The Zen Buddhist Order of Hsu Yun, developed by the founders of the Nan Hua Zen Buddhist Society, was the first exclusively electronic ministry on the Internet. The priests of ZBOHY follow the ancient teachings of Hui Neng and Lin Chi and the modern teachings of Hsu Yun. The Sangha has no dues or fees of any kind, neither do we accept donations of any kind. Our site is maintained by volunteers all over the world in a spirit of service. Precepts are given free of charge to correspondents who have demonstrated a sincere desire to follow the Buddha's EightFold Path.
Last week I was asked to speak at a memorial service for one of the members of our small community here. It was a talk for a woman who had many friends, friends that supported her at the end of her life with daily phone calls, body massage, meals delivered…friends that helped her manage and navigate the medical system…with appointments and medications, with surgery and rehab, from diagnosis through treatment and prognosis. Helping her every step of the way… from the first, unexpected fall in her backyard to her last breath.
In the middle of a heavy duty diagnosis…in the middle of the hard work of dying…this woman gave her dog away, arranged schedules for others to visit her, managed her bill paying, transportation to and from doctor visits and hospital; ate chocolate, drank coffee, complained, laughed, argued, cried and talked on the phone and let others see her in the most vulnerable situations. She allowed others to see her body diminish, her feelings come and go, her impulses push and pull, her dreams disappear until her consciousness ended and her breath returned to the One.
Life goes on…even though she knew she was dying…the material world, the everyday world made demands on her…even though she knew she was dying. Perhaps the BIG difference between her and us is in awareness. She did not lament death, she watched her step. As her body weakened, she began to know she was dying while her life continued. She was given a glimpse into what we often ignore. She began to know firsthand the material world makes demands on us in the middle of our dying.
She hit the jackpot. Her diagnosis gave her the treasure of time and awareness to know she was dying. She could tie up loose ends, make amends and let others love her.
Early on she told me “I am not afraid to die, I am afraid to suffer.” Her words suggest a real and present insight into the human condition, into her human condition, into our human condition.
We all are going to die and we don’t want to suffer. We are all going to die and life continues to make demands on us even though we are dying. It’s no use lamenting death. It’s still required we watch our next step.
We all are faced with this condition, but not all of us are aware of it.
When someone we know, someone we admire and respect, someone we care about dies we are given a small pot of gold. The death is a small glimmer into our human condition. It is a reminder, another chance to reflect on where we are and what is going on here.
As all things come to awaken us, death comes to awaken us.
We can’t stop death. We continue to respond to life as it comes. We do our very best knowing we are going to die. We meet the demands of our life in every circumstance. We remember this earth is a temporary situation for each one of us. It’s not a time to mourn, but a time to remember and awaken.
In the face of loss, we are given another chance to see close-up where we are. It’s a time to see clearly, to know directly what it means to let go, to relinquish everything, to see the impermanence of the material world and to know the insubstantial nature of the human condition.
Don’t lament death. It comes to awaken. Don’t take life too seriously. Do your best, your very best knowing you are going to die. Take the pot off your head and see for yourself what’s the next step.
The scarf wasn’t enough to cover up David’s hollowed cheek line. It merely reminded him of what he used to prize. Sarah touched her thumb along the tip of each of her fingers when she decided to speak.
“I’m not…” she sighed. “No. That’s not it”
David, alarmed by Sarah’s stammering to speak, faltered. The beauty, hers, his, waned. “It’s better to be a chair,” he said rather convincingly. Sarah grimaced. “Are you kidding me?” she said accusing him of doing it again.
He choked before he answered. “I know. I know. You don’t like it when I say the obvious.”
“First it’s NOT obvious. And secondly, if you knew that, we wouldn’t be having this conversation.” Sarah sunk her teeth into a piece of dead skin along her thumb and tore it off.
David, with his hands in his pockets moved towards Sarah to deliver more of the same. “Say what you will. It’s true. It is better to be a chair. Like that one, the one we paid big bucks for…or the couch, or the goddam rug.”
Sarah shook her head as she mocked wiping something away in-between them. “You’ll never change. Everyone…”
David interrupted. “Everyone? Really? Everyone? If you didn’t blow things out of proportion and listen for a change, I wouldn’t have to say shit like it’s better to be a chair.” He’d drawn his hands out of his pockets as though he touched something in the space between them. When he turned away to the side he let his head slump towards one shoulder then whispered.
“And no matter what you say, I know I am right!”
Sarah sighs. She tries again to speak what she came to tell him.
“I’m not…” she stammers.
He turned round and looked at her.
Sarah took in a deep breath and shrugged. Shaking her head from side to side she began again.
“Ok. OK. I’ll bite. Why…Just tell me why you think it is better to be a chair.”
“Not until you tell me who told you I’ll never change?”
Call 911. Call the Fire Department. We see a live wire down. Call the Alderwoman. Call ComEd. We stay out of the backyard. Greet the neighbors at the door. Stand and look and see ‘what’s the damage?’ Call the electrician. Call the insurance company. Call the City. Walk the dogs. Wash the dishes. Clean the dining room. Make the bed. Call the neighbor. Find the long, orange electrical extension cords. Check with neighbor. Borrow some electricity. Restore the land line. Get some rest. Eat dinner. Go to bed. Make breakfast. Look at the treetops in the backyard. Thank the old tree that gave up life by stopping the big, huge tree from coming further and crushing the zendo. Thankful no one else was hurt as far as we could tell. Two trees died.
And on and on and on…meeting what shows up as best we can…it hasn’t stopped. It won’t stop until we leave the body. We take refuge in practice in our self-sufficient mind. We do the best we can. We laugh. We get a blessing for the sick. We shop for food. We wave at our neighbor. We find a long rope to walk the boys through the rubble. We make tea.
Just on and on…meeting the myriad things.
Whether we fabricate a label of something being GOOD or something being BAD…it all has the kernel of suffering.
If it is a made up label of GOOD, we don’t want it to end…or it triggers fierce anxiety and fear that it will end.
If it is a made up label of BAD, we want it to end…and it triggers fierce wishes and fears that it won’t end.
Brush away the fabrications. Don’t rely on the fabrications. Don’t get too concerned about the external conditions.
Despite being favored with all that wealth can offer the wife was soon to find herself struggling to save her husband from the throes of self-abnegation. Appearances being unreliable the evidence of an unruly woe soon surfaced when the husband tried to drown himself with an overdose of barbiturates in his bathtub. The cat, as they say, was out of the bag.
The sight of the happy, wealthy marriage crumbles. The husband is hospitalized leaving the wife feeling helpless. In the face of their despair she seeks to save him.
It’s an ordinary story in many ways. It’s about a young, wealthy married couple. The husband is a Korean American who comes from a devout Christian family. The wife is a blonde, blue-eyed American who participates in her husband’s faith but does so in order to please and accommodate her husband and her husband’s mother. The husband is a conformist. The wife is a peacemaker.
In all respects they appear to have everything the modern material world offers. As stories much like life speak of conflict this couple discovers they are unable to have children. Of course, they seek medical help only to be told that the husband’s sperm is too weak to impregnate the wife. His powerlessness leads to his suicide attempt, her powerlessness leads to something else altogether.
The wife becomes frantic. Although shaken she resolves to help solve the problem. She considers prayer only to be told by her husband, “God will not give us a child.” Hearing this, the wife concocts a plan to find a sperm donor that looks like her husband. By a chance meeting at her fertility clinic she overhears a young Korean man turned away as a sperm donor. He wants to sell his sperm for cash, but the clinic rejects him because they discover he is an illegal alien making it impossible for the clinic to do a required background check.
The wife sees this as fortuitous and decides to follow the unhappy man. She knows he is willing to sell his sperm, but she knows little else. It turns out he lives in a rundown tenement. With only the knowledge of his willingness to sell his sperm and that he looks like her husband she waits for him on the stairwell to his apartment. When he returns she explains she’d like to hire him to donate his sperm to her for cash. She tells him that for each impregnation she will pay him $300 and when she gets pregnant he will receive $30,000 in cash.
The young man, solemn and perhaps reticent agrees to the deal whereby they begin at once. He performs his work without complaint or joy. The wife similarly remains stoic during each encounter and seems to endure it as a means to an end.
But again, as appearances are unreliable, things change. The young man begins to want to know more about her. It begins with small seemingly innocent questions such as what’s your name and where do you live? But the wife reveals little as she undresses and places her clothes into a plastic bag as his apartment is worn and scruffy.
Again as daily life unfolds the young donor happens to see the wife with her husband in an expensive car from the backroom of a cleaner where he works part-time. He discovers two things, she is wealthy and her husband looks like him. The young man decides to press for more information. He insists she take him to lunch before he does his does his work. He orders expensive food and begins to drink telling her he can perform better with a few drinks. He continues to demand and she resists. They both end up in an angry shouting match in the restaurant.
With a rift between them, they both leave angry and go their separate ways. But the young donor turns back and finds the wife in a doorway crying. She allows the young donor to embrace her and hold her while she weeps. He walks her to a place in a nearby park where he shows her a pile of rocks. He tells her that he makes a wish and places a rock on top of the cairn in order to help him throughout the day to keep his wish in mind. She wants to know if it works since she earlier had asked her husband to teach her to pray but was told by him that prayer was useless. The young donor, on the other hand, tells the young wife that his stone does seem to work for him, that it does matter.
They return to his shabby apartment where it becomes obvious that something has changed. It is no longer a suffering through experience but one of mutuality of kissing, caressing and lovemaking. The wife becomes pregnant.
Once she discovers she is pregnant she returns to the young donor and tells him that she will never see him again because she is pregnant then hands him the $30,000 in cash. She returns to her husband and tells him a lie so that he will believe the child is his and all looks like it is going as she wished. There is a brief period of an appearance of happiness between the wife and the husband. But as appearances are unreliable, it is short-lived.
Both the wife and the young donor are unable to get each other out of their mind. In time she returns to see him where she sleeps with him but tells him it must end. The husband, in the meantime, finds out about the young donor and turns him into the immigration police whereby he is picked-up and immediately sent back to Korea.
In a heated argument the husband tells the wife to abort the baby and he will forget everything and they can begin again. The wife becomes hysterical and tells him no but he persists until she screams at him that it is not his baby, but hers. “It’s mine!” she tells him. When she refuses to abort the child, he pushes her and kicks her in attempt to kill the baby.
At the end of the film the wife appears on a beach similar to a photograph of a beach in the shabby apartment of the young donor. She plays with a young boy, obviously her son and then retreats to the sand where she is noticeably pregnant.
What looked like a rescue mission for her despairing husband became a transforming series of experiences for the wife. The declaration, “It’s mine!” was a declaration of the wife’s new birth. She claims something she conceived. She verified for the husband the baby is not his, but something that belongs to her. It is clear that she is resolute. She does not yield to the husband. His persistent demand to abort the child makes it clear she is unbending to his will. She is emancipated, free of his will, his wish and his choice. She makes a steadfast choice.
And this choice is immutable. Nothing seems to challenge her. She remains resolute and unspoiled by his pleadings to abort what she has done and remains literally undamaged by his physical attack. She bears what is hers and does not cave in to the assaults levied against her. She is free from the ties of worry, helplessness and overwrought concern to save her husband.
Her response to suffering as a worried, concerned wife took her through the door of independence. The husband seems to remain caught in the social and perfunctory tradition of his family. His determination to get his way, to resort to physically hurting her suggests he has much work to do to escape the binds of his conditioning.
Her awakening was sudden although it developed over time through the ordinary events of her life as a wife. She unexpectedly cut the binds to the husband by choosing life no matter what the consequences might be.
Change, that which is not seen, is inevitable but it is neither an accident nor a plan; it is more an inexplicable mixture that follows the law of the universe. It is a paradox of knowing we are not in charge, and yet we are responsible to do our very best to end suffering right in the middle of it.
The husband wanted to abandon his life because he saw himself as a failure despite his youth, good looks, wealth and upbringing. But his relinquishment and focus were never very far from his own interests and self-concerns. He wanted to appear to be a success. He wanted to maintain the strictures of a tradition even those he felt were useless. He is not to be reviled but to be understood for where he is.
The wife took risks out of love and her sense of helplessness in relation to her husband’s despair and suicide attempt. She went beyond her self-concerns and did what she felt she needed to do to save her husband, her marriage and to give birth to new life. She did not live in the confines of how it might look to others. She was willing to endure what she initially felt was a repugnant duty which later becomes her saving grace
There was something pure, innocent and good about her actions and in the end her risks saved her from a deadened, wooden somewhat perfunctory life. She found herself in a place she never could have imagined, never could have planned or propagated from her schemes and plans. She knew something else was important than how it looked and was willing to risk her relationship, her marriage and her life to find it. Did it look anything like what she might have thought at the beginning of her actions? Probably not! But she is able to recognize what has happened to her when she declares amidst threats from her husband to abort the baby, “It’s mine.” The new life in her is hers!
Remarkably the efforts were taken through ordinary means, although the means could have led to her death. Imagine hiring a stranger to impregnate her? She risked her life. She was blessed with finding a donor who was an honorable man, a hard-working, devoted man. He prayed with stones. He had faith. He began to care for her and refrained from doing her harm which he easily could have done.
Her faith saves her, not a prescribed faith imbedded in doctrine, dogma and rules, but something unruly, unbidden and unknown which flows out unexpectedly. There are telltale signs of what affects it but it comes with no specific, literal guaranteed outcome. What we do know is that it involves the conversion of the heart and mind and a willingness to be converted, suddenly converted. .
Spiritual change which is what is most important is neither blind nor magical but it does often surprise and amaze us. When it happens we experience it but often are unable to explain how or why it happens. The inexplicable quality of spiritual change is a safeguard against humans poaching God’s territory. The best we can do is to do our sincere best in life as it is. We endure the ordinary, we risk in the ordinary, and we commit our efforts to begin and continue.
We are often susceptible to what is called “diminishing volition” which simply means that we start a project fully intending to perform it as promised, but find that our willpower grows more feeble with each passing day.
Sometimes we are so thrilled to start a new Zen program that we pledge to perform an unrealistic schedule. Oh, we will rise at dawn, and do yoga and meditation for an hour, and then chant for half an hour, and finally eat a healthy vegetarian meal, and then get ready to go to work. Not even monks in a monastery would try to squeeze such a schedule into their daily work routine. But we are euphoric and we sincerely believe that we can easily accomplish the goal.
Then… on Monday, we have to skip the chanting because we were late getting up. On Tuesday, we do only fifteen minutes of yoga and ten minutes of meditation. On Wednesday, we have time only to chant for fifteen minutes. On Thursday, we do the Sun Salute and drink a glass of orange juice with some pastry. And on Friday, we’re back to our old routine of coffee and a biscuit before we hurry up so that we’re not late for work.
Excessive promises are made in the irrational state of euphoria. They are the other side of depression – when we don’t feel like getting out of bed at all. The Zen Way is to lower the high and to raise the low, to meet in “The Middle Way.”
There was a rich man who fell off a boat and was foundering in the river. He could not swim and he clearly foresaw his own death. But a passing fisherman saw him and dived into the water to rescue him. When the rich man finally was brought to shore, he was ecstatic with gratitude to the fisherman!
“I have a gold coin I could give you, but that is hardly enough,” he said. “Instead I am going to sell my house and even my house cat. And what I receive for the sale of the house, I will give you.”
The fisherman was so thrilled to be rewarded in such a great way. He told his wife that after working so hard all their lives, they could finally enjoy their old age together in comfort.
The days passed and the rich man began to think, “Ah, the fisherman was used to diving into the river. It was nothing special for him to do.” And then after a few more days, he thought, “Ah, if he had not saved me, then surely someone else would have jumped in to help.” And a day later he almost resented the fisherman for expecting to be rewarded for something that any decent human being would do.”
Finally, he sold his house and cat for $100,010.; and he gave the fisherman his reward… $10.00. “I am a man of my word,” the rich man explained, “I sold my house for ten dollars and the cat I love so dearly… my precious pet… I sold for $100,000.” The fisherman who would have been happy to receive the gold coin was now cruelly disappointed.
And so it is with most things in life. We must beware of “diminished volition” and recognize when we want to go overboard with our willpower we are susceptible to the limits of our inevitable diminishing volition.
And then when we make a promise to start a morning Zen program, we limit it to a reasonable amount of time…. a Sun Salute, Five Healing Breaths, and a recitation of the Heart Sutra. Fifteen minutes ought to do it.
I remember when I was a child holding a soft red leathered book, one of those onion-skin paper small books that even a child would know to handle carefully. I did. I held the book in my hand for moments before I opened it. I knew so deeply from a place that is dark and breathless within me that words were revelations of what I call God. All words no matter how they were put together or arranged held something so unthinkable I still cannot put words together to explain it. I knew that all words have the power to open the eye that cannot be seen. I knew all words have the potential to cheer up the soul. So there I sat on the floor with my back against the bed and began to read the Travels of Marco Polo.
I looked for the face of the invisible in every sentence and when I found it I stopped because I knew I had met the presence of something more important than anything else I was able to imagine. It was and still is unimaginable. It is only lately that I realize that this realization is shared by others who are far better at making failed but heroic attempts to explain this power. I might now call it, at least temporarily, an eye-opener. And as quickly as I call it an eye-opener I want to append, amend and apologize because I know it is not an evenhanded, nor an acceptable name for what I saw. To call it an eye-opener is my way of putting my jacket on a vacant seat as a place marker, a way to save the vacant seat from impatient patois.
My suspicions are that there are countless, restless canticles that might want to claim the saved seat except I know that each one despite the beauty and form is a borrowed imposter. All words fail to be other than play-actors. It is not in the sense of a cheat, but in the sense of what is true. In comparison, all words up against what-is-true are cheats. It may be hard to swallow especially if we cherish words but in the light of the second commandment it is a relief.
“You shall have no other gods before Me. You shall not make for yourself a graven image, nor any manner of likeness of any thing that is in heaven above, that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. You shall not bow down to them, nor serve them. For I the Lord your God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children of the third and fourth generation of them that hate Me; and showing mercy unto the thousandth generation of them that love Me and keep My commandments.”
Although I wait and at times make an attempt to scribble and bind together an image of what I experienced as a child and what I experience today I know it will be a dim and partial reflection. There is no word, no one word or even a series of words that might claim ownership to an image of God. I might go as far as to say that no artistic expression may claim ownership to an image of God. I know this experientially and my knowledge is both confirmed and relieved by the second commandment.
My experience tells me again and again that everything comes to show me the image of God but everything fails to deliver a graven one; graven meaning indelibly set. In childhood, as today, I see something unimaginable in art even when the tale is fiction. The Travels of Marco Polo is questionable as being a historical and accurate travelogue. In fact, it’s questioned whether or not Marco Polo even existed. It doesn’t matter. The tale delivered the unimaginable reflection of God to a young girl sitting on the floor leaning against a bed.
The best I can do is to do my best to put together words that when they are put together they transcend the contrivances of a material, unfinished form. I am well aware that I am not in charge of any work. I don’t pretend to understand it. But I am aware that with every turn of a phrase a golem, a dumb invention, may be the result.
It is a cultural trend to write, to create an image of God through the creation of a benighted character of such stupidity that the reader is challenged to search for any likeness of goodness in the work. The use of extremes of depravity seems to have no limit along the x and y axis lines of human behavior. I suspect that this trend which seems pervasive arises because it is too difficult to write about godliness in such a way as to capture the reader. It may also be a more sad state of affairs. Writing which underpins every performance in film industry is cavalier. It considers sexual assault, violence and bedeviling corruption as the bread and butter of every institution ever put together by man. Someone recently suggested I watch House of Cards, a hit show as they say about sexual assault, violence and bedeviling corruption in the U.S. government. Why? Why would I spend what precious time I have watching depravity? Where is the redemption in works where everything is seen through a narrow sexual, violent lens with a corrupted fast shutter speed? The characters are the worst sort of golems, those dumb inventions that insult anything and everyone through vulgar behaviors. They are stupid cartoon-like characters caught in the swamp of the material world with little hope of making it to dry land.
They, however, are an attempt at an expression of God, as broken as they may be they give rise to an impression of God nonetheless. It is the nature of creativity to point to an image of God. The problem for me is that depraved, sexually graphic and violent works suggest an impression of God as unknowable except to those who are already awake. These works, when studied carefully with Buddha eyes, reveal that man is looking for God, but looking for God in all the wrong places.
Readers and viewers cheer the incomprehensible prowess of street-smart characters that lack common sense and little virtue. Competence to get-away with naughty behaviors is looked upon as a humorous dexterity to satisfy the ego-impulses. In reality it shows how mankind at this point in time views virtue between one another as wanton and dissolute.
In an interview by Bill Moyers with Sister Wendy Beckett, a cloistered Roman Catholic nun, he asks Sister Wendy what she thinks of the photograph of the Piss Christ. It is a photograph of a small, plastic crucifix submerged in the photographer’s urine. Moyer’s asks Sister Wendy about the freedom in art today, that art now lacks boundaries and is this what has gone wrong with art today? She starts by saying “…one could say that’s what has gone wrong.” But in her awakened mind she reminds Moyer’s of a principle of theology. “An abuse should not take away a use. The fact that someone abuses something does not mean that it wasn’t a good thing to start with.” She goes on to say she likes rules but rules should not constrict. “This freedom is a good thing, but that it has gone to people’s heads and they have become very silly is very sad.” Moyer returns to the question of the Piss Christ and asks her directly if she is offended. “Well no.” she answers. “I thought he was saying in a magazine sort of way what we are doing to Christ. He is not being treated with reverence. His great sacrifice is not used. And we live very vulgar lives. We put Christ in a bottle of urine, in practice. It is a very admonitory work. Not a great work.”
She goes on to say whether it is blasphemous or not depends on what you make of it. For her, she sees it as the sad state of God, in practice. She hopes it passes. I concur, I hope the use of graphic sex, violence and corruption pass as well. In my small, somewhat illiterate view of history, it appears to be an age old tendency of mankind to be irreverent, in practice.
The Piss Christ photograph is now over 25 years old. “Hope,” I have been told is what Mexicans say, “is the last thing to go.”
I rise at 4 a.m. to the sounds of a whimpering, sick but hungry old dog.
In the kitchen’s silent semi-darkness, I place medicines and supplements into his bowl and mix them with his food. As he watches, I recall the question, “Do people really believe that bread and wine can turn into flesh and blood?” I answer, “Why shouldn’t they? I trust that what I’m mixing into his food will strengthen his heart muscle and boost his immune system… that they’ll change his body and blood for the better. Conversion,” I whisper, “is a universal principle. Everything converts.”
I don’t know exactly how the change occurs, but I do know the medications, food, and even the water convert into something that is undying and timeless. Everything is recycled as if it is the first time. It is all fresh in the transfer from the bottom of the bowl to the bottom of his belly. I see his breath change, his cough diminish and his appetite grow stronger. I’m cheering for him as he eats. I’m witnessing something sacred.
I hear the doubter say, “Well, that is the result of science! The pills are supposed to work. That is not the same as bread and wine changing into the flesh and blood of some dead person.”
I point to the warnings on the labels of his medications. “Nothing is foolproof here,” I say. “I can’t claim certainty. Certainty is not the nature of the universe. If it were there would never be a plane crash. We love certainty, even while knowing that it has a downside which we often overlook: it kills our inner need to revere and to know what is sacred. It makes us smug, and whether in science or religion, it leads to a sense of superiority that alienates us.”
The doubter persists. “What does this have to do with bread and wine, flesh and blood?”
I repeat that conversion is a universal principle. We eat because we believe that physical food nourishes the physical body. Just so, we also believe that food consumed with spiritual intent can strengthen the spiritual body. It also undergoes conversion in the process.
Scientists must avoid getting stuck in a paradigm. In the 1960s Thomas Kuhn explained the revolutionary measure of establishing a “paradigm shift,” i.e., a new proposal that could absorb facts from old competing, deadlocked theories as it created a fresh interpretation. When we’re not open to change and refuse to see merit in anything beyond our viewpoint, we commit ourselves to a stale reliance on controversial opinion, a reliance that lacks the grace of tradition. No benefit can accrue from the attempt to disprove spiritual truth by applying scientific material-world criteria.
On the other hand, we can find insights into material’s conversion into spiritual “substance” in many works of art. One particularly good one is the film Babette’s Feast, a dramatization of Isak Dinesen’s short story and winner of the Academy Award for best foreign film in 1987. The story only seems to be a simple tale:
Two aging spinster sisters, pastors of their small church, are locked into their own austere interpretation of the Gospels. As the years pass, their congregation dwindles. They gain no new converts.
Babette, a political refugee from France, comes to their door, asking for help. Penniless, she is willing to work in exchange for room and board. Although she has once functioned as chef of a famous restaurant in Paris, she agrees to serve the flavorless gruel that the sister’s abstemious lifestyle requires. Her old life behind her, she lives happily with the sisters.
In that old Parisian life, however, a faithful friend continues to spend a few pennies each year on a lottery ticket for her. After nearly fifteen years, Babette’s ticket wins ten thousand francs. She can afford to return to her old life, but she instead spends every cent she has won on a feast for the sisters and the few remaining members of their congregation. To show her appreciation for all that they have done for her, she plans to help them experience the joy of fine cuisine.
As the ingredients for the many courses arrive, the sisters and their friends begin to regard such excess as sinful. They agree to eat the food, but think that propriety demands that they not “enjoy” it. Such pointless discipline fades when a distinguished man – one of their youthful lovers – attends the feast. He knows the culinary lore, and with great appreciation describes every dish. The food is so delicious that all the spinsters’ reservations dissolve, and they suddenly are free to escape the bondage of rigorous views and to embrace spiritual redemption. Love and all life’s enjoyments are now present at their table.
Asked if she will now return to Paris, Babette explains that she hopes to remain with the sisters. Besides, she has spent all her money and has no place else to go. She will not regard herself as being poor. She is, after all, an artist and, she explains, “An artist is never poor.”
The feast is of one woman’s self-sacrifice and gratitude. It arrives in the form of the body and blood of spiritual redemption, laid upon the sisters’ table as so many wonderful dishes. All that was needed was their willingness to open their minds to savor it.
…despite the impossibility of tracing back a single effect to a single cause, human nature allows for no other response to an event. …emotionally….there is always a determined effort to isolate an effect’s cause and to appropriate praise or blame to it. -Anthony Wolff, Recovery, Revenge, and Rescue: The 3R Murders
This past winter was harsh. The cold weather came in November and worsened. Snow, ice and bitter winds blew across the Great Lake of Michigan. Ice, more ice than recorded history shows, formed on the Lake. A dog, a stray, an Australian shepherd got stuck on the ice for the entire winter. Five rescuers, unknown to one another at first, began heroic attempts to save the dog. The ice, the cold and the wind were massive foes against the brave attempts to save her. The five did not give up. BUT all they could do was get some food to her, reassure her she wasn’t alone on the ice and that when the ice, the cold and wind changed with warmer spring weather they would be there to get her off the ice.
For weeks she struggled alone, on the ice, on the frozen Great Lake until ice began to melt allowing the five to rescue her. But even with when a waterway opened she was so used to struggling when the rescuers tried to get her, she was afraid. She had spent so much time on the ice she had worn her front teeth away and parts of her tongue froze permanently blackened. The scars remain.
Eventually she began to trust the rescuers and was brought in to a shelter, half-starved, frozen and frightened. Soon she may be adopted. She is a sweet dog, her tongue is still blackened, she still has no front teeth, but she gave up her struggle on the ice. She allowed the five rescuers to help her. They didn’t know if they could help her. They gave her shelter, a warm place to live, good food, a medical check-up, and looked after her. But she had to be willing to eat, to drink, to come towards them even though she was terrorized with fear. Something in the dog allowed her to be helped. Australian shepherds are leaders of the pack. They are working dogs; they are used to being in charge, running the pack to safety. She had to surrender her instinct for self preservation in order to get off the ice.
But rather than see her responsibility, probably because she is a dog, our tendency is to hunt for the human being who was irresponsible, the one who was responsible for her being stuck.
According to the Zen Master Anthony Wolff, it is human nature to look for the person or persons who were the cause, to isolate the cause and affix blame or praise on the offender. This nature, our human instinct needs to be given up for us to get off this slippery slope. We have to go against this compulsion to blame or praise. We have to do something much more difficult.
The Zen approach is not so much to let anyone get off scott free or award a trophy to the rescuers when it comes to cause and effect, but rather to start with our own mind. As a Zen teacher explains to a young woman in Anthony Wolff’s novel The 3R Murders–
…The place to start is to take your mind back to the event. Ask yourself if you…contributed in any way to the disaster. Did you choose to overlook…that something was wrong?
This advice is simple in explanation and difficult to accomplish. When we see things go wrong, when help is needed, our human propensity to look outward is a well-fertilized, natural and reactive habit. This instinct, to find the wrongdoer, coupled with our tendency to help, propels us into an external man hunt for the culprit.
We like to draw lines, definitive lines which complete a shape or form and there is nothing more complete than drawing a line of conclusion around the guilty party. It gives us a sense of nailing the perpetrator which circles back to praise for those who seek justice. But this is not the Zen Way. The Zen Way is to realize that our human inclination to find the cause, to help when we see a need is to overlook our contribution. We prefer, which is our ignorance, to blame, praise, fix and repair. We tend towards this approach with little or no understanding of our self involvement.
In Wolff’s novel, the young woman character, Lilyanne hears the Zen teacher, Sensei Wong’s words, perhaps wants to take them to heart but her conditioned habits paired with her human tendency to externalize darken her ability to implement the Zen Way in her own life.
In a previous book by Wolff, Monja Blanca, Lilyanne is coaxed by her parents to leave her vocation in a Catholic convent to return to lay life, in order to find a suitable husband and provide grandchildren to her parents.
At this point Lilyanne does not know the Zen teaching of Sensei Wong but let’s just say she did. This decision to leave the convent was one step in a series of many that lead to Lilyanne being traumatized by her would-be husband and his partners in crime. Although she is not killed she is metaphorically led to the slaughter like a lamb. If we apply Sensei Wong’s teaching, we may circumvent our natural inclinations to blame the criminals who took advantage of her. If we apply the teaching, rather than react from our natural instincts Lilyanne may begin to grow-up and may dodge the identity of a poor, poor pitiable victim.
Lilyanne’s decision to leave the convent was most likely not the first time her parents coaxed her into doing something they wanted, and most likely it would not be the last. We have to remember that Zen is about getting free and what we get free of is our human bent to get caught up in suffering and misery. It’s as simple as what Sensei Wong tells her. It’s a place where she asks the question, “Did I overlook something? How did I contribute to the mess I now have gotten myself into?” This question in itself is a Zen leap of great magnitude. Since those around this young woman would most certainly see her as a victim, as the poor innocent, maybe even holy innocent who was mistreated by rapacious criminals. It requires that Lilyanne and any Zen adept swallow the burning cannon ball of self reproach without blame or praise. It means to stand up and take the medicine without any accusation towards anyone.
The place to look along the line of cause and effect is not as important as the looking and the investigation. In this case, Lilyanne wanted to please her parents and so left the convent. It sounds so human, so much a good, obedient daughter thing. Doesn’t it? Fair enough, it is. Lilyanne follows her human nature and not her divine nature despite the five years in a convent. She is rooted in her identity of being a good girl. We might surmise that she entered the convent to please her parents in the first place. She has not yet found her own two feet and lacks sense. But when she asks Sensei Wong for help, which she does, she opens the possibility of seeing her own eye, her culpability in regards to her own life. This inward turn is the start towards freedom from the suffocating identity of being an innocent, good girl who was victimized.
It’s not to speculate on the countless possibilities of why a young woman, in her twenties might leave a vocation as a celibate nun to the possibility of a life with a handsome, wealthy mate. This work is for her to do. No one can do it for her. The caution for her is to stay away from the edges of praise or blame towards anyone who was even minimally involved. If she is to follow a Zen path to liberation, to divine liberation she must continually ask, “Did I overlook some nagging sense that something smelled fishy?”
This investigation requires a spiritual, ethical and emotional honesty that not many are able to face. It may mean that we recognize that the prize of liberation from one’s own cock-eyed blindness is far too costly. If so, then the blindness continues and a pattern of action gets formed and repeated again and again until death. In Lilyanne’s case she does ask Sensei Wong for some advise which he gives. The question remains for Lilyanne whether or not she remains under the influence of her parents and a victim of abuse or does she enter the embrace of divine sufficiency.
If she sees what she is up to, through looking at her own mind, she can change. Self-sufficiency is ever-present, but she needs to seek it. Otherwise Lilyanne like the rest of us, continue in the darkness of blame and praise, which is an ignorant, dependent place of being self-concerned and not self-aware.
Here are two brief portrayals of self-awareness. In Wolff’s novel, Murder by Suicide, we get a glimpse of what self-awareness might sound like for Beryl, one of the three detectives in the series Zen and the Art of Investigation. She speaks to two of her clients when she hears their dithering, self-concern.
“Beryl stood up, ‘Oh, for God’s sake. Listen to the two of you. Men. Men are such pussies.’ She held out her hand. ‘Give me the keys…'” Anthony Wolff, Murder by Suicide
At the end of The 3R Murders, George another detective in the series speaks to Lilyanne, with whom he has fallen in love. George, several years her senior begins to realize she is still dependent upon her parents when she shows gratitude that he is willing to legitimize the baby of another man. He responds to her worried self-concern.
“‘I understand,’ he murmured. He wanted to shout he understood all too well and then to castigate himself for being such a fool.” Anthony Wolff, Revenge, Recovery and Rescue:The 3R Murders
Of course, this is not whole story; to get the whole story, well…read the books. Find out for yourself. Zen is priceless.
For those who do bad things: For them there are no pains; Their bodies are sound and sleek. They do not share in human sorrows; they are not stricken like others.
Parables have been and still are a fundamental method of teaching often illustrating crucial principles of spiritual truths. At least the succinct tale with a universal punch is. The simple reason, which is most likely the main reason for this teaching method, is that we love stories. We love stories because stories touch the heart. Stories bypass the reasoning mind and often go straight to the heart like warmth and light on a bud. Stories open the heart. And this is quite a teaching feat.
When we combine the mastery of storytelling with a master of Zen there is the possibility to leap clear of reason, technology and global sophistication. There is the possibility of transcendence, but only if you seek it.
When the heart is pierced things change. Recall Cupid! When struck by Cupid’s arrow we are slaves of the heart. But there is a caution here for every would-be story teller, especially those who wish to share the heart of Zen. Cupid’s prick, we must remember, is equivalent to a tale without balance, a tale that pounds out stimulating depravity in such a way that there is no reason, no universal merit buried beneath the titillating perversity. As every Zen Master knows life isn’t one-sided by any obsession, even crime. There are no anti-heroes in spiritual mysteries.
‘Shoot’em ups’ and ‘screw-ups’ are part of the human condition of suffering but a tale that does not place the misery that we inflict on one another in the middle of the Big Truth does not show any essential principles of Reality. The storyteller who chooses the task of showing spiritual principles by telling a tale runs between Cupid’s bow and the Billy Sunday pulpit performances. It’s a big job and requires finesse and an elegance of refining the tale in delicate and tactful ways that unlock the heart of the reader as well as provide a short and to the point Dharma message.
Ming Zhen Shakya is a Zen Master, a writer and an avid reader of mystery. And in the name of Anthony Wolff she has cast her lot in with those storytellers that attempt to pull the latch on the hearts and spirits of her readers and nudge them towards the summit of salvation. But the work does not hammer anything down rather it taps and pats out a Dharma message somewhere in the story leaving it up to the reader to contemplate it or not. In typical Zen fashion the reader needs to be a seeker to find the jewel, but the jewel is there if sought out.
Ming Zhen Shakya’s spiritual pioneering in her series Zen and the Art of Investigation, written under the name Anthony Wolff, cross into the world of spiritual storytelling without preaching and without flagrant titillations. Her intent is to tell a good story and tell it in such a way as to sprinkle the Dharma rain somewhere in the book. There are crimes, tensions, and the uncovering of ugly hardheartedness. And in this mischief there are Dharma showers.
Anthony Wolff’s (aka Ming Zhen Shakya) choice of genre is the mystery story. And as many know mystery stories are moral tales. The moral part of the story is often overlooked because readers of mystery love the mystery and rarely contemplate the moral rectitude since morality naturally follows the demands of a mystery. There are good guys and bad guys. The good guys find out about some bad thing that has happened and attempt to stop it from happening again and again. The good guys have to stop the bad thing. This is the basic mystery plot. Who did it and how? And how do the good guys find out who the bad guys are and stop them.
Enthusiastic and keen mystery readers know this at the cellular level and they never question it unless something is missing. Anthony Wolff’s choice of ‘mystery’ books assumes that the good guys, the three detectives, get the bad guys, without giving away the plot, generally do.
Wolff’s three main characters, George Wagner, Beryl Tilson and Sensei Percy Wong are sleuths that take their work seriously and attempt to do the right thing for their clients. But Zen works in the Middle Way perhaps the only place where the wholeness of reality is seen. No one is left out of the travails of life. Wagner suffers with a disability from his professional past and lives with the remnants of addiction. Tilson, a man’s woman, struggles as a widow to get educated, to raise her son and work at the same time. Sensei Wong, a karate master and Zen priest, perhaps the most even-minded and stable of the threesome was born into a cultural dichotomy. His parents divided everything along the lines of the likes of ‘cheerios’ versus ‘rice’ leaving Wong to choose between them.
Wolff lets the reader know no one, not even the good guys are left out of the bitterness of life. The difference between the good guys and bad guys is etched out across what they have in common. The ups and downs of feelings, moods and spiritual needs touch all of the characters. Wolff knows that no one is left out of troubles. Good guys suffer. Bad guys suffer. The response to trouble, for the most part, is what separates intentions, decisions and actions.
And the good guys know the truth of the Zen adage,”…(T)he eye cannot see itself…,” which seems to be central to the detectives understanding of everyone as “…self-concerned, but…rarely self-aware.” The reader is left to discern the difference. It’s understood that Beryl and Sensei Percy, two of the detectives are Zen practitioners and martial art adepts which comes in handy when fighting hand to hand the foes, con artists and transgressors. George, the only detective having professional training was a former police officer, opens the detective agency. These are the good guys. The bad guys are those who respond to the demands and needs of modern life with skills outside the bounds of the law of the land.
In one of Wolff’s earliest novels, Monja Blanca we find somewhat questionable aristocrats hiring George to investigate the virginity of a would-be bride. A tough assignment to be sure! The main con is a woman, who is smart, savvy and successful at running the swindle. It’s a trans-generational business; her husband taught her and she taught her son to cheat. But there’s loyalty amongst these thieves for they seem to share everything from money to bed partners. The gang leader, the Contessa suffers from thwarted ambition and humiliation and finds her scams lucrative and satisfying. She appears to live up to psalmist’s description of those who do bad things; sound, sleek and without sorrows.
Monja Blanca is full of the mystery genre’s twists and turns. Victims are left holding empty bank accounts and stunned by the finesse of these thieves. Justice, where things get wrapped up and the good guys brush off the dust from the oppression of the crooks, ends this whodunit with a revelation from the good guys.
Pioneers are often best understood after they have led the way where they break new ground. Anthony Wolff may fit this breaking ground description. The set-up of each book is a must-read preface especially for the new reader. It sets the Zen stage with an old Zen adage, “…(T)he eye cannot see itself” which is what the three detectives in each book rely on to determine what is true and what is rubbish. But none of it, none of the spiritual message is rubbed into the reader’s nose. It must be sniffed out in asides, descriptions, in contemplation of the nature of the bad guys and their bad deeds.
Anthony Wolff gives spiritually pithy hints, little Dharma talks given by Sensei Percy, George’s foolish sense of being enlightened and whispers of Hui Neng and Hagakure recollections as indicators of where the detectives really are and what the action suggests. Anthony Wolff’s work, the moral tale of light and dark is akin to the eighth Chinese Zen Master Shitou Xiqian’s understanding of the merging of difference and unity.
“The subtle source is clear and bright; the tributary streams flow through the darkness. There is light in darkness but don’t see it as light, there is darkness in light but don’t see it as darkness.”
Mystery readers know this truth. The good guys stream into the darkness of the criminal world in the light of the subtle source never actually uttering a sermon or discourse. They show up and face the darkness on behalf of those in need.
Anthony Wolff’s storytelling proposes to those who seek the subtle source that ‘(T)he absolute works together with the relative like two arrows meeting in mid-air. It’s not elsewhere, some separate place that is foreign. For Wolff, the good guys work together with the bad guys in much the same way as two arrows meeting in mid-air. But as in any morality story of worth, the good guys, disturb, disrupt and dislocate the darkness with ordinary skills of body-mind training and strong determination. There are traps and mishaps along the way but in the end the Zen truth “…(T)he eye cannot see itself…,” but everyone is “…self-concerned, but…rarely self-aware” is turned upside down and inside out. Wolff holds out the faith that Wagner, Tilson and Wong’s intentions, decisions and actions are rooted in self-awareness and less in self-concern.