A Plumb Line for Our Lives in Solitude by John Backman

…for Our Spiritual Practice.

“Am I doing it right?”
I ask this question a lot, particularly in terms of the solitary life. Maybe it’s because I don’t have an official sanction to be a solitary, or because my life doesn’t look particularly eremitic—I live with my wife in a house in the suburbs. Whatever the cause, I need a plumb line to help me assess my life in solitude.

Every time the question arises, my deepest self draws me to the image of anchorholds. Many people know anchorholds as the type of cell that Julian of Norwich inhabited: typically a small room, built onto the side of a church, with three windows.


Anchoresses (they were mostly women, and most numerous in medieval England) were walled into such a room upon becoming solitaries, committed to a cycle of prayer and contemplation that took up most of their days.

It is those three windows, and the interplay between them, that speak to me.

Take, for instance, the “squint”—a slit or side window that opened onto an altar in the church. Through it, the anchoress could take part in the Church’s rituals directed to God, especially the Catholic Mass.

The squint reminds me of our blessed capacity to connect with, and draw nourishment from, the Divine Source of all things (whatever name you use for that Source). The squint’s size reminds me that a glimpse of the Divine is all we get. The vast Mystery is always utterly beyond us.

The “house window” usually opened onto servants’ quarters. The servant would pass meals through the window to the anchoress; the anchoress would send her chamber pot the other way. So we have a whole window devoted to the most pedestrian details of life: eating and drinking and pooping. The house window reminds me that these too are part and parcel of our lives, not somehow separate or less than. For us suburban solitaries, even cleaning the house and mowing the lawn are part of our call.

Finally, members of the community would come to the “parlor window” to receive counsel and wisdom from the anchoress. I look at this window and see my practice of spiritual direction, the correspondence from seekers in different places, my friends who need a listening ear. Yet curiously the parlor window was to be smaller than the house window—a reminder that service to others, while important, is not everything.

At the center is the room that binds the windows together. In that room is the pulse of the anchoress’s vocation—prayer and study and reflection and especially solitude. The solitude, and the Divine Spirit who moves within it, feed it all. The anchoress brings to each window the wisdom and treasures she has received in her anchorhold.

She also brings what she has experienced at the other windows. So her talk with a distressed parishioner goes with her to the squint, where she presents him to the Divine for mercy. The dailiness of the house window gives her a keen sense of her own humanity, which she uses to stand in solidarity with supplicants at the parlor window.

Many times, when I ask myself whether I’m “doing it right,” I worry that I’ve become too self-absorbed, or out of balance, or unproductive—or even too solitary. The anchorhold reminds me that the spiritual life is a never-ending flow, from the Divine to the daily to others to self to prayer and back again and over and over again. If I look at my life and see the flow, I can take heart that, in Julian’s famous phrase, “all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well.”

Humming Bird

About the Author
John Backman is a spiritual director and author of Why Can’t We Talk? Christian Wisdom on Dialogue as
a Habit of the Heart (SkyLight Paths).

John Backman  Author, Why Can’t We Talk? Christian Wisdom on Dialogue as a Habit of the Heart (SkyLight Paths)

CONTACT: johnb@backwrite.com

ZATMA is not a blog. If for some reason you need elucidation on the teaching, please contact the editor at: yao.xiang.editor@gmail.com

Telephone Atrocities and Other Crimes Against Nature




Am I Talking to Myself              FLY 2018


He tried to warn us. We wouldn’t listen. Just a few short years ago, that prescient and much maligned young American, Bart Simpson, shared with us the painful details of his encounter with that then emerging plague upon our nation, the telephone robot-voice menu spieler.

His story was chilling. Bart, his leg having been broken through no fault of his own, is convalescing – his limb encased in plaster and his mind blighted with the boredom we usually associate with that predicament. He is given a telescope and with its lens he sits at his rear window trolling the neighborhood like a fisherman after bottom feeders.

Hearing a blood-clotting scream come from the house next store, he trains the telescope upon what surely is a murder being committed by Ned “Okaleedoakalee” Flanders.

Impossible! Ned is known to suffer from an excess of Christian enthusiasmo, and Bart is therefore loathe to consider the possibility that Ned is a murderer even when he sees Ned, smoking shovel in hand, patting down the topsoil of a newly dug barrow in his backyard. Bart, ever fair-minded, refuses to countenance mere circumstantial evidence- until he hears Ned incontrovertibly confess, “I’m a murdidlelee-urdler!” This he cannot ignore.

Bart immediately acts. He summons younger sister Lisa and, as Ned drives away, persuades her to enter Ned’s home to search for hard evidence. She goes, and as she pokes around, Ned suddenly returns. Bart is frantic! Lisa’s life is clearly in jeopardy, but what can he do? His leg is in a plaster cast! Call 911! He grabs the phone and dials as he watches the confessed murderer mount the steps to where his unsuspecting sister snoops.

With wretched anxiety he whimpers as the phone rings. Then, incredulously, he hears a professionally oiled voice jovially answer, “Hello and welcome to the Springfield Police Department’s Rescue Phone! If you know the name of the felony being committed, press one! (pause) To choose from a list of felonies, press two! (pause) If you are being murdered or are calling from a rotary phone, please stay on the line.” Bart, violent in frustration, punches phone buttons; and the unctuous voice happily intones, “You have selected Regicide! (pause) If you know the name of the king or queen being murdered, press one!” At this point Bart surrenders the instrument to the Gods of Communication.

For sheer terror, not even Alfred Hitchcock could have improved upon the plot.

Oh, do not sneer and suppose that Bart’s dilemma is the exaggerated stuff of comic animation. His distress is real and much worse than it appears; for animation, by its very nature, reduces the atrocity, mitigating pain until it is a mere sketch of itself.

The horror, endlessly repeated in these United States, is as real as your liver. As I myself can attest, there was a time when the Police Department in my very own town once put some good woman on welfare so that it could give employment to a robot. (Another good woman became Mayor and now when we call the police, the police answer.)

A merciful Providence often consigns painful experience to oblivion. I had forgotten about this breach in responsible government until I recently learned about someone else’s disquieting experience with this assault upon civility.

A woman in another state had rented a bedroom to a college student whom she suspected was selling hard drugs to kids. When he first applied for the room, he had been rather timid and polite; but as the weeks progressed, he grew considerably more bold; threatening even. She had no proof; indeed, it was not her responsibility to get proof. Proof is what we pay police officers to obtain. She had suspicions, but to whom does one turn when one only suspects that a felony is being committed? Renters have rights, too, and while many of these rights defy ratiocination, they are violated at considerable risk. Visions of the film “Pacific Heights” flashed in her mind. She did not know what to do. Common sense would dictate that she call someone in law enforcement and discuss the matter. Common sense would be wrong.

Reasonably certain of what her tenant was doing, she waited until he left the house and called the police department. A robot voice greeted her and then dubiously warned her that to insure the quality of the communication her call “might be monitored” (pause) and that if she was calling about a traffic violation she should press one. (pause) If she was calling about personnel applications she should press two. (pause) If she was calling to report a zoning infraction she should press three. On and on the spiel went until she was told that she could have the menu repeated by pressing nine. Not knowing which button accommodated the category “tenant/suspect/drug/children” and understandably fearful that her tenant would return before she was able to figure it out, she called 911 and was relieved to hear a voice that actually had lungs behind it – until the voice angrily demanded to know if the suspected felony was in progress. She said, No, that if it were she wouldn’t have dared to call. The operator then informed her that 911 was an emergency number and that she was breaking the law by calling 911 for a non-emergency matter. She should hang up and dial the police department. She thought about her situation for quite a while, staring at her phone until her brain began to carbonize. Then she reached the only conclusion she knew how to reach: she said, as if amazed and relieved by the revelation, “I don’t have any children.”

A few weeks ago I saw an elaborate advertisement for the iMac and wanted to purchase one for our young webmaster in China. China has different electrical specs so naturally I needed information and therefore called the number Apple provided for those who wanted information. I got a robot… no, I got a whole family of them.. but not one of them knew how the unit would adapt to China’s electrical system because not one had ears to listen to a question. Before I made this call I would have supposed that everyone knew that however global the economy is, it still has quirky habits. The steering wheel isn’t always on a car’s left side. Lots of countries have different electrical systems. Plug your hair dryer into a foreign socket and watch the dryer fry. Why wouldn’t a brainy company like Apple have anticipated receiving calls from people who had interests that extended beyond the U.S.’s frontiers. And what is more puzzling, why would they spend millions on an advertising campaign if, when the very people they are trying to reach actually do respond, they treat them so contemptuously? I did not buy the unit. This is a pity because I had sent the young computer whiz the whole multi-page magazine insert and he was hot for it. “It is… it is so COOL!” he emailed me back. “Such Beauty!”

Our technology has outpaced our culture. We assume that because we are able to do something, we have the right to do it. No where is this more evident than with the misuse of telephones. More and more some of us begin to realize that our telephones ought to be sacrificed on the altar of some god or other. Satan, in this regard, is worthy of note.

How does it happen that a machine that is supposed to serve the need to communicate, takes on a life of its own and becomes an instrument that inhibits or prevents communication? There was a time that the telephone was a nice user-friendly thing to have around. But then we engineered it until it became a Rube Goldberg instrument of torture. We did not concomitantly impose a protocol, a simple standard of deportment, an etiquette for phone use that paralleled the technological development.

After enduring a series of communication atrocities, I finally pulled the plug on a few of my electronic helpers. It was mercy killing. I disconnected my phone – the one that was listed in the Yellow Pages. I got a new “residential listed” line without “call waiting” etc., and I took my answering machine and disemboweled it.

Then I sent up a white flag. I surrendered and pleaded nolo contendere. I’ll give you the bill of indictment’s history:

It was dinner time and I was just sitting down to a nice platter of rice, tofu, and stir-fried vegetables… the kind of stuff that tastes like plastic when it gets cold (and is not all that tasty when it is hot.) The phone rang. I got up from the table and went back into my bedroom to answer it. A frantic man spoke to me. He had had to fire his baby-sitting housekeeper under nasty circumstances and needed help in finding a more virtuous replacement. His wife was sobbing in the background. There was anguish in his voice, but as he related the awful events that precipitated the termination, I heard a little bubble in the sound stream. “Hold on a minute,” he said brusquely, “I’ve got another call.” He bopped off the line, leaving me to hold empty space. A minute or two later he returned and continued the narrative. A few more facts after that there followed another bubble in the sound stream and he again put me on hold. My dinner was already cold. I had little to lose by being patient. After all, I naively told myself, he can’t be blamed for people calling him.

But then, as I later nuked my dinner in the microwave, I thought yes… yes he could be blamed for answering. He had called me. He had, however, the ability to talk to someone else as well… someone whose call to him was possibly more important than his call to me. Naturally, he had to discover who this person might be. I saw myself from his unflattering perspective; and the view did not make me eager to assist him.

A few evenings later, as I was watching television, I received a call from a woman who had just been informed that her daughter wanted to be married at home – in two weeks’ time! She, too, was frantic. Would I please help her plan a garden wedding? She simply didn’t know where to begin. This is a call for help if ever there was one, and I immediately turned off the TV and started asking the tough questions. But I noticed that often I’d have to repeat myself. Her voice also seemed to fade in and out. Could there be trouble with the phone line? Then I distinctly heard a water faucet turn on and off and the sound of jingling silverware. “Are you doing the dishes?” I asked incredulously. And, of course, she was! Why was I giving her my full attention while she, who had called me asking for my help, was diverting her attention to perform some menial chore. The answer was simple: she had a portable phone and had the ability to do something else besides talk to me. So she did it. I wasn’t offended. I was appalled.

The following morning I was in the Food market in the canned foods aisle when a woman who was speaking on a cellphone to someone else in another, competitive market, was comparing the price of peas. She ran her cart into my ankle and as I hopped around, gave me a forced smile and shrug of apology as she continued her recitation, “Del Monte Early June….” I began to think of Midnight Cowboy and Jon Voight jamming the phone down some old guy’s throat. The idea really appealed to me.

Some years ago I attended a performance of Tristan and Isolde at Chandler Pavilion in Los Angeles. Zubin Mehta raised his baton and on cue the audience began coughing. If they had had a security check at the entrance and x-rayed lungs the way they x-ray airport carry-ons, barring entrance to those who tested positive, the audience would have consisted of only a few hundred out of towners. The toxic waste Angelenos breathe is something that the local opera lovers cannot do much about; perhaps they have become habituated to the sounds of strangling and death-throe rattles; but why did so many of them neglect to turn off their cell phones, beepers and wrist watch alarms. Between the consumptive convulsions and the ringing and chirping of electronic gadgetry, the rising passion in the overture had all the trenchant eroticism of peristaltic waves. Wagner might as well have scored the rumbling of his intestinal gas.

We also see such self-important arrogance in “unlisted elitism”. In my town, in addition to our Buddhist Society, we have a Laotian temple, two Japanese temples, two Thai temples, a Chinese temple, a Vietnamese temple and a Korean style Zen group. Only the Chinese temple and our Zen society were in the Yellow Pages under “Churches, Buddhist”. The Chinese temple’s name sounded like a state governmental agency and suggested that at the very least callers would get a response in English. They did not. “Wei! Wei!” would come the daunting voice and the caller would soon determine that whatever language it was that was being spoken, it was not English.

My number would be the next one called. It did not take me long to become an efficient Buddhist traffic director. “Oh, you want the Vietnamese Temple at 2611 South Buffalo” and I’d give them the phone number which I also knew by rote. Or, “What color robes do your priests wear?” and I’d fish enough information out of them to direct them to the correct temple. All of these temples had business phones… but none cared to list the phone and get the kind of calls I was getting. One full-moon evening I sat with a congregation member discussing a serious problem and my phone rang no less than six times within two hours. (Buddhist services are traditionally held at no moon and full moon.) I had wanted to take the receiver off the hook but couldn’t because my guest was waiting for a call. When that call came in, I did take my phone off the hook and once the beeping stopped, I began to savor the deliciousness of being incommunicado. Should I have my phone number disconnected and a new unlisted one installed? hmmm. Should I kill my phone, or just rough it up a little. It did not take long for me to decide in favor of phone-death.

I truly had become phone-sensitive. Things that I used to tolerate before, suddenly became unacceptable.

Driving on the interstate in the right side exit lane, I noticed a fellow in a convertible in the lane beside me who was arguing violently with someone on his car phone. He noticed that his exit was upon him, but he did not notice that he was not in the proper lane to take it. Without missing a syllable, he swerved into my lane and had I not the good brakes I have, I’d have collided with him. He missed me by millimeters. I laid on my horn. The car behind me, equally discomfited, picked up the chorus. Now the poor fellow couldn’t hear his phone correspondent because of the noise we were making and so, for the first time, noticed our existence. He turned around and scowled at us for our lack of consideration.

I have driven behind people who are driving, eating a taco, and talking on the phone simultaneously. If I were sitting in an airplane and the pilot was attempting to land the aircraft while scarfing down a hamburger and talking to his girlfriend at the same time, I’d get a bit nervous. Why do people think they can do this in city traffic? Some people receive phone calls that require that they write down information. And they drive along, drifting from lane to lane like so much tumbleweed, phone cradled at their ear, shreds of Monterey Jack clinging to their chins, a Coke with whatever food it is that’s inside the wax-paper in their left hand, scribbling with their right hand on a steering wheel supported notepad. The only thing worse than this occurs when they actually have to look up information. While driving absolutely blind, they invariably spill stuff and have to do a little personal grooming on top of everything else. (And a pedestrian can get a ticket for jay-walking!)

I reached a plateau of intolerance when I decided that I would no longer leave messages on answering machines. As soon as a machine kicked on, I hung up. I had terminated my own answering machine “with prejudice” after I had received one garbled message too many and one message too many from someone who had called me long distance and had the awkward option either of telling me he’d call again, or of asking me to call him back. Of course, he’d ask me to call collect, but everyone knows that this is not likely to happen. It would have been better if, since I was not at home to answer, nobody or no thing answered.

I also had gotten tired of people who monitor their phone calls with answering devices. They listen to the caller’s voice and decide if they will answer it or not. Often the caller will shout, “Pick up! This is so-and-so! Pick up! It’s important!” Others with more sophisticated equipment turn their attention towards the ringing instrument and read “caller Identification” before making their decision. Sometimes the caller outfoxes them by blocking his number but now, I understand, there is even a device that asks the “unknown” calling number to identify itself or it will terminate the call. (The Communication War continues.) The person who calls and is forced to leave a message wonders, quite understandably, if he is being snubbed or relegated to the nuisance trashbin while the person who monitors calls derives a sense of power that betrays his inability to cope with members of his own society who have his phone number. Like Nero, he makes his decision. Thumb up or thumb down.

I stopped being a voice-mail gladiator. I leave no messages.

I know people who live in a fantasy world of self-importance. Their phones keep a log of incoming calls which they fondle as a miser fondles gold. In their skull’s proscenium arch the drama unfolds. They see it all. Some foolish acquaintance dares to lie to them, saying, “Gee, I tried to call you Friday but I got no answer,” and they respond, the evidence hot in hand, “Oh no you didn’t.” Usually, these are people who seldom get calls. They are silly adolescent types or else they have the kind of emotional problems only health professionals or telemarketers should attempt to deal with.

Speaking of telemarketers….

Now, there is a whole body of people out there whom Apple or the Police Departments who use robots so contemptuously to thwart their callers could employ to answer their phones. Real people with, quite possibly, souls.

These people like to talk on phones. They could do the job… were they not otherwise employed as telemarketers.

Left to their own devices, they are as insidious as earwigs that burrow into the brain of the weak or gentle and lay their financially destructive eggs there. Think of what they could do for legitimate corporations.

A caveat… We should never express our annoyance or insult these intruders before hanging up. This response, while righteous, may exact a terrible price. A member of our sangha once confessed to me that when he first came to town he needed a job and the only one he could find was working as a telemarketer. With shame he revealed that when someone he called was rude to him, he’d follow the practice of his confederates and note the rude person’s number and for the rest of the day – or until he received another insulting response – he’d leave that person’s number on every answering machine that kicked on. “This is Lionel MacCawber of MacCawber, Havisham, Pickwick and Poe” he’d say with some urgency, “Please call me at ( he’d give the rude person’s number). I don’t care how late. It’s important. That’s (he’d repeat the number).'” Zen gave him insight into this wretched act of revenge. “We were pretty low on the esteem scale. We actually got satisfaction from thinking about this guy getting a battery of ‘wrong number’ returned calls.”

Be careful out there.

I don’t want to appear as though I’m in any way opposed to progress. I’m not. Businessmen and professionals are often ‘on call’ and require all this electronic support. I’m opposed to rudeness and the blatant egomania a person acquires the moment he acquires the power to be rude. What I seek is a code, a standard that we all ought voluntarily to follow. At the very least we ought to take our civic responsibility seriously. If the law says that telemarketers are allowed to harass us only during certain hours, then, if they call during forbidden hours, we ought to protest to the authorities … if, of course, we can get through to them. (I can hear the laughter… they know bloody well we’ve got no way to complain. (“If you would like to register a complaint about telemarketers, press the pound sign!” (pause)). I wonder what’s in store for those new machines that terminate the call if the caller doesn’t identify himself.)

So, the Zen thing is simple: if we call someone and disturb his privacy on the premise that our call is important, we should sit down and give him the attention we are expecting from him. We ought not pop off to answer call-waiting or busy ourselves with some chore or other. We ought to have the decency to turn off our gadgets and not enter a theater or church sounding like a pin-ball machine. We ought to start viewing car phone users in transit properly… through cross-hairs. We ought to recognize that answering machines are instruments of torture, probably outlawed by the Geneva Convention; and face up to the fact that there is not enough Prozac in the universe to undo the emotional damage done so insouciantly by robot menu-spielers. (I pray for the welfare of some young hero out there who figures out a way to smite them and save our civilization.)

If Zen makes one requirement upon us, that requirement is that we simplify our lives. We do not have to be probed by alien communicators. We are not in their power. We can take the phone off the hook. At 7PM I do. It’s wonderful. Try it sometime.

For the record, I can always be reached through cyberspace, Zen’s empty circle.  


Looking at the Cloth and How it is Put Together – Finding the Flawless Silk



I see you look only at the constructions of the I-ego and end up thinking and believing that those constructions are who you are. But that is a superficial examination of who you are. There is some apparent truth in doing that – the constructions do appear but they are not what is real. They are reflections of the mind in the mind. Anything, any reflection in the mind is apparent truth. It doesn’t last. And more times than not it is flawed–meaning it is murky. The murkiness covers what is real.




Think of it as a patchwork quilt, an old fashioned one. It was sewn out of rags, bits and pieces leftover from a variety of worn out clothes. You use the patchwork quilt to keep you warm or as a decorative wall piece, prettied up or to show off your skills – this is much like how you use the ‘I-ego.’ Little kids do this and so do you. You use your ‘I-ego’ to keep cozy, sometimes you feel boastful and proud, sometimes you show off, sometimes angry and hurt. All of it being fabricated out of rags; leftovers from various bits you learned. This fabricated ‘I-ego’ is not real because it is impermanent.


Time and time again you go back to the bits of rag to explain your behavior, to defend how you got to where you are and to protect your positions in everyday life. We all can see this fabrication. But spiritual work asks of you and me to set aside that quilt in order to see and know and realize the flawless awareness that is the emanation of the threads of all the fabrications.   


Right now the best I can tell you is that the emanations are like the silky threads that surprise us. What I mean is that you have walked into a spider web – and although the spider is exponentially smaller than your body mass you get caught in the unseen, sticky silky threads. The flawless is like that – to see and realize the silky web in the emptiness of the space without covering up with the fabricated quilt. You are afraid to uncover.


When you find yourself touched by the web, your reaction is to struggle to get out of it – usually the silk feels annoying and you want to get it off your face & hands and be on your way. What I am trying to say is the mysterious and often unseen silk rising out of the belly of the spider is the emanation of the threads of all the fabrications of the world. BUT you think these threads are either an irritation or a boon depending upon your conditions. You miss, altogether, the emanation in the emptiness of space because of your focus is on your bits of rag that you have put together.

This leads to a be-damned attitude with all the other silky threads. You strengthen your separate, frail apparent ‘I-ego’ and enter the realm of suffering. You cry out in all manner of ways about your little self.

Self-examination is essential if you are interested in finding liberation – not the liberation of dogma and doctrine or denomination but the ineffable, indescribable emanation of emptiness. When St. A studied wisdom deeply she discovered that the bits and pieces of the ‘I-ego,’ i.e., form, feelings, perceptions, mental formations and self-consciousness are impermanent her suffering stopped. To think otherwise, leads to the mark of existence which is suffering. 

With great encouragement for you,





Humming Bird

Author: FaShi Lao Yue

ZATMA is not a blog. If for some reason you need elucidation on the teaching, please contact the editor at: yao.xiang.editor@gmail.com

It’s a Jungle of Faith


Shraddha – Confident Faith

We take in our life through our sense doors. We see what is there and we see what is missing.

When I contemplate my parents I know I do not see them anymore. What was visible disappeared. Where they lived changed and is gone. I no longer hear their voices or smell them or touch their bodies. My thoughts about them are distorted and irregular. If I ask my brother he remembers differently than my sister and I remember differently than both of them. Pictures stir up mirages.

My parents were born, appeared and rose up and then shrunk down and disappeared. Much of the trajectory of their lives I did not see or know about. It is a story.

When I meditate I sometimes can see into the living room – through the bay windows where my father sat in a kitchen chair in front of the TV. It was there. I think it was. Now it is gone. An illusion.

Soon enough it will be true of this place – this house- this body – the thoughts in this mind will vanish and the intellect will stop. What appears to be me will vanish. Name and form are not real.

You might ask what does this have to do with faith and confidence. Well when I have confidence in the apparent world of body, mind, intellect I suffer.  When I remember it is fleeting, not real – I feel free of any fear. I let go of any worries or anxieties because I know the result – I know the body will vanish, I know the mind will stop cognition and the intellect will go quiet. Name and form don’t last. Never have.

And I also know that I will continue – there is a something that does not stop, does not vanish. I know that. In fact, the Source moves these fingers finding letters on the keyboard, putting together these words. All of this (I wave my hands in the air) is coming from that, the real deal. I know that.

I forget it though when I identify with the passing show – of body, mind and intellect – when I try to catch the fleeting world I get caught in the distraction of it. I think it is real and important and think there is something there. In a way there is something there but it is an illusion, a temporary distraction. If followed, the illusion causes some semblance of suffering.

Every name and form of the Source is laden with death, in clear words it is deadly. It helps me to remember that truth because it frees me from my stupid attempts to nail down something and try to make what is fleeting real. I stop taking things so seriously personal. LOL

An example of this freedom comes when I look at the fleeting world of politics as exemplified in the WH today and the recent news of sexual abuse reports regarding vowed celibate RC priests. These two situations confirm the same truth I see when I look into the living room where my father sat watching TV – both are part of the fleeting transient world and I don’t need to get involved with it at all. I see the suffering, and I see the root of the suffering I could get into if I begin to take either of them seriously real. That is ignorance. Knowing it is ignorance is not a condemnation, it is freedom giving greater capacity to listen and pay attention without dividing things up into good or bad. Either side of the division leads to suffering.

Ignorance leads to all sorts of suffering. Ignorance of the Source – ignorance of knowing the real you, the eternal nature that flows through all the forms and names continuously – I see the suffering’s root and open to offering what comes from the Source. My capacity to open to it is what is most important. To be clear of opinions and the three poisons.

We, Americans, and those who are Roman Catholic, need not be downtrodden by the ignorance – not afraid – because the Source is never and has never been contaminated by our ignorant shenanigans. I know this firsthand.

Now it does little for anyone who does not know except perhaps as an encouragement that others have gone before us who know the Source as a beacon of reassurance to continue seeking confidence in the Source.

We don’t rest our confidence in man-made stuff. When we do, suffering is sure to follow.

With great encouragement for you,





Humming Bird

Author: FaShi Lao Yue

ZATMA is not a blog. If for some reason you need elucidation on the teaching, please contact the editor at: yao.xiang.editor@gmail.com

The Capacity to Open



We all have some capacity to be open, to both give and receive. Sometimes, however, we close down and are unable to give and receive. This closed down state often says, “I know that!” or it thinks “I get that!” or “I have that!” or “I don’t need that!?” Sometimes this closed state refuses to follow or wants to do things in a way that disregards others or the teachings. And yet, the universal mark to “open” is still there even when the parochial I-ego mind appears to shut down the universal openness.




This capacity to open is never tainted by the I-ego shenanigans, but it does get more difficult to discover this universal quality of openness when the “I-ego” is running the show. When the “I-ego” is running the plays it is very difficult to receive and even more difficult to give. When I speak about “giving” I include many things, not just physical gifts…but qualities such as an ability to “listen” and to “pay attention” and “to follow” directions; to receive the teachings with a confidence in them….confidence that is trusting and not belligerent. There are many reasons the openness to receive and give gets cut off – sometimes it is fear or arrogance, sometimes an ugly righteousness forms over the open heart that looks like a know-it-all. But most of these reasons are straw devils — but even though they are straw devils they can run amok in sidetracking and ditching the spiritual aspirant into a phony security.

I hope you see from this short teaching that ‘the capacity to open’ is important to any spiritual work. And that over time, if we continue the work, continue to stay the course, that you will see this for yourself. See when you close down and stray into the petty field of the “I-ego” of thinking all sorts of crazy self-centered thoughts about your accomplishments and your prideful doors that keep you closed down in a mind that “thinks it knows.”

I encourage you to examine what you cling to and what identity you carry that leads you astray. The universal mark of suffering arises from that conditioned identity that you believe is a lifeboat. So there is work to do. Of course there is much more that can be said – but this is enough, a bite of the bread that nourishes the spiritual quest.

I hope you will use what fortitude you have to examine your constructed identity and begin to take down the ridgepole that holds it up. Freedom, the universal open freedom is never apart from you.

With great hope for you.


Humming Bird

Author: FaShi Lao Yue

ZATMA is not a blog. If for some reason you need elucidation on the teaching, please contact the editor at: yao.xiang.editor@gmail.com

Image Credit: Photo by Mikey Dabro from Pexels


Seeking Truth by Ming Zhen Shakya

For Andrej

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 humanchild. 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

ZATMA is not a blog. If for some reason you need elucidation on the teaching, please contact the editor at: yao.xiang.editor@gmail.com