lawn.

People who come from Arizona, however, understand desert landscaping. And this is why is was so peculiar that the man, who maintained a residence in Arizona, bought a second home in a retirement community in Henderson, Nevada, and then discovered that he could not tolerate the ways of plant life in his area.

Henderson, a fast growing town that lies between Las Vegas and Hoover Dam, is a developers’ product. On acre after acre of newly leveled land stand stucco houses and skinny young trees that strive to beat the odds and grow into something that can provide a little shade. It was in 2004 that a dozen or so homeowners awoke to find their young trees sawed off at the base or fatally wounded by having been sawed two-thirds of the way through the trunk.

The immediate response was bewilderment. Who would want to kill a tree? There is no place in the Mojave where a tree is unwelcome. The homeowners had nothing in common – they barely knew each other. This was a retirement community. There were not even any teenagers to blame.

Within days, more trees were killed. The landscaping companies began to be busy, casting suspicion on themselves. It was expensive to have a stump pulled out and a new tree put in its place. Or, could this be the work of an environmental guerrilla group that opposed development of desert lands? There had been several incidents in which environmental terrorists had burned down developments. Elderly residents, some of whom were disabled, feared that they’d awake one night, choking from smoke, or be burned alive, trapped inside the building that had once been their dream-house.

And no one knew who would be the next victim or whether the violence would escalate from arborcide to homicide. People were afraid to go out in the evening for fear that they might come home and encounter the tree killer or killers in the act. The possible motives came and went, and the only rational explanation left was that someone insane was living amongst them..

For nearly a year and a half the community was terrorized.

On the night that the 546th tree was destroyed, a retired sheriff’s deputy was on his way home when he saw a male figure, furtively bent, creep from some lawn shrubbery and then abruptly straighten and start to stroll down a sidewalk. The deputy stopped his car, reached into his golf bag, grabbed a three-iron, and confronted the man who, he could see, was carrying a bow saw under his jacket. The deputy detained the man until the police arrived.

All responsibility was denied. The man insisted that he had found the saw lying in the street. His wife protested that it was impossible for him to bend over to saw down trees because he had back and hip injuries and other assorted ailments.

Records revealed that he had once complained to the local homeowners’ association that some neighboring mesquite trees had begun to block his view of the Strip. He had offered to exchange the offending trees for shrubbery but his offer had been declined. No more was said about it.

And so, rather than try to steel himself to withstand the nightly disappointment of being unable to see the distant lights of the Strip, a view, some thought that was sufficiently far enough away for the earth’s curvature to block, the man, who at 57 had been lucky enough to buy a second home close to a resort area for retirement, could not count his blessings and instead vindictively took revenge on everyone who mocked him with foliage.

At trial, his defense consisted of variations on the theme of innocence. “It’s like you can murder someone and it’s OK,” his wife asserted, “but you’re accused of killing trees and it’s like, execute him.” His attorney claimed that he had been made a scapegoat by naive neighbors, “who had assumed they were immune to crime.” “It was a witch hunt,” insisted his wife, one that deliberately ignored other suspects seen near the kill zones: to wit, a suspicious man driving a red truck; a mysterious man in black rimmed glasses who looked like an old Mediterranean farmer; and teenagers on motorcycles who had ridden through the neighborhood. Friends came forward to testify that on the nights the trees were killed the defendant was in either California or Arizona.

No one, apparently, asked him what he should have asked himself the first dark night he left his house, packing a saw: “What were you thinking?!”

Now, it is clear that all 546 trees were not in his line of vision. What else could have motivated him to kill the extra 540 trees? It is very mysterious. We see him prowling the woods at night like a Rex Nemorensis in The Golden Bough, killing in some weird ritualistic way, achieving an unnatural satisfaction that very few of us, fortunately, could possibly understand. Within a week of his first foray he should have noticed that all the trees he killed had been replaced. Zen, if unable to prevent him from such an ethical breach in the first place, would have forced him to realize that his investment in view-improvements was not paying off. But perhaps he continued to kill because he craved the thrill of danger. Naturally, anyone who considers committing a crime should ask himself, “What will happen to me if I am caught?” But Zen would additionally require him to ask, “What will happen to me if I enjoy committing the crime so much that I become addicted to it? What will be my fate if I cannot stop myself from becoming an habitual self-pecking chicken?” But he was not self-aware, and he did not have an exit strategy.

Now he will have no view of the Strip, but on the plus side, there are no trees in prison yards to tempt him into sin. In U.S. prisons there are, however, many groups of men who worship old Aryan deities. Devotees of Votan and Thor, they meet on Sunday mornings to discuss Valhalla and the charms of Die Walkure. Trees figure prominently in their religion. (It is the belief that divine power resides in trees that prompts us to knock on wood for good luck.) It will be interesting to see how they welcome an arborcidal maniac into their community.

Humming Bird
Author: Ming Zhen Shakya

If for some reason yon need elucidation on the teaching,

please contact the editor at: yao.xiang.editor@gmail.com



Anita O’Day, close to dying from just about everything, sent me her Buddhist prayer-book. John Poole, her old drummer of thirty-two years, delivered it. John is one of those rare individuals who has the grace to pay homage to a monument while it is still breathing. He and his wife Elaine, Christians in every sense of the term, have cared lovingly for Anita throughout the long years of her professional decline.

So now I’ve got her prayerbook and especially since I remember her so fondly, I am delighted to receive it.

It’s been nearly half a century since I saw her. She performed at a supper-club out on Roosevelt Boulevard in what was then the outskirts of Philadelphia but which by now has surely been swallowed up in the city’s ravenous maw.

She stood obelisk and exquisite in a strapless, black velvet sheath, with a tennis-bracelet circle of what looked in the spotlight to be diamonds around her upper left arm. She sang and the world disappeared. There was only the music.

I remember so clearly how she took Patti Page’s signature song, “The Tennessee Waltz”, lured it into a plaintive, minor key, lavished her talent upon it and transformed it from tripe to tragedy. The deed was not mere magic. It was transcendental, a ritualized conversion of profane to sacred.

Only a small cluster of women have had this strange power: Edith Piaf, Billie Holiday, Elis Regina, Anita O’Day and Janis Joplin. Piaf, the French Sparrow, tapped our bone marrow with a desperate aging whore’s bravado in her trenchant “Milord”; Holiday lamented “Yesterdays” so sorrowfully that the earth itself wanted to reverse direction; Brazil’s Elis Regina cried out to the Sails of Mucuripe and made us suspect it would require an ocean if ever we were to be cleansed; and the galvanic Joplin, who summed up Zen’s philosophy in a single line from “Me and Bobby McGee”. Yes, Janis, Freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose. We call it non-attachment, the blessedness of total poverty.

Who are these women, these muses of music whose small selves were so fragile yet so troublesome that it was necessary to sacrifice them, to immolate them with booze and heroin on the altar of Divine Art? How afraid they were of scarring their greater Self with the mundane excoriations of ordinary relationships. We ought to understand. A squabble at work can send us limping to Jack Daniels or to some tranquilizing pills. A petty argument can make us pray for help to make it through the night. But these women suffered from nothing petty. It was always grand. It had to be grand. They were divas of desolation.

Ariadne, a princess of Crete, fell in love with Theseus who was about to be sacrificed to the Minotaur, a monstrous half-man, half-bull creature who dwelled within a labyrinth. Always, the great beast’s victims would scurry in confusion trying to find a way out, but they would be lost in the maze and he would corner, kill and feed upon them. Ariadne could not bear to think that Theseus would meet this fate and so, ignoring her society’s demands, a defiance that would exact terrible punishment, she gave Theseus the secret of survival in exchange for his pledge to carry her away to his kingdom and marry her. She gave him a ball of thread which he unraveled as he was led deep inside the labyrinth and after killing the sleeping beast, he retraced the string and found his way out.

Ariadne, now an alien in her own land, departed with him, but he, in the perfect perfidy of Samsara, had no further need of her and dumped her unceremoniously on the island of Naxos. (Curious how the antidote for heroin overdose is called Naloxone.) Abandoned and hopeless, Ariadne wailed to heaven. “I sing,” said Joplin, “and make love to fifty thousand people; and then I go home alone.”

Dionysus, savior god in whose honor drama was created, and wine, too, heard the wail of Ariadne and came to her in her despair. Loving the beauty of her great soul, he gave her a crown of stars. And when she died, he, disconsolate, threw the lovely diadem into the sky. The circlet is still there: the Corona Borealis.

I don’t know if Anita O’Day found refuge in the Buddha. Her prayerbook is musty and doesn’t seem to be much read. Perhaps, influenced by the exemplary care of John and Elaine Poole, she has found comfort with the Prince of Peace in the Kingdom Within.

There are seven stars in the Corona Borealis. Four of them are named Elis, Janis, Edith and Billie. When Anita leaves us, she’ll be the fifth.

Humming Bird
Author: Ming Zhen Shakya

If for some reason yon need elucidation on the teaching,

please contact the editor at: yao.xiang.editor@gmail.com