The Costume of the Actor by Soren Kierkegaard

What does it mean to love one’s neighbor?



To love one’s neighbor means, while remaining within the earthly distinctions allotted to one, essentially to will to exist equally for every human being without exception…



Consider for a moment the world which lies before you in all its variegated multiplicity; it is like looking at a play, only the plot is vastly more complicated. Every individual in this innumerable throng is by his differences a particular something; he exhibits a definiteness but essentially he is something other than this – but this we do not get to see here in life.

Here we see only what role the individual plays and how he does it. It is like a play. But when the curtain falls, the one who played the king, and the one who played the beggar, and all the others – they are all quite alike, all one and the same: actors.

And when in death the curtain falls on the stage of actuality (for it is a confused use of language if one speaks about the curtain being rolled up on the stage of the eternal at the time of death, because the eternal is no stage – it is truth), then they also are all one; they are human beings.

All are that which they essentially were, something we did not see because of the difference we see; they are human beings.

The stage of art is like an enchanted world. But just suppose that some evening a common absent-mindedness confused all the actors so they thought they really were what they were representing. Would this not be, in contrast to the enchantment of art, what one might call the enchantment of an evil spirit, a bewitchment? And likewise suppose that in the enchantment of actuality (for we are, indeed, all enchanted, each one bewitched by his own distinctions) our fundamental ideas became confused so that we thought ourselves essentially to be the roles we play.

Alas, but is this not the case? It seems to be forgotten that the distinctions of earthly existence are only like an actor’s costume or like a travelling cloak and that every individual should watchfully and carefully keep the fastening cords of this outer garment loosely tied, never in obstinate knots, so that in the moment of transformation the garment can easily be cast off, and yet we all have enough knowledge of art to be offended if an actor, when he is supposed to cast off his disguise in the moment of transformation, runs out on the stage before getting the cords loose.

But, alas, in actual life one laces the outer garment of distinction so tightly that it completely conceals the external character of this garment of distinction, and the inner glory of equality never, or very rarely, shines through, something it should do and ought to do constantly.

Humming Bird
from The Parables of Kierkegaard
by Soren Kierkegaard, edited by Thomas Oden.
FRONT IMAGE: Unfinished sketch of Kierkegaard by his
cousin Niels Christian Kierkegaardc. 1840
ZATMA is not a blog. If for some reason you need elucidation on the teaching, please contact the editor at:



The Anna Karenina Principle, “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way,” may be used by scientists to explain why so few animals have lent themselves to domestication, but Tolstoy’s observation, upon which the principle is based, is a bit suspect. It suggests that he found a statistically relevant number of happy families to include in his study.

Our experience would lead us to believe that the number of happy families is somewhat more rare than the extraordinarily small number of wild animals that have allowed themselves to live amongst us in a manageable way. Perhaps the families Tolstoy considered happy might actually have been in their nascent phase of a unique misery. Ultimately it may all depend upon what passed for happiness in 19th Century Russia.

Myla Goldberg, in her splendid novel, Bee Season, examines a uniquely unhappy family. Her study is of interest to us since it is religion that is the catalyst that hastens the decomposition of what was presumed to be a stable family unit.

Like a Wagnerian leitmotif that heralds a significant presence, the theme of Jewish mysticism occurs throughout her book. To whatever extent Goldberg stays within this thematic limit, she is on our turf. She chooses as her subjects a middle class Jewish family living in suburban Philadelphia in roughly 1988. What makes her tale remarkable is the ego-centered way that Saul Naumann, the “patriarch” of that family, pursues, through the Kabbalah’s vaunted writings, mystical knowledge of God. A Jew does not utter the name of God lightly, yet, with the zeal of a social-climber, Saul desires to gain that kind of aristocratic intimacy, that “first name” casual ease, with which a mystic interacts with divinity. Though he admittedly has never had a mystical experience, and worse, has denigrated God’s theophanic prerogatives to the level of a man’s simple decision to ingest an LSD tab, he regards himself as completely qualified to teach the subject. This is hubris, a sin that in the list of punishable offenses is in a class by itself – and at the awful top of the page.

The Kabbalah master who interests him most is Abraham Abulafia, a spanish mystic of the 13th Century. To Abulafia, since all creation was ordained by the divine pronunciation of “the Word,” it followed that words, when carefully approached through the permutations of consonants and vowels, contained a direct route back to their divine source. Appellations are particularly significant, the belief being that knowing the name of any entity gives power to the one who knows and utters it. The ultimate quest, therefore, is to gain the right to utter the name of God. At the outset, Abulafia and mystics of every religion require that one who undertakes the sacred discipline has purified himself of even the slightest material-world taint and also that he love God unreservedly. Saul, in his destructive self-absorption, is clueless. He does not realize that he is the very embodiment of the world he desperately wants to be able to say he has transcended.

A look at Saul’s personal history reveals a somewhat less than heroic individual. His father, an auto mechanic, in response to his own father’s rejection of his wife because she was not “sufficiently Jewish,” had renounced Judaism and anglicized the family name to Newman. Saul, unwilling to follow his father into either car repairing or renunciation, revived his orthodox heritage, restored his Naumann name, and entered college where, owing to his proficiency in the use and distribution of LSD and his boasts of traversing several heavens in LSD’s yana, he gained celebrity status on campus; the sexual favors of coeds; spending money, a bachelor’s degree; and draft exemption from military service in Viet Nam. It was the last of these acquisitions that his father found unacceptable, and he dissociated himself from his “hippy” son.

Saul, convinced that his acid trips are mystical adventures indicative of clerical destiny, prepares himself for the rabbinate. In addition to his other courses, he studies Hebrew, attends synagogue services, and dedicates himself to deciphering the Kabbalah’s esoteric writings. Being such a promising candidate, he is awarded a scholarship to Rabbinical school; but being Saul, he cannot see ahead to any deleterious consequences his willfulness might have. He talks a classmate into trying LSD, an experiment that goes sadly awry, and he is promptly expelled from the school.

Impoverished, he returns to his old campus where his fame as a psychedelic guide induces students to let him sleep on a dirty mattress in the burned out attic of their house. The room is not insulated and has no electrical outlets or other amenities. Yet, he manages, spending his days in the library, independently studying Hebrew, Judaism and the Kabbalah. Disabused finally of the notion that LSD can effect an introduction to divinity and lacking the appropriate setting for assignations, he is not inclined to waste time in fruitless pursuits. He marries an emotionally fragile but highly intellectual Jewish lawyer who has recently been orphaned and possesses an inherited income.

Their attraction is mutual. Saul’s bride, Miriam, has social theories that are in need of “wife and mother” experience. She has never had a serious romantic relationship and regards it as especially fortuitous that the man who wants to win her can, in intimate moments, whisper the sweet secrets of Judaic theology to her. It also helps that he aspires to be a respectable Jewish cleric – a cantor – who will have sufficient free time to be a househusband. She will need this domestic support if she is to pursue her career in estate law and other in camera activities. Saul much appreciates her intellectualism and professional status and, of course, the financial security which will allow him to do what she needs and he wants, i.e., to study, stay home, and do as little work as possible while remaining respectable.

His union with Miriam produces for Saul a comfortable home; a private study in which he can peruse mystical texts; honorific but light employment at a local synagogue as a cantor and occasional teacher of Judaism, and a son, Aaron, who is labeled “talented and gifted” by his teachers. Having no complaints about his life, Saul easily maintains a congenial persona. He is a househusband who cooks but does not do the dishes. It is Miriam who comes home from work to eat and then scour the pots and pans and, in her clearly obsessive way, to clean. Saul eats and immediately repairs to his study while Miriam fanatically wipes and scrubs. She sleeps for only a few hours a night, a lack of rest which Saul regards as admirable. He calculates that she gains two and a half months more wakeful hours a year than the average person. It does not occur to him that a constant lack of sleep may be harmful to her health.

Six years after Aaron’s birth, Saul and Miriam have a daughter, Eliza, who, to Saul’s unconcealed disappointment, is not considered “talented and gifted” by her teachers. She receives A’s in spelling, but is otherwise an ordinary, lackluster student.

Like his father, Aaron has had an experience that he mistakenly believes is mystical. When he is eight years old, during a nighttime flight, he sees in the darkened haze outside the window, a mysterious red glow, blinking as if giving a message in divine morse code. He doesn’t realize that it is one of the plane’s running lights. But the would-be epiphany’s image persists, beckoning him towards a religious vocation.

Aaron has no friends. He comes home from school and watches television or plays games with his little sister. At school he is the victim of cruel tricks and vicious beatings by bullies. After one particularly brutal attack, Saul is asked to bring a change of clothing to the school. He asks his son to name his attackers, but Aaron will reply only that he has fallen; and Saul, secretly pleased that his son is no stoolpigeon, declines to press him for the truth. Instead, he privately proposes that the two of them become a scholarly team, and he rewards the boy by allowing him to come into his private study to learn guitar, Judaism, and Hebrew. It is an invitation to someone who has lived in cold comfort to come and sit by the fire and get warm. A belief in intellectual superiority and a father’s attention will be Aaron’s compensation for suffering through a few more years of bruises and the constant fear of thugs. Saul, supremely confident that he has chosen the civilized way to deal with the crisis, will not suspect that in the most cowardly fashion he has failed to protect his child.

Eliza has no friends, either. But now that Aaron has been admitted to their father’s study, she must watch TV alone and sadly listen to the happy sounds of music and laughter that seep through air vents and from beneath the study’s closed door. When Bee Season opens, Eliza is ten years old, and she still has never set foot inside the sacred room. One startling day, she competes in her school’s spelling bee and wins. She is given a letter to give to her parents, informing them of her victory and qualification to compete in the district competition. She loves her parents and is eager to receive their approbation; but her mother, as usual, is absent; and her father, as usual, is ensconced in his study. She stands before the closed door too fearful of breaking the rules to knock. Finally, she timorously pushes the letter under the door; but days pass without Saul acknowledging its receipt. Suspecting that he is unimpressed by this “too little, too late” accomplishment, she asks her brother to drive her to the contest.

Saul is so self-absorbed that he does not notice that for the last ten years of his marriage to Miriam, she has only been pretending to go to her law office every day. The “paycheck” with which she supports him and the children is taken from the money she inherited. Worse, Miriam is a kleptomaniac. Ever since she was an obsessive, over-indulged child she has been stealing things. After she gave birth to Eliza she ceased practicing law. Yet, with Saul staying at home, she dresses for work every morning and waves goodbye; but her destination is not a law office. She goes to reconnoiter department stores and the homes of strangers to locate and appropriate peculiar things that convey to her secret messages of fulfillment. During each foray she seeks a missing piece that will fit into a mysteriously ordained arrangement that she calls “Perfectamundo.” She lives with the constant need to acquire by stealth an item she will know only when it conveys its nature to her: a pen, a dish, a ball – a trifle that somehow is commandingly significant. She could not explain this need to herself until, during Saul’s courtship, he related to her the doctrine of Tikkun Olam. According to this explanation, God placed part of himself into sacred vessels of light when he created the world. These vessels, unable to contain God’s glory, shattered into spark-filled shards that are hidden in the material world; and man’s task is to gather these shards and repair the vessel. This has been her Quest, she decides, her true motive. From thousands of items, only one may reveal its divine content; but recognizing it, she must take the precious item and fit it into an artistic design – one of many creations she meticulously maintains in a rented storage facility. This is what she has been doing five days a week for ten years.

It is a measure of Saul’s ego-centricity that he is ignorant of the circumstances of his wife’s life. It has never occurred to him to suspect that it is odd that at least for the last ten years he has not met or even spoken to another attorney or employee from her law firm; or that although he gets the mail every day he has never seen any official mail regarding a license renewal or any other business communication; or that he never sees her with legal documents or hears her speak to a client on the phone; or that never, when he telephones her ‘at work’ does she answer the phone but that always he has had to leave a recorded message; or that never when attending a business, shopping, social, or religious event with her has he encountered a secretary, a client, or anybody who did anything whatsoever that would indicate that she had a professional life; or that he has somehow overlooked the lines in their income tax statement that give quite specific information about sources of income. He doesn’t know about Miriam’s life because it does not disrupt his own. When it does impinge upon it, as, for example, towards the end of the ten year period when she is emotionally disintegrating and nightly reaches out to him sexually in the frantic hope that this connection will save her from psychological annihilation, he backs away from her. After having rejected her “six times out of ten”‘ he is exasperated and responds rapaciously, leaving her bloodied. This uncharacteristic brutality gives him a noble reason to start sleeping in his study. Like Larry Talbot at full moon, he keeps the door locked to protect the innocent from his wolfishness. Miriam, needing him, has tried and failed to open the door.

Eliza has lived as an accidental guest in her house. Her food, clothing and shelter are provided; but it is of no particular concern to her hosts whether or not she is happy. Not until she returns home from the district spelling bee with the winner’s trophy – the evidence of her proficiency with words – does her father begin to appreciate her existence. He is intrigued by this unwonted excellence and encouraged by the way she goes to her room every night to practice for the area finals in Philadelphia. Proudly he announces that the entire family will attend the contest.

It is there in Philadelphia that Saul is stunned to witness Eliza’s spelling technique. She closes her eyes, enters a meditative trance, and slowly pronounces the correct order of letters. He knows to a certainty that he has spawned a mystical prodigy. She wins the area contest and will compete in the national finals. Saul plans the strategy and tactics by which he will lead her to win much more.

Eliza happily shares the details of her mysterious technique. “I start out hearing the word in my head in the voice of whoever said it to me,” she explains. “Then the voice changes into something that’s not their voice or my voice. And I know when that happens it’s the word’s voice, that the word is talking to me…. I keep my eyes closed so that I can see the word in my head. When I start hearing the word’s voice, the letters start arranging themselves. Sometimes it takes awhile for them to look right, but when they do, they stop moving and I know that that’s the right spelling.. So then I just say what I’m seeing and that’s it.” She will later describe the process as having her head become a kind of movie theater with a silver screen on which the letters write themselves. Eight hundred years earlier, Abraham Abulafia said that the advanced disciple should, “let the word’s letters form as if upon a bright mirror,” which is precisely what Eliza is already able to do.

Clearly, her mind has moved through the portals of transcendence. “The word speaking the word” is God speaking the word, opening up the letters, as Abulafia had said, to describe the origin of all creation.

But Saul, who has never even meditated successfully, will now presume to become the spiritual master of one through whom God already speaks. Summarily, Saul disbands his “team” with Aaron, evicting the boy from the sacred study’s warmth. Saul will help Eliza to prepare for the national spelling bee and while he is ostensibly doing that, he will plant Abulafian seeds in her mind. (It is a commonplace in religion. Self-aggrandizing incompetents often presume to mentor humble adepts.)

Aaron, understanding none of this, is left to question the worth of the religion he has been taught. (This too, is a commonplace. Especially when a child’s social life is invested in his religious life and that life is parent-dependent, disillusionment with a parent invariably extends to the religion.) Aaron explores other faiths; and one day meets a sympathetic, unassuming young man who invites him to attend a Hari Krishna meeting. Aaron visits the ashram, and finds, in the group’s conviviality and joyful abandon, that he now possesses friends. He also meets a girl who inspires his romantic interest.

Although she uncomfortably senses that his agenda is not exactly hers, Eliza enjoys spending all of her free time with her father, preparing for the nationals. Saul persists in introducing spelling words that have a religious connotation and insisting on drawing her into a discussion of the word. Although he can see that she is becoming increasingly distressed by this tangential discipline, he cannot resist exercising his pedantic control.

Only Saul and Eliza go to Washington, D.C. Despite her natural apprehensions about competing in the nationals, he will not alter his agenda and tests her with the German word “gegenschein” (the sun’s glowing reflection in the opposite side of the sky) and counters her reluctance with pointed Abulafian instructions on how she should mystically create the word in her mind. Her confusion and self-doubt inevitably result. She does not win the competition.

The defeat matters little to Saul. He can now begin Eliza’s mystical instructions in ernest. He glowingly speaks of the ecstasies of Shefa, direct communication with God, prodding her interest by flattering assurances that she will succeed where he, after twenty years of trying, has failed. He teases the ten year girl with Abulafia’s admonitions to proceed slowly because of the power that can be unleashed. Opening one of Abulafia’s texts, he asks Eliza to read:

Make yourself right. Meditate in a special place. Cleanse your heart and soul of all other thoughts in the world, then begin to permute a number of letters. Permute the letters, back and forth, and in this manner, you will reach the first level.. As a result of your concentration on the letters, your mind will become bound to them. From these permutations, you will gain new knowledge that you never learned from human traditions nor derived from intellectual analysis. It will arouse in you many words, one after the other.

And these words, Goldberg notes, “which before had seemed as distant and dead as Abulafia himself, are suddenly affixed in her head as if born there and not across an ocean centuries before. ‘That’s exactly what it’s like,’ Eliza whispers, amazed someone could describe so well an experience she thought was hers alone.”

Saul skips ahead until he comes to a special passage which he asks her to read aloud:

You will feel then as if an additional spirit is within you, arousing you and strengthening you, passing through your entire body and giving you pleasure. You will experience ecstasy and trembling. There will be no question that, through this wondrous method, you have reached one of the Fifty Gates of Understanding. This is the lowest gate.

“That, ” says Saul, “is what we’re aiming for.” His ignorance is such that he does not realize that the instruction includes an experience of samadhi, the orgasmic ecstasy of divine union – which is hardly an experience to encourage a child to pursue. He intensifies her training sessions, intimating that if she strives she will eventually be permitted to read a book that contains the instructions for speaking directly to God. He shows her the book and where he has placed it on the shelf.

Saul begins Abulafia’s mystical regimen by asking Eliza to “permute” small English words. Assuming that no letter is duplicated, the number of possible letter combinations is determined by the factorial of the total number of letters. A three letter word (3!) can be written 3 x 2 x 1 = 6 ways.

bad, bda, adb, abd, dba, dab.

A four letter word can be written 4 x 3 x 2 x 1 = 24 ways.


If spelled vertically, all the letters in the word “four” are represented.

Naturally a five letter word has 5! combinations; 5 x 4 x 3 x 2 x 1 = 120. Eliza is no slouch. She gets into the rhythm of permutation and quickly tackles 6! words such as ‘mantle,’ filling ten pages to write all 720 possible letter combinations.

She is ready to move up to the next level, the recitation of vowel mantras. Exactly as a guru would recite “Ommmm” she intones “Aaaaaaaa,” slowly turning her head. Saul is astonished as she continues to chant the mantra to transcendental perfection, instinctively moving her head in the manner that he knows Abulafia had instructed. Later, her childish ambition overriding the admonition against attempting more advanced methods, she waits until an afternoon that her father is teaching in the synagogue and takes down Abulafia’s text. She begins to practice, chanting the sacred vowels, breathing and turning in accordance with the prescribed movements.

As the text describes, but independently of any consonant, she would straightforwardly face east, inhale, and chant a protracted Ooooooo (cholem, “o” as in “so”) in one long breath as she raises her face upwards. She would prostrate herself, rise, and inhale with face forward. Then she would slowly chant Eeeeeee (chirek “e” as in “see”) as she lowered her face. Again she would prostrate herself. She would rise, inhale, and keeping her face forward throughout, she would chant Uuuuuuu (shuruk “u” as in “true”). She would prostrate herself, rise, and with face forward, inhale, and slowly turn her head to the right as she chants Iiiiiiiiii (tsere “i” as in “high”). She would prostrate herself, rise, and with face forward, inhale, and slowly turn her head to the left as she chants Aaaaaaaa (kamatz “a” as in father).

Aaron has been spending as many evenings and weekends as possible at the Krishna ashram. Saul regards the boy’s interest in other religions as an ephemeral situation; but Aaron fully intends to move into the ashram, a defection that he knows – but no longer cares – will distress his father. Miriam, too, is spending more time away from home, she has, at times, come home injured and disheveled. Saul has been paying little attention to anyone but his prized pupil. The new school term’s spelling bee is on the horizon.

The crisis arrives. Miriam has been arrested and is being held in a mental hospital. She was apprehended in a private home while trying to steal a vase. Saul goes to the police station where an officer takes him to the large public storage shed that Miriam had first given as her home address. He is confronted by a sickening array of fantastically arranged objects: buttons, shoes, glassware, years worth of accumulated thefts.

Saul, trying to account for their mother’s absense, tells the children that she has temporarily been admitted to a mental hospital and that the police were involved because their mother’s illness involved stealing things. Aaron and Eliza. knowing that their father has been sleeping in his study, do not believe this.

When Aaron insists upon proof and takes an accusatory attitude towards his father, Saul reacts with a viciousness that belies his congenial persona. “If you want proof, just look at yourself. Like mother, like son. For the past few weeks you’ve been going around in an orange robe telling me about heavenly planets and rebirth and sniffing the hand you use for your prayer beads like it had been touching a woman, not that you know what that would smell like. Why can’t you just be like me, Aaron? When I was your age, I had friends. Real friends, not religious freaks who only saw me as one more body to sell flowers in an airport–” Eliza begins to scream.

Saul’s emphasis upon “that” is a not too subtle accusation of homosexuality – he has resented Aaron’s friendship with the young man from the ashram. The hostility between Saul and his father is reenacted now between Saul and his son. Saul will know how long that hostility can last. The only time Aaron ever saw his grandfather was when the old man was in his coffin and Saul brought him along when making the obligatory funeral call.

Eliza, motivated now by a desire to communicate with God so that she can ask Him to correct all that has gone awry, takes down the forbidden book, and moves up to the next level. She practices permuting a name with the vowels. YHVH, for example, would have twelve combinations.


She then combines the consonants yod, vav, and heh (YVH) with the five vowels (a,e,i,o,u) and in all possible ways, permutes them. Finished the printing, she chants them rhythmically.

Eliza is disappointed in all of the results because she has neither seen any person appear nor heard the thunderous voice of God, and she therefore feels unqualified to begin the ultimate permutation, the sacred “Name of Seventy-Two.” Then, as she reads through Abulafia’s text she fixes on a word she had overlooked: the voice may also speak to her softly! “loud or soft.” She has often heard the soft voice! She is, after all, qualified!

The Seventy-Two names are derived from Exodus; Chapter 14, Verses 19-21:

19. And the angel of God, which went before the camp of Israel, removed and went behind them; and the pillar of the cloud went from before their face, and stood behind them:


20. And it came between the camp of the Egyptians and the camp of Israel; and it was a cloud and darkness, but it gave light by night: so that the one came not near the other all the night.


21. And Moses stretched out his hand over the sea; and the LORD caused the sea to go by a strong east wind all that night, and made the sea dry, and the waters were divided.

A complex formula is applied by which the first letter of the first line (Hebrew is read from right to left and, at least in this case, “as the ox ploughs” (boustrophphedon) which means that at the end of the first line the eye drops directly down to the word beneath it and that line is read left to right and at the end of that line the eye drops down to begin the third line right to left. Therefore, to form a triplet, the first letter of the first line would be grouped with the last letter of the second line and the first letter of the third line, or, more simply, the triplets are formed by reading straight down.. Each line has seventy two letters, therefore there are 72 triplets. These are traditionally arranged:


With the recklessness of a sorcerer’s apprentice, Eliza now begins to chant the sacred Seventy-Two names. As she pronounces the final name she falls into a convulsive trance.

It is difficult to convey the fact that the religious life and the mystical life have little in common. They are not merely the infrared and ultraviolet of a visible spiritual spectrum.

Religion is taught. It is external and is confined to the material world’s skandhas to which the conscious mind belongs. A man studies his religion, prays, conforms his behavior as best he can to its precepts, and participates in its liturgical life, weaving his social and domestic life into its calendar. And all of this is consciously done. He may believe in his religion’s worth sufficiently to martyr himself in its cause; but this does not make him a mystic.

Mysticism is genetically encoded, It is not a mutant gene. Everyman who possesses a central nervous system has inherited the potential for experiencing divinity within himself providing he can transcend his ego-conscious mind. In the mystical realm there is no difference between a priest, guru, shaman, zen master, rabbi, imam, or an ordinary person who is unheralded in religion’s courts. Again, In the state of transcendence there are no distinctions between persons, religions, or, the strangely limited varieties of transcendental experience – as centuries worth of artwork and narratives have attested.

Religions, at their base level, i.e., the level at which families form congregations, are not only different from each other, they are intolerant of each other. Contempt usually characterizes their mutual regard. Each religion claims sole authority, chosen status, and the exclusive right to know and interpret divine will. Wars can be fought over a line of scripture.

Fortunately, each religion has a mystical ladder; and mystics are simply those persons who have ascended the various ladders. As they stand at the top rung they can see each other clearly, and they cannot detect a single difference amongst themselves. They often read, reverentially and with pleasure, each other’s scriptures, poetry, and prayers.

The indispensable core experience which defines mysticism is the direct communication with God, regardless of the name given God – Buddha Self, Atman, Jehova – or whether or not God is perceived as a Trinity of Persons, or even whether the mystic’s religious affiliation considers God an external creator or an internal force.

The mystical process is initiated by the integration of the two Shadow archetypes: the friend and the enemy aspects of the Herd Instinct. It is for this reason that a degree of withdrawal from society usually accompanies this initial integration experience. The mystic no longer has those sophomoric love-hate interests in family affairs, political figures or current events. The integrated “Friend” often appears to him in archetypal dreams or in meditations. Carl Jung would hold conversations with his “Friend” whom he called Philemon.

Skill in concentration and meditation lead into Tattva #4, Samadhi, the ecstasy of divine union. But the great mystical events require that the Buddha Self extinguish the ego, if only briefly, and make Its presence known. This marvelous event is called satori, Tattva #3, a Trinitarian experience. Before the next great event, the mysterium coniunctionis, can occur, the Anima or Animus must be integrated so that it can subsume the mystic’s ego-identity while he or she is in the meditative state. Several of the principal archetypes will subsequently complete the integration and subsumation process.

Eliza’s motives for entering sacred space are benign. Abulafia’s methods may have given her several new techniques, but the technique does not produce the result, it only facilitates it. Eliza already had reached mystical heights in meditation: a Trinitarian suppression of her ego and a pristine visionary experience. Abulafia allowed her to recognize that they were “what is known as” mystical experiences. Although other mystical disciplines would have served as well, he used one that we immediately recognize in the chakra system. A look at Sir John Woodroffe’s The Serpent Power reveals the same technique of burdening the ego with remembering a dazzling array of details about each of the chakras: colors, number of petals, letters of the alphabet inscribed on the petals rhythmically recited, bija mantra, musical note, animal, geometric shapes, god and goddess and each of the numerous objects held in their hands, the functions over which the chakra presides, and so on. By burdening consciousness with so many details to focus upon, there is no space into which ego-consciousness can insert itself. Alchemy accomplishes the identical feat by forcing the practitioner to employ a variety of arcane disciplines – metals, gods, astronomy, astrology, chemical changes, instruments, and the most cryptic references to spiritual states that have ever been recorded.

Slow chanting with interspersed prostration is frequently done in Chinese Chan temples. Ah-mi-to-fu is the way that Amitabha’s name is pronounced; and often, hours are spent chanting the name and then prostrating oneself. Up and down. Up and down.

Visualizing each letter as upon a mirror or as suspended in space, radiant in its absolute perfection, is a standard Platonic Ideal Form meditative experience.

Seeing the image of a divine person who may be questioned is known in Daoism as a successful result of the Egress Meditation on the Immortal Foetus, or in Buddhism as producing the Diamond Body. In alchemy, Abulafia’s method is known by a variety of names all having to do with the Hermetic production of the Solar or Royal King.

Attaining a peculiar radiance, if only for a few days, is known tomystics in all religions.

Myla Goldberg has indeed created a family with a unique misery. Saul Naumann is neither Tartuffe nor Torquemada. He’s not a womanizer and he doesn’t beat his wife or children. His failures as husband, father, son, and teacher have all been caused by his overwhelming self-absorption. He presents himself as an affable fellow, a respectable Man of the Cloth and Judaic scholar, liberal in his views, tolerant, devout, and attentive to the needs of his family and congregation. He us none of these things. He is merely the type person with whom all religions at their base level are cursed: the egotist who is so obsessed with acquiring spiritual power that he will sacrifice the lives, property, and happiness of all who come under his control.

Humming Bird
By Ming Zhen Shakya
ZATMA is not a blog. If for some reason you need elucidation on the teaching, please contact the editor at:

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.  


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:


We Want What We Think – And Think What We Want

Shakespeare gives us a fine image of good intentions gone awry: to his own detriment, a fellow so eagerly tries to mount a horse that he jumps clear over it. Just so, Macbeth, pondering his plan to murder the king, worries about his “…vaulting ambition, which o’erleaps itself and falls on the other.”

In the cause of separating church from state, we seem to have o’erleaped ourselves or, to use a more homespun metaphor, to have thrown the baby out with the bath.

As a member of a minority religion, I’m hardly in a position to denigrate the value of religious freedom. It’s a sacred right and the more vigorously it is preserved, the better off we all are.

But religion and spirituality are not the same thing. In trying to protect the interests of the former, we have all too easily sacrificed the latter. In banning spiritual expression from our public schools, a great chunk of what was once an integral part of American heritage and culture has been placed in escrow or some sort of trust account to which a few executors have access and a privileged few may derive whatever moral benefits can accrue to those who gain at the sorry expense of others.

Recently several events brought the problem into focus and clarified, without resolution of course, at least some of the pertinent questions: What have we lost and why did we lose it and what will happen to us if we don’t recover it? Something is terribly wrong.

On July 20th, l969, during the Apollo 11 Mission, Buzz Aldrin and Neil Armstrong became the first men to walk on the moon. We earthbound citizen taxpayers were well informed about the lunar excursion and could track the whole adventure. To discuss the details of this scientific achievement, we learned a new vocabulary: lunar orbit insertion burns; lunar module docking and undocking; PDI (powered descent initiation); and a whole litany of terms. We knew how the crewmen urinated and what they ate. This was knowledge in its finest hour and NASA wanted us to know everything… except… well… not the fact that Buzz Aldrin celebrated Holy Communion before he and Neil Armstrong went down that ladder. That we weren’t allowed to know. NASA didn’t think it prudent to inform us that something spiritual was happening on the moon, that men of science could also be spiritual. Of course, we did know that the astronauts were religious men. They had to be religious. We wouldn’t have sent atheists to the moon or even let them into an astronaut training program.

But just a minute here… the Miracle of Transubstantiation on the moon? Somebody partaking of consecrated American bread on the moon? No way. Six years before the lunar landing, the Supreme Court had declared its “no prayers in public schools” version of the Constitution’s separation of church and state and that separation extended even to government-sponsored events on the moon. So NASA drew that religious line in the lunar sand. Why weren’t we allowed to be told about this lunar Communion? Not until a quarter century after the fact did word leak out to puzzle those of us who heard it. Something was wrong here.

Then last September in Boulder City, Nevada, at Grace Church’s interfaith meditation session, Gard Jamison, while speaking about Christian meditation practices, tried to rustle up some audience participation – always a dangerous venture – and referred to the Sermon on the Mount. Hoping to elicit a little feedback, he quoted Jesus, saying, “‘Blessed are the pure in heart for they shall–‘” and then he waited expectantly for the assembly to shout out the answer as to what the pure in heart could expect, but nobody said anything. There was this great silence as Gard, eyebrows raised and mouth open, sat poised to hear the vault of sound break open and the precious answer issue forth… but all he heard was a faint echo of his own voice. It was an awkward moment and I turned to Richard Smith, the Pastor of Grace Church, who, as you might expect, was groaning with his hands over his face; and I quizzically whispered, “See God?” Could it possibly have been something else? Again I asked, “Don’t the pure in heart see God?” “Good grief,” said Richard in perfect agony, “My flock sits there dumbly while a Buddhist knows the Beatitudes.” Well, in all fairness to his flock, his flock was a pretty young flock and this Buddhist was a pretty old Buddhist who happened to have learned the Beatitudes from hearing the Bible read every morning in Public School in Philadelphia.

But we Americans are not allowed to hear the Bible inside our public institutions any more. There’s a line between church and state and that line is drawn between the citizenry and one of the most beautiful presentations of spiritual truth the world has ever known. Nearly an entire generation of Americans have never heard the Beatitudes because the only voices that ever uttered them have been silenced. Teachers can’t teach anything spiritual. And where shall this generation learn? In most American families, Mom and Dad both work and are understandably too exhausted or too hurried to begin each day with a thoughtful Bible reading. And on Sunday mornings, Jesus can speak from the Mount all he wants, but he’d better be calling NFL play action if he intends that his voice be heard in American homes.

Then, a few weeks ago, during an email discussion of the cosmic Dharmakaya with Chuan Zhi, the webmeister of our Nan Hua Zen Buddhist Page, I quoted Psalm 8: “When I consider thy heavens, the work of thy fingers, the moon and the stars which thou hast ordained; what is man, that thou art mindful of him?” Our webmeister, trained in nuclear physics, emailed me back, awestruck, “That was so beautiful! Where can I find more of those Psalms?” Now, Chuan Zhi is a profoundly spiritual man, a candidate for Buddhist ordination, a man who happens to appreciate the finer things of life: the saxophone of Stan Getz; the poetry of Rumi; Nilsson singing the Liebestod; but he grew up under the new interpretation of a separate church and state; and though he had been apprised of the secrets of atomic power – the boast of a proud nation, nobody had ever so much as hinted to him that it was possible to stun a man with the beauty of one of David’s songs. Something is wrong here.

Is this what the Founding Fathers intended?

As I write this, a neighbor is washing his car to the accompaniment of a boom-box that is dispensing Gangsta’ Rap by the decibel. In this lyrical exultation of free speech, we, the men, women, and children of the neighborhood, are permitted – indeed, we cannot avoid – the brute machismo celebrations of obscenity, violence, racism, drugs, the defiance of elected authority, and the abuse of women and families. Did the Founding Fathers intend that the State may not deprive us of the pleasure of hearing Gangsta’ Rap on our city streets and through our open windows while at the same time must protect us from hearing the Psalms of David in public institutions of knowledge and learning.? I may not have phrased it well, but it is a good question.

What are we really discussing by “knowledge” and “religion”? Certainly not wisdom and spirituality. No, wisdom is to knowledge what spirituality is to religion. They have a relationship but they are not kissing cousins.

To me, knowledge is information and shares this in common with religion: it is organized and disciplined; it is vocal and literal, it is something disseminated, broadcast, discussed. Knowledge wants to be known and seeks a forum’s setting just as a church, if nothing else, is an auditorium. What is a class to one is a congregation to the other.

While knowledge and religion are shared experiences, wisdom and spirituality are not. Nobody can participate in another person’s wisdom or intercept his experience of God. Wisdom is a quiet thing and so is spirituality. However much it’s sought, wisdom doesn’t seek. The wise don’t proselytize – that they are wise makes them know better – and the spiritual more than anything appreciate solitude. Wisdom looks inward and it looks deeply enough to see in itself the essence of all others. And that, of course, is what spirituality does. It retreats into the Void to see the ubiquity of God. Wisdom and spirituality are unitive. They see sameness. Knowledge and religion see and profit from differences.

Where Wisdom is recorded, the libraries of the world’s diverse religions keep the sacred books. And here we may perhaps find at least part of the source of the problem.

Who, ultimately, is responsible for the removal of sacred literature from the classroom? Were we acting to protect the atheist from being subjected to wisdom’s spiritual expression? Or, rather, when the issue first presented itself did we succumb to religious haggling and parochialism, masquerading bigotry as patriotism? Rather than risk having some doctrine of fairness applied, of having to expose our children to wisdom contained in other libraries, did we prefer to remove our separate versions of wisdom from the bargaining table, to secrete them in fortresses – the private schools and other institutions – where followers could flaunt their uniforms of exclusivity and privilege? Did we prefer to hoard our Truths rather than share them and accept a share of others?

If it is true that we have privatized Wisdom, is it not curious that though we insist upon our domestic separation of church and state we have no such requirement for those nations we consider allies? Americans who quite literally could be jailed for reading Proverbs before a public assembly of citizens may be asked to fight on foreign soil in support of governments which have, de facto if not de jure, state-sponsored religions and which, for that matter, may actually be intolerant of the religious views of those American servicemen and women who have come to defend them. It requires no great stretch of the imagination to foresee the possibility that the same fellow who commits a criminal act by reading Proverbs before an assembly of American school children would also commit a criminal act if, when drafted into military service, he declined to fight for the sake of any foreign government which mandated the reading of specific religious literature to its school children.

We are not so naive as to suppose that our government has separated church and state in any meaningful way. Religious institutions are tax exempt just as religious schools, in one way or another, are financially subsidized with state and federal revenues. While the children of the rich or of the righteous hear the scriptures and are nicely groomed for positions of authority – astronauts or politicians, the children of the poor and of the disaffected all too often become street-wise or discover the beauty of Truth by some chance utterance.

We all want the generation of citizens which follows us to have more opportunities than we had. Whether an illiterate man does or does not want his children to learn to read, we insist that his children shall at least attend school and be given the opportunity to learn.. That man, regardless of his desire, is unable to teach them; and we, therefore, supply by law the means of their education. But a religiously disaffected man, who is likewise unable or unwilling to impart traditional moral values, may raise, to use a Biblical quote, “a generation of vipers” for all anybody cares. We’ll simply build more prisons, a Constitutionally permissible solution.

No, we cannot be certain that the children who are denied access to scriptural wisdom will never occupy positions of authority. Power is no respecter of persons. We have had our fill of godless dictators just as we have also had a surfeit of religious fanatics whose fervor was never tempered by spirituality, or by anything resembling universal love and tolerance. Nothing in recent years has broadened the horizons of such persons. If anything, their vision, thanks to our turn towards separatism, has further narrowed to an on-edge knife blade’s. All proclaim One Virtuous Fatherly God but limit God’s legitimate offspring to the members of their particular society’s brotherhood.

What are the real ligatures of religion? Are they not those lines of Truth, those sutures, those Scriptures and Sutras and Suras that bind us to God? Those Sacred Lines of Thought which infuse knowledge with wisdom, which impart conscience to science, which inform fact with meaning and give significance to event? And do they not also tie us to the mystery of life with awe and reverence? For two hundred years the Republic flourished, enriched by freely stated spiritual expressions. Where was the problem that required judicial redress? The definition of prayer could perhaps have been clarified, but the system wasn’t broke and it didn’t need fixing. In repairing what was not broken, in tinkering with the freedom of expression, the Court created an instrument which no longer operates with any common sense. Gangsta’ Rap versus the Beatitudes… and Gangsta’ Rap wins? Is the quality of any American’s life improved by this?

Perhaps when public “prayer” was first suppressed we began to flatten the moral landscape, the topography of divine providence and individual responsibility. We no longer seem to walk resignedly through the Valley of Death or to climb the Path of Righteousness to reach self-discipline’s heavenly summit. We seem instead increasingly to be mired in a swamp of torts and government programs which compensate the consequence of immoral or self-indulgent behavior. Nobody is responsible for his own choices and mistakes; and were it not for the error of others, we should all live a thousand sybaritic years.

I recall no instance in a public classroom when a teacher used the Bible in an attempt to further his own religious agenda. Teachers, the educated among us who serve all too often as surrogate parents, were, in my recollection, invariably circumspect in their Biblical selections. Perhaps a professional pride made them respect their roles as being not merely purveyors of knowledge but as instruments of wisdom. I, for one, miss hearing that I could lift up my eyes unto the hills to find some needed strength and being reminded that though I spoke with the eloquence of angels if I didn’t have love in my heart, I might as well shut up.

And so we silence the voice of Wisdom; and many there are who, strangers to its resonance, will one day mediate the great issues of science and law, of genetic engineering and organ transplantation, of zoological experimentation, of weaponry, of interplanetary decorum, of privacy, of worldwide electronic communication, of censorship, of ethics, fairness, and political responsibility, and who will supply their generation with a definition of human decency.

The fourth event that led me to consider this problem was reading a poem by Wislawa Szymborska, the Pole who recently won the Nobel Prize in literature. Szymborska, too, seems to have been considering the problem of knowledge without wisdom. She, too, came of age when Communism had succeeded, admirably in its terms, not only in separating church from state but in replacing church with state and, of course, in eradicating spirituality altogether from its Manifesto of political ideology.

Meaning and Significance, Reverence and Awe were sent into exile, leaving Knowledge behind, alone, grim, and quite bewildered.

Her poem “Going Home” was sent to me by a thoughtful friend, Father Mark Serna, a Benedictine Abbot who knew how troubled I had been about NASA’s censoring the news of Buzz Aldrin’s lunar Communion.

I’ll leave you with Szymborska’s poem which has been translated by Baranczak and Cavanagh:


He came home. Said nothing.
It was clear, though, that something had gone wrong.
He lay down fully dressed.
Pulled the blanket over his head.
Tucked up his knees.
He’s nearly forty, but not at the moment.
He exists just as he did inside his mother’s womb,
clad in seven walls of skin, in sheltered darkness.
Tomorrow he’ll give a lecture
on homeostasis in megagalactic cosmonautics.
For now, though, he has curled up and gone to sleep.


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:

Originally published in 1996 titled, A NOBEL PRIZE, LUNAR COMMUNION,

Ulterior Defenses


       Say what you will, you can’t keep a dead mind down.”

Samuel Beckett, More Pricks Than Kicks


People buried in their egos – victims of their own poisonous anger, lust, or ignorance – find release only when they can spew that venom onto others. It’s the only catharsis they get. We hear them on moonless nights, stalking the land, targeting anyone within spitting range.

To avoid the mess during these Nights of the Living Dead, the rest of us have to find a Refuge… and wait for sunrise. It helps to understand – if not the source of their venom – at least the display of it. Sometimes we encounter it “in kind” and sometimes “in degree.”

The “degree” is easier to see. We all feel that we’ve imposed ethical limits upon our behavior, limits that constitute a boundary between acceptable and unacceptable actions. “He is a terrible man. He beats his wife for no reason at all. (Pause) I beat my wife, too, but I make sure she deserves it before I strike her.” In prison ministries we often see a rationalized hierarchy of crime. “I may be guilty of armed robbery, but I’ve never raped anybody!” Sometimes the hierarchy stumps us. A man who is serving three life sentences for multiple murders can say, with perfect equanimity, “If there’s one thing I can’t stand, it’s a thief.”

No, it is difference in “kind” that gives us trouble. A change in kind is an apparent change in genus and species. We think we’re seeing one kind of animal, but in reality we’re seeing its natural enemy. This is not quite the “wolf in sheep’s clothing” motif. The wolf knows he’s a wolf and the wooly garments are a conscious disguise. If caught with his toes or his tail showing, he knows he’s been busted. The wolf is not deluded enough to growl and bare his fangs and insist that his accuser is a vicious sheep hater – the only reason he could possibly have for calling him a wolf. This kind of response is a purely human one.

In such a self-absolving defense tactic, the person unconsciously assumes an identity opposite to that of his true victim, i.e., the person he can righteously accuse of having the very same faults as those that got him buried in the first place. If he is a fearful coward – one that would betray his country at the slightest inconvenience, he may emerge from his interment as a martinet, swaggering with stick and sneer, exhorting his subordinates to commit acts of cruelty upon some ‘cowardly’ enemy, deriding his men as wimps and unpatriotic pansies, and punishing them harshly if they are in any way reluctant to inflict such injuries. If there’s one thing he hates, it’s a coward.

If, on the other hand, a person is consumed by violence, he may rise to extol the virtues of peace, castigating those who would commit what he considers to be unconscionable acts of cruelty against a helpless and innocent victim. If the innocent victim is on death row for having tortured and murdered, awaiting execution by lethal injection, the protesting cry will be an accusation that the state and all its citizens are ignorant barbarians. He raves on, describing in excruciating detail the horrors of all state executions from the disembowelments of the Inquisition to those of faulty electric chairs. He never describes the tortures the killer inflicted upon his victims. The most painful and prolonged deaths imaginable are somehow incidental, for he has unconsciously identified with the killer.

Again, it is in the exaggerated response that we find a clue to the nature of this inversion.

Recently in Phoenix, Arizona, a group of animal-rights activists produced a billboard that protested slaughtering animals for food. The obvious intention of the billboard was to denounce all killing as wrong. This objective seems to be a good one, but how was it presented? It showed two large side-by-side photographs: one of emaciated Holocaust victims and the other of healthy pigs. People who ate meat were compared to Nazis. “The Holocaust on your plate!” read a caption. Jewish leaders were understandably appalled by the comparison. Since when and on which planet can the persecution and murder of six million human beings be in any way compared to the meat industry? The man who designed the billboard said that he was Jewish and had relatives who had died in the Holocaust. He could not understand why ethical people could possibly object to his artful concept.

The fact is that without the meat and poultry producers and the fishing industry much of humanity would be condemned to starvation in or out of concentration camps; and the fact is also that the production of vegetables takes its own toll on animal life, for when forests are felled to make farm land, bird and animal habitats are destroyed; and when that land is plowed and the crops are fertilized and sprayed with pesticides, creatures die. Being a vegetarian is a conscious choice we make and we don’t consider others who make a different choice to be cannibals or Nazis. The Chinese sangha is usually completely vegetarian; but Buddhists in Sri Lanka eat sea food and do not consider this to be a violation of their rule against killing animals; and many Japanese orders also eat meat – usually with the proviso that the meat is donated rather than deliberately purchased.

Freud once studied the violent tactics of a group of anti-vivisectionists – a group which opposed the use of animals in the study and perfection of surgical techniques. He concluded that many of these people harbored a terrible streak of cruelty in their own psyches. They projected evil intentions upon the physicians and concealed their own fascination with torture and pain under the guise of being gentle and protective champions of the innocent. It was in the extremity, the exaggerated protest, the proffering of sensational photographs of such surgical experimentation, that their fascinations were rewarded and, ultimately, the nature of their tactics was revealed.

This is not to say that surgeons – and cooks and hunters, too – are exempt from the ordinary restraints of civilized behavior. Of course they must act with mercy and respect for the creature they are using, capturing, or cooking. But our reflections about their moral responsibilities are best left to moments when we are inclined to be more judicious. Tossing a living lobster into a pot of boiling water is not something we like to think about before we put that bib on. And when it is our child who is under a brain surgeon’s knife, we don’t want to review the records of the surgeon’s practice on dogs. A collar decorated with the fur of an animal who died wretchedly with its foot clenched in a trap would be nobody’s idea of a fashion statement – if we paused in our admiration to take a conscientious moment for that idea to occur.

It is when we do take time to reflect upon moral issues that we need to consider the motivation of those who so vehemently question other people’s morality – and this includes our own outcries as well.

The mature person who objects to capital punishment does not make a hero of a condemned man or a villain of the judge who sentenced him. Neither does he identify with the executioner. He speaks instead of Constitutional issues; or to the raising of civilized standards; or of spiritual prohibitions against the deliberate taking of life. He petitions and editorializes and lends his support to those organizations which further his aim to change the judicial system. We readily see the difference between this reasoned and determined approach and the approach, for example, of certain antiabortion groups who, in the name of the sacredness of human life, murder doctors and other medical personnel; or of those who have been so traumatized by the poultry industry that they make a Kentucky Fried Chicken restaurant the equal of Auschwitz, The Colonel an Eichmann.

Buddhists who’ve been buried in their own egos often get their disinterment passes by shouting that somebody in the vicinity is violating a Precept or one of the Vinaya Rules. It never occurs to them that they are shifting a burden of guilt onto someone else. Whether the transfer is hissed or shouted, the theme is always the same: the assumed superior stance of one person over another.

I recall a strangely nasty transfer by one very moral Buddhist lady. In Taiwan I was indebted to a nun for having helped me, and since she refused to be compensated, I said that I’d take her to breakfast at the Grand Hotel for her birthday the following week. The Grand Hotel is an extremely imposing structure; a kind of Camelot to most local people, and the nun was excited finally to enter the building. As we sat in the dining room she giggled as she looked over the menu, trying to decide what to order. She selected an omelet that had some kind of mushroom filling. She loved eggs, but because of their expense they were never – except in egg-drop soup – served in the monastery. The waiter took our order and then a woman, who was sitting at a nearby table, got up and went into the kitchen. Then, imperiously, she came to our table, trailing the waiter. That she was rich and Buddhist was obvious… she wore much diamond and jade jewelry along with a humble wooden-bead bracelet. She called the nun, “Sifu…” and, in crisp Mandarin which I did not understand, informed the nun that pork fat had been used in the preparation of the mushroom filling… that pork fat had been so extensively used in the kitchen that the only thing she could recommend that the nun eat was oatmeal or rice. She said that it was because she was so concerned for the nun’s adherence to the principle of nonviolence that she was troubling herself to issue the warning.

I didn’t know what she was saying, but before I got the translation, the nun simply asked, “Would you mind having oatmeal?” I said that I didn’t care. The nun’s mood sank, and we ate oatmeal. My companion confided that the woman contributed money to the monastery and that her ‘recommendation’ was therefore a kind of command. I glanced at the sumptuous meal on the woman’s table and wondered how this public benefactress could be so petty in private. I know only that her motives had nothing to do with the nun’s spiritual welfare. Nobody uses pork fat to soft-boil an egg or serve one poached on toast.

Recently I had to pacify a Buddhist gentleman who had been publicly humiliated because he wasn’t sufficiently peaceful to suit the leader of his Sangha. A war protest march had been planned in his town and he, a Viet Nam veteran, declined to participate. For some reason he assumed that stating he was a combat vet would serve to explain his refusal; instead it made things worse. Someone in the group said, “And you’re proud of that?” This insulted him, and he responded at the same level of insensitivity. His Roshi informed him that if he didn’t publicly express repentance for his military activities he would have to be expelled from the Sangha and, worse, could not even be considered a Buddhist – the Vinaya Rules made this absolutely clear!

He wanted my reassurance that he was still a Buddhist. I knew his Roshi to be a rather unabashed sexual predator and so I found it privately amusing that he, above all people, would cite the Vinaya Rules as a standard of behavior. These rules are listed in a worst-first order, and that the absolute worst of the worst sins was committing any kind of sexual act (“carnal knowledge of any one, down even to an animal”). I didn’t tell him that his teacher was the last person in Christendom to accuse anyone of breaking Vinaya Rules; I just explained that these rules applied to monks and monastery life.

Many Theravadin orders still adhere to the Vinaya Rules; but the Mahayana orders do not. I know of no Mahayana order that forbids, for example, eating after the noon hour.

But even when a Mahayana school insists, “A Buddhist may not eat meat!” it is always with the understanding that he lives in an area in which he has a choice and can eat other foods. We do not deny the Dharma to Eskimos or other northern people or to desert dwellers because they cannot grow vegetables, fruits, and grains. Populous island areas are also heavily dependent upon seafood as protein sources. Self-imposed starvation is not an option in The Middle Way.

Pointing accusingly at other people’s offenses requires scrupulously clean hands. This is a universal principle in law except, perhaps, in the judicial proceedings of the Cosa Nostra. When two men rob a bank, intending to split the loot, and one of them runs off with all the money, the victimized robber cannot charge him with theft or seek redress of his grievance in the civil courts.

Seeing that our hands are dirty requires a degree of self-awareness that we usually don’t possess. As the Buddha said, “The faults of others are easily seen, but one’s own faults are seen with difficulty. One winnows the faults of others like chaff, but conceals his own faults as a fowler covers his body with twigs and leaves.”` (The Buddha, Dhammapada, XVIII, 252.)

Ordinary flaws, those convenient hypocrisies we devise to get out of uncomfortable positions or to gain personal advantages, are far easier to recognize than the ones that are not just covered by twigs and leaves but are buried beneath them.

If we haven’t yet used a defense mechanism to dig ourselves into a pathologic hole, we can try routine Buddhist self-help techniques. Success depends on luck and on having attained a certain proficiency in meditation. There is a line that is crossed when fascination becomes emotional involvement. Whenever we notice that we are aroused – by either attraction or aversion – we can try to analyze our response.

Unfortunately, by the time we are emotionally “hooked” we have passed the point of disinterested observation and our conclusions are likely to be prejudiced. Hsu Yun noted that the best time to become aware of our connection to a person or object is at the very beginning, when fascination has not yet progressed to emotional involvement. Initial actions and reactions are rather like the experience of seeing a dog pass a narrow window. By the time we’re aware that a dog is passing, we note only the dog’s body and then its tail. In order to identify the dog we have to put a head on it… to go into our subliminal data banks and retrieve information of which we originally were not quite conscious. This task is referred to in the mondo concerning the master and the novice who asks when he will achieve enlightenment. “When you came here tonight,” the master asks, “on which side of the door did you leave your slippers?”

Naturally, the novice does not have the meditative proficiency necessary to recall details that his brain recorded, but which he made no conscious attempt to remember. Just as a journalist learns to ask the relevant questions, “Who?”; “When?”; “Where?”; “Why?”; “How?” and so on, we have to try to connect various stimuli, to establish a causal link, and try to determine the critical point – the point at which our interest was aroused. We often find that we make the same kind of mistake over and over. We can never “catch” ourselves before we fall into the trap.

If, on our own, we cannot reconstruct the chain of impulses, the actions and reactions, the events that led us into the troublesome situations, we should seek the assistance of a good therapist.

It’s only when anger, lust, and ignorance of the true nature of reality progress, unimpeded by constructive and corrective review, that we find that the defensive foxhole becomes a trench, and the trench a spiritual grave.

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:

No Sides! No Sides! —- FREE E-BOOK —-

Credit: Fa Ming Shakya


No Sides!

No Sides!

by Ming Zhen Shakya


With a simple computer click we choose “like” or “dislike” over and over again and without a notice the computer begins to present us only with “things” we like. Pop-ups from all sides….making an effort to persuade us, to sway us….

In a contentious time when everything seems unreliable where everything is up for grabs Ming Zhen Shakya offers us an opportunity to practice the pull for this and the push for that. She goads us, lures us, all the time getting ready to pull the rug out from under our beliefs and opinions. At the edge of thinking something is right or wrong she goes beyond and leaves us up in the air….uncomfortable, in the lap of Zen Buddhism.

It is difficult to read an article that is edgy…and this one is. It pushes beyond easy comfort of right and wrong…but takes us to the place which Rumi describes as the “field beyond wrong-doing and right-doing.” Ming Zhen invites us to meet there, no matter what shows up…it is what a Zen Buddhist adept does….


No Sides

Humming Bird
AKA Zen, Justice and the Martial Arts Originally published in 2000

Author: Ming Zhen Shakya

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




We’re all certain that we’re immune to the contagion of disastrous conviction, that we’ll never be vulnerable to a belief that is too foolish even to consider, but the fact is that not only are we not immune, but that by the very human nature of our mind, we’ve already proved ourselves susceptible. Sometimes we need to see a belief displayed in ordinary life’s petrie-dish aspic before it begins to look suspicious.

What exactly are we seeing when, for example, we observe the antics of sport fans? We see the same fanatical excess that characterizes any cult membership. People who, just a few hours earlier were thoughtful and calm as they returned from church or shuffled through the sections of the newspaper’s Sunday edition, show up, say, at the baseball park wearing a professional sport’s team’s heraldic colors and insignias – silly hats, clothes and even painted faces. As the occasion demands, they boo and hiss and cheer, in unison they stand in waves or make hatchet chops, or in a mob’s “Give us Barrabas” chorus, they demand the death of an official. We’ll see fifty thousand spectators wildly jump and shout because a man who has been paid a few million dollars to take an oak bat and strike a leather covered pellet, has actually done so.

Where does all this emotion come from? It comes from the same place dangerous beliefs come from: it is incorporated into the nature and the structure of the mind. To be sure, sports fans are only rarely overtly destructive; but every bookmaker who ever died rich, – and seldom do they die otherwise – died rich because bettors are usually fans whose team-enthusiasm has not only skewed the odds but has inspired them to bet in the first place. Wagers based on false information – and sentiment invariably falsifies appraisals – are foolish wagers. Emotion is a symptom of projection and inflation, those two conditions of samsaric slavery. Again, any emotion is a symptom of projection and whenever we find ourselves sliding from interest into fascination and down into emotional involvement, we’re trying to negotiate attachment’s white water rapids and only luck will keep us from colliding with those boulders in the stream. How many times in our lives have we believed in someone who betrayed us? How many times, despite other people’s insistence that he was unworthy of our trust, did we stubbornly cling to our delusion, insisting that they were prejudiced, or blind, or simply did not know him as we did. Of course, it was we who were blind, because projection made us see only what we placed upon him. That is the nature of projection. When emotion overrides reason we are automatically prejudiced in our belief. No one should doubt the sincerity of the mother who, when watching an army march by, says simply, “Everybody’s out of step but my son, John.”

The instincts of self-preservation and of reproduction, those gods of Mothers, Lovers, Heroes, Friends and Enemies, push and pull us, compelling us in the most irrational ways to accomplish their goals.

There is a strategic survival pattern evident when horses form a herd and follow the dictates of a single stallion. An army and a general are pressed from the same survival template, as is a patriarchal family or a town and its mayor or an assemblage of sport fans and their heroic MVP. Our bodies and brains are the hardware, our very genes and cultural norms are the software that we run. For as long as there is strength in numbers and we require that strength, we will form alliances, group ourselves into religious, social, and political collectives. We’ll appreciate the ligatures of family and friends. For as long as we perceive enemies, we need to hate enough to kill. For as long as we need the reciprocal benefits of possessory love, we’ll adore our baby or parent or spouse. There is no requirement that someone be worthy of our adoration. If we waited until we found the perfect lover, we would not mate; if we waited until we found the perfect teacher, we would learn nothing.

If it is the Hero god in our mind that we project onto someone we believe is a Perfect Master, we will see the God, not the person. We’ll fall on our knees before him and worship him and in our mind at least, we will be raised up, inspired. If he’s a good leader, he’ll make us stand up as he leads us in love and teaches us to live in splendid poverty and humility. He’ll refine us and open our minds to all the possibilities of science and art. But if he’s just another false prophet he’ll have to manipulate us to hold us together… he’ll have to assure us that – as we’ve always suspected – we’re rather special. And, inflated with elitism, that helium of superiority, our lips will curl out and up as we affect that slight, smug smile of cultish certainty: “We, the Chosen, the Elect, the Privileged, have been blessed in ways that you who are none of these things can understand.”

And then, so that our superior group doesn’t self-destruct with internecine conflict, our leader will have to gather all our individual shadows into one great missile of hate and hurl that weapon against some other hapless enemy… some race, or religion, or nationality, or social class, or intellectually inferior rabble. It will be Them versus Us. We’ll display the insignias of exclusivity. We’ll all be wearing identical Nike sneakers when we board that spaceship. Our alien masters will not confuse us with those other would-be passengers who wear Rebok or Converse or LAGear.

No, we don’t wear blue to cheer the Denver Broncos and we don’t wear orange to cheer the Miami Dolphins. We know these things.

And this is how we live and how we need to live before we mature and attain the Age of Reason, the Age of Nonattachment. We project the appropriate god – lover, mother, child, friend, or hero from our mind’s Olympus onto someone and if he or she is worthy of that questionable honor, we can in due time detach, withdraw the projection, and let the god in question engage us in Alchemical adventures. We’ll be independent then and more, we hope, than just a little wise.

But if he or she is unworthy of the honor, we’ll be mangled in the chains of our own attachments. Whether or not we survive the ordeal depends a lot on luck. The second instance of dangerous belief that hauntingly comes to mind involved another visitor, a distraught man of no more than thirty, who was still grieving over his young wife’s death which had occurred months before.

As soon as he entered the room he noticed a foot-high plastic acupuncture mannequin I keep on a side table. Eyeing me suspiciously, he asked, “Do you do acupuncture?” I assured him that I didn’t, and that I kept the mannequin only because it so clearly showed the meridians. Many forms of meditation require at least a rudimentary knowledge of these “Chi” conduits. But he was still not satisfied. “Do you ever tell people that since there’s a Buddha inside us, our body is a kind of temple and we should take care of it?” I say it often so I owned up to the remark. But he meant, “take spiritual care of it”, a term that I did not quite understand and said so. Not caring to elaborate, he continued, “What about drugs? Do you also tell people not to take drugs?” “Drugs as in illegal drugs… or drugs as in a drug store, prescription medicines?” I suddenly felt the need to deflect his questions and went into a sort of “shields up” mode.

“Pharmacy drugs. Can a good Buddhist, say, a Chinese Buddhist, take ordinary prescription medicine? Or is he or she limited to herbal medicines?”

I found the remarks astonishing. “Nothing in the Dharma says that a person can’t take medicine. What we shouldn’t do is take pills in lieu of self-control. An obese person should try to lose weight by eating properly and by exercising, not by popping amphetamines. That sort of thing,” I explained., adding, “And when it comes to medications, there’s no difference in concept between taking an herbal tea, for example, and taking a capsule of the relevant herbal ingredient, even in synthetic form.” I said that this was simple common sense. “Quality, quantity, and delivery systems may vary, but a medicine is a medicine. The question is, ‘Does it restore you to good health?’ What happened to your wife,” I asked.

He cautiously proceeded to tell me about his wife’s death and of the problem he was having with his in-laws who blamed him for it.

“The Chinese believe that the heart and mind are the same thing,” he began, “but I don’t think they are.” I agreed.

He had met his wife in Taiwan. He was working as an engineer for a construction company and she, an architecture student, had visited the building site. From the moment he first saw her, he knew that she was the woman God had created for him. They were married in a Buddhist temple by her old Master.

She had had a long history of stomach problems, he said, but antacids and herbal teas were always able to relieve the symptoms. But when he eventually brought her to Los Angeles, her condition worsened. She blamed the additional stresses of American diet and culture; and she was encouraged and supported in this belief by her Chinese friends and relatives. They wanted her to consult local Chinese Folk Medicine practitioners, but he instead took her to an American doctor who tested and treated her for ulcers which he said were caused by bacterial infestation. Antibiotics and PeptoBismal were prescribed, and she responded well to the treatment.

But when his company sent him to the Middle East for several months’ work, his wife decided to return to Taiwan to spend some time with her master in his monastic retreat. It was there, in rural Taiwan, that she began to experience severe attacks of indigestion. Responding to her first painful attack, her master, a kindly old man who evidently was rarely, if ever, sick, called in the only physician around, a Chinese herbal acupuncturist who often attended Buddhist services. This physician gave her Black Dragon Eggs, a miraculous concoction of precious herbs which immediately relieved her distress. He also prescribed regular acupuncture treatments, and gave her a digestive tonic and a creamy green concoction, both of his own compounding, to take before and after meals respectively. In the event she felt more serious distress, he sold her supply of these expensive and mysterious Dragon Eggs.

Further, this doctor thoroughly criticized the regimen her American physician had prescribed and after assuring her that no one knew medicine better than the Chinese, a boast she was entirely disposed to believe, insisted that when she returned to the U.S. she not see this American doctor again. Instead she should consult a colleague of his in Los Angeles. She spent a small fortune on these treatments in Taiwan and a large fortune on these treatments in the U.S. The mention of the Black Dragon Eggs startled me. I knew something about at least one kind of mysterious black pill from China. I interrupted him to ask what these Eggs looked like and he told me like licorice gum drops that had a yellow yolk center. I didn’t like what I was hearing and feared where the story would lead.

To the young husband, the medicine the new Chinese doctor provided did not work very well. She was experiencing nearly daily bouts of diarrhea and cramps. But in the expert opinion of the doctor the medicines were actually extremely effective since, to put it simply, they weren’t dealing here with simple physical illness. No, it was more serious than this. Clearly, her symptoms could be directly attributed either to karmic retribution or to irritated ancestral spirits, which was pretty much the same thing. A priest at a nearby Buddhist temple verified the disease’s etiology and offered, for the sum of fifteen hundred dollars, to conduct a propitiating service. The husband refused to finance this shamanistic enterprise; but his wife’s sister, who had a vested interest in placating these particular spirits, came up with the necessary funds, and the ceremony was held.

Despite the bells, chants, and incense, the ancestors grew more restive. When they were particularly annoyed and her symptoms worsened, she took another five dollar Black Dragon Egg, a dish which the ancestors seemed to enjoy since her distress always abated. The young husband, however, was growing increasingly alarmed and begged her to return to her American doctor; but just as adamantly she refused, insisting that Chinese problems are best solved with Chinese solutions. And what did he know about things Chinese? She resented his nagging and counteracted it by reiterating that the one person she trusted most, i.e., her old Buddhist master, had personally restored her to the wisdom of her ancestors. She would not fall from grace again. Her heart had spoken to her and what it said was “be patient and keep the faith.” At regular intervals, her Chinese friends, relatives, and fellow Buddhists buttressed this overarching conviction.

To the young husband’s annoyance, these associates became so solicitous that they daily brought her Chinese meals, suitably bland and wholesome, which they convivially shared. But then, over their post-prandial cup of Jasmine tea, they would chat about those topics which most interested them. He often overheard these discussions and regretted not knowing less Chinese than he knew. What did Americans know about anything? Since this was not a rhetorical question, the list of answers was long: Americans didn’t know how to dress, raise children, study or learn, work industriously, treat disease, grow food that didn’t taste like plastic, prepare nutritious meals, survive a single day without popping pills, or resist the compulsion to tell scandalously intimate secrets on national television.

The young husband blamed these domestic intruders for his wife’s worsening health. Unfortunately he made the mistake of telling his mother about them and their comments. She, responding in normal maternal fashion, begged him to come home to her for dinner every night; and, as often as he could, he obliged. And naturally she also confronted his wife and the tea klatch telling them in so many words that emigration was the obvious solution to the problem of unsatisfactory immigration. Not having imparted this instruction diplomatically, she immediately instigated that most costly of conflicts, a civil war.

For many months he had had a burning desire to see the new bridge across Tampico Bay and now, having vacation time coming and wanting a change of venue even more than he wanted to see the bridge, he decided to take his wife to Mexico for a vacation. They would leisurely drive along the Gulf and visit Mayan ruins, inspecting them with an architectural eye, and then go on to Cancun where they would lounge on the beach for two weeks. They visited a few Mayan ruins but they never got to Cancun.

She had gotten a headache for which she had purchased aspirin, the only analgesic available at the little tienda they stopped at. Then, the following day, while driving across the Yucatan she collapsed. The Yucatan peninsula was not a good place to be when needing critical care. People were helpful, but she had gone into shock and was dead on arrival when he finally got her to a hospital.

In the blur of grief that followed, he learned that his wife’s stomach had been horribly ulcerated and that, because of irritation perhaps caused by coarse or spicy foods and the ingestion of aspirin, these ulcers had uncontrollably bled.

He said that the Mexican doctor who took her history was brusque and insulting. “He asked me why I didn’t get better medical treatment for her. I told him I spent several hundred dollars a week on acupuncture and “natural” medicines and he called me a fool. Then he said that the green aftermeal medicine was probably “Maalox with green dye” and that the “before meals tonic” was probably laced with a narcotic or a muscle relaxant and that if I knew what was good for me I wouldn’t drive around Mexico with unprescribed opiates or tranquilizers. They have drug laws. ‘You should have kept your wife on antibiotics.’ the doctor said. ‘She’d be climbing the steps of Palenque instead of lying in the morgue.’”

The young widower, knowing enough about Mexican jails to heed the advice, returned to his hotel and poured what was left of her supply of herbal medicine down the drain.

“And the Eggs?” I asked him. He said that he flushed them down the toilet. By the time her sister arrived, even the containers had been disposed of and there was nothing to prove that she had ever had medicine with her. He returned to Los Angeles to face the condemnation of her family and friends. They were certain she had succumbed because he had deliberately deprived her of her treatments. The attacks on him were vicious. Still confused by grief, he wanted me to convince him that he hadn’t in some way contributed to her death by acquiescing in the treatment. Should he have forced her to see an American doctor? Was there something to this Karma business? What did I think?

I told him that I doubted that, given the intensity of her belief, she would have taken the American doctor’s prescriptions. She would have found a way to obtain the Chinese doctor’s medications and that this was the sorry fact of dangerous beliefs.

I described the projection process and the kudzu Blitzkrieg of irrationality. I defined Karma, that network of causes and effects which converge at whatever nexus of time and place we happen to find ourselves in. “Luck enters into things,” I said. “When she went back to Taiwan for that visit, if she had had that attack in Taipei, her master would have called an ambulance or taken her to a hospital himself. She would probably have received the same treatment that her American doctor had given her. Taipei does not lack quality medical facilities or personnel. But she didn’t have that attack in Taipei, she had it in some remote location.” My comments gave him only cold comfort.

I continued, trying to explain the incomprehensible. “When a person’s in extreme distress, a bond is easily formed or strengthened. A bond already existed between her and her master. She trusted him. And when the local doctor he sent for provided such immediate relief, everyone, especially her master, had to be favorably impressed. Surely he would have encouraged her to visit this doctor. Wouldn’t we do the same?” I asked.

Then I returned to the mysterious black pills. “Irrational belief doesn’t confine itself to religious matters. People martyr themselves to beliefs of all kinds.” I didn’t know what was in the Dragon Eggs, but I offered a suggestion.

I produced the summer l992 issue of Priorities Magazine which someone had recently given me and opened it to an article by a Houston, Texas surgeon, Dr. Ralph E. Dittman.

In his article, The Black Pearl of China, Dr. Dittman related the following story: a patient of his had visited Chinatown in San Francisco and there had been introduced to a miraculous herbal medication called Black Pearls. The patient, a successful businessman, saw the commercial potential of this herbal product and, by way of testing the market, purchased a quantity of them and distributed them to his Houston friends. Wanting to know what specifically was in the pills, he asked Dr. Dittman to have them tested. One of the people who received these pills was a man who, being on parole for a drug offense, was required to submit to periodic drug testing. One day, after taking a Black Pearl, he flunked the test. On grounds that he had illegally ingested Valium, he was immediately returned to jail.

The results of the gas chromatography/mass spectroscopy analysis which Dr. Dittman had ordered clearly showed diazepam’s signature 36.6 minute peak. It was Valium, all right. After an investigation, the unwitting drug-taker was released.

Dr. Dittman concluded his article by warning that these “‘harmless’ Asian herbal folk remedies often contain illegal combinations of cortico- or anabolic steroids, nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs, antibiotics such as tetracycline or chloramphenicol, Valium, narcotics…” The various Federal and State Food and Drug regulatory agencies were finally beginning to prosecute the dangerous fraud.

My visitor read the article several times. “I should have been more forceful.”

“It wouldn’t have done any good,” I said. “She believed in what she was doing. Short of deprogramming her, you wouldn’t have put a dent in that armor.”

I think that when he left he understood that his wife had been the victim of a cult. It may have been a cult of only one, but all the symptoms were there: the jingoism, the chauvinism, the elitist’s smug superiority, the stubborn and blind conviction.

No, a cult is not defined by numbers. One wrong seed planted in a single mind is enough. A dangerous belief, like kudzu, doesn’t recognize borders. When the darting vine reaches the property lines, all our lawns are at risk.

Humming Bird


Belief, being as contagious as a virus and often just as deadly, can put a teacher in the uncomfortable position of being both its vector and its cure.

I wish imparting a truth were more like planting a specific seed into the fertile field of someone’s mind, where the seed would germinate and grow… or not. And if it did grow, we’d all know exactly what kind of plant it would turn out to be: A zinnia or a tomato seedling would break through the soil and let us happily watch the natural progression of flower and fruit.

But often something unexpected happens. We think we’ve planted one kind of seed, then to our horror we wake one morning to find the field covered with a wild growth – a plush but unproductive kudzu has choked out the mind’s capacity to reason. It’s not easy to undo the damage. Kudzu does not lend itself to harvester or plow. Only herbicide or deadly frost tames it.

And so it happens that people who seemed calm and rational on Monday, when we first introduced a new technique or fact to them, have, by Friday, become fanatical converts, the slaves of silly or bizarre notions that owe their genesis to something we have said but that bear no relationship to anything we intended. Something has gone wrong. Plague or smothering vine… it’s shocking to see the speed at which disaster moves.

We cannot talk of dangerous beliefs without the referent specters of Jonestown, Aum Shinrikyo and, most recently, of Heaven’s Gate, to name but a few of the macabre apparitions our media sources have produced – those visions of death that came upon us, as the tombstones used to say, “sudden and awful.” In these images we see belief in its wildest, most virulent form.

How easily rampant fantasies obscure the signposts of logical direction! But we must be careful when we shake our heads in wonderment. All too often, when considering these tragedies of obsessional faith, we “safe” observers easily succumb to dangerous beliefs ourselves.

Our first mistake comes with the territory. It inheres in the separation of observer and observed. We examine whole organizations as if they were specimens in a Petri dish or zoo, creatures that have been divorced from the humanity that the rest of us still enjoy.

If possible, we find the story of their plight as funny-haha as we find it funny-strange. The size, rhetoric and industry of Jim Jones’ penis presents an interesting concept in crowd control. If only we didn’t have to see those thousand bodies bloating in the equatorial sun.

And Shoko Asahara, fright-wigged and pudgy faced, claiming to be a reincarnated Buddha… or was it Vishnu?.. while stockpiling all that lethal Sarin! Hilarious except when we recall those subway victims choking to death on poisoned gas.

As yet (God Help Us) there’s been no picture of uncovered corpse nor discovery of “other” victims to spoil our appreciation of Heaven’s Gate. All those intelligent, educated people castrating themselves and playing the slots in Vegas while they waited for a comet- trailing spaceship to come and pick them up? As Oscar Wilde said upon reading Dickens’ lugubrious account of the death of Little Nell, “a person would have to have a heart of stone not to laugh.”

When we get over the shock and the consternation and, yes, the laughter, we get serious and constructive and strive to comprehend the otherwise incomprehensible. Given our “they and we” vantage point, we’re limited in our response. We have to content ourselves with taxonomic notice, believing that merely by designating an organism as “a cult”, we have isolated it in some sort of biohazard lab. It won’t drift out the window or creep under the door. We’ve kept the Tribbles out of the triticale. Our second mistake is to confuse the very nature of our confusion. Has anyone ever written about cults without citing a dictionary definition before proceeding to speak authoritatively on the subject? Nope. We have to get the label right because, ultimately, that’s what we’re going to discuss. Naturally, someone will point out that according to this or that strict definition Christianity was once a cult or that Buddhism also was one or still is, depending, of course, on the speaker’s liberality. We construct and deconstruct; propose thesis, antithesis, and synthesis; declaim on the topics of drastic personality change, altered states of consciousness, brainwashing, hypnosis, and informational manipulations.

And so we substitute psychspeak for science and the next thing we know we hear some fool classify Jim Jones, Shoko Asahara, and Marshall Applewhite with Jesus of Nazareth and Siddhartha Gautama. Well, weren’t they all cult leaders?

Again and again we learn of cults and never do we move one lesson closer to the problem. Experts will write books for no other purpose than to discuss and criticize other experts. Art, however, will succeed where scholarship fails. We’ll get our Manchurian Candidate and our Clockwork Orange.

OK. We may not know how to define it, but we know it when we see it. It’s a shared irrational belief. Like carrying a rabbit’s foot? Well, no, that’s just a lucky charm. What about sacred relics, miraculous medals, fetishes, talismans? Nirvana? The Resurrection? Ah… Let’s get back to psychspeak.

Why don’t we just say what’s true: A cult is a collection of individual believers whose shared creed we cannot understand, just as an epidemic is a collection of individual victims whose shared disease we could not prevent. And yes, just as we don’t have an epidemic of wellness, we don’t have benign cults. (When they’re benign they’re just clubs.) The operative word is “individual”. A cult can be a unit of one.

And if the individual’s self-destruction is wrought by drugs, or alcohol, or gambling fever or by any of the familiar forms of desperation, what ultimately is the difference? In every plague, single persons suffer and are either saved or lost. Heaven’s Gate was not mass murder, it was mass suicide, the ultimate destruction of self..

So we can ignore the psychspeak. Jargon and cant will not help us. Ultimately, “cult” is rooted in belief, dangerous belief, and the problem is religious not academic. Those of us who are ordained in ministries of salvation know that the very act of being saved implies the presence of danger. We cannot ignore that precarious element which is contained in every technique and scripture of salvation we teach. A desperate soul is not lucid by definition. If he could think clearly, he would not need our help.

Every teacher can cite multiple examples of religious belief gone awry. (This, too, comes with the territory.) I’d like to relate two instances of my own experience which I hope will demonstrate that we don’t need to look to the horizon to identify the lunatic fringe of dangerous beliefs. All our lawns and landscapes are vulnerable. When the season’s right, the kudzu grows.

She was a middle class matron, attractive, educated, with a trim athletic figure and enough savvy to meet the challenge of greying hair, not by dying the white hair dark, but by bleaching the dark hair light, ash blonde, so that she successfully created the image of a younger, vibrant woman – which she was not.

She was a grandmother who found herself at fifty-one suffering from the vagaries of boredom, disappointment, a petrified husband, and two grown children who had become as emotionally remote as they were geographically distant. To combat the loneliness and rejection, she did what society expected: she followed the usual regimen of hobbies.

After failing at music and orchid raising, she tried her hand at art – a subject which had always interested her – and produced landscapes of bold stroke and unusual aspect according to gallery owners who nevertheless declined to exhibit her work; but then, at the height of her creative enthusiasm, she overheard two of her closest friends ridicule her talent as “hopelessly pedestrian” while they jokingly debated the best place in the garage to hang the gaudy artifacts she had bestowed upon them in lieu of real gifts.

Chagrined, she put away her brushes and retreated into herself and evidently finding nothing there, she decided to seek adventure, to stuff herself with the non-pedestrian substance of treks through exotic locales. She went to India.

There, near the end of her excursion, on a whim, she accepted a two-week volunteer post as conversational English teacher in a mountain village school. In the course of these two weeks she fell madly in love with a teacher’s aide who was thirty years younger than she. He did not ridicule her, in bed or out. He called her a goddess and kissed her hand in public; and she knew that he was sincere because she had overheard him tell his friends that she had initiated him into the mysteries of Tantra. Even his family was impressed, his father dutifully curbing his excitement lest he be “like the old fellow in Ray’s Deviwho saw Kali where he ought not to have looked.” Yes, she was a Yogini of no small accomplishments. Her Beloved had assured her of this, even as he praised Shiva for having helped him to preserve his virginity until that first glorious night with her.

He taught her how to wear a sari and she outfitted him in tasteful suits and sportswear; and for the final week of her visit they traveled, inseparable, exploring the Himalayan foothills and the delirium of flesh. One curious thing his sweet fondling discovered was a small lump in her breast.

She returned home, exultant in what she claimed was her first knowledge of true sexual love; and in exercise of solemn duty to those who needed some incentive, conveyed this information in dozens of letters and articles which she submitted to a variety of seniors’ publications. She also immersed herself in Tantric lore by which means she hoped to raise her introduction to divinity at least to an intermediate level. She had a new life and a new identity and she lived for no other purpose than to return to her Beloved and to her destiny in India.

From a flurry of clandestine love letters, she fashioned an ostensibly solid plan: she told her family that she would be returning to India simply to invest in a business property there, an altruistic venture.

But to her circle of fastidious friends, whom she delighted in shocking with lurid details, she revealed that she and her consort intended to purchase an old Tudor-style Inn they had visited in their travels. She had thought the place charming and he had recently discovered that it was for sale. They would gradually convert the place into an ashram, over which she would, of course, preside. He insisted that her letters were so beautifully written that her teachings would be internationally salable; and until such time as the world harkened to her revelations, the Inn’s restaurant and guest rooms would sustain them financially. He did not think it wise, and she agreed, to let the seller know that she was interested. The prospect of a ‘rich’ American buyer would surely cause the price to be inflated. He would deal with the real estate agent in the guise of being his father’s representative.

She applauded his cleverness. It reassured her as she laid plans to gather the money required for her to complete her apotheosis and for him to acquire title to her shrine.

Meanwhile, there was this nasty little problem of the lump. Her friends pressured her to consult a physician, issuing the additional warning that her medical insurance would probably not be valid in India, but still she demurred. Finally, her husband, apprised by the husband of one of her friends, inquired about the problem; and, fearing further betrayal of confidence, she relented and submitted to diagnostic evaluation. And so, in May, as the rainy season commenced in India, she was informed that she had breast cancer. Surgery and chemotherapy, strenuously prescribed, were just as strenuously declined. In September she had a delicious rendezvous planned in Calcutta and she did not intend to keep it scarred and bald.

Instead, she recalled a talk I had given about Zen meditation in which I had referred to the incredible power of meditation to change one’s life, a power that I said was difficult to obtain. Was she not a Yogini of no small accomplishments? She called me and asked if I taught meditation. I said no, that I taught Buddhism of which meditation was a part. I asked if she was interested in Buddhism and she replied, with a certain hauteur, “No, not in the least.” Then, stiffly, she asked if I knew anything about “left hand” (sexual) Tantric meditation forms. Our conversation having taken a pointless, disagreeable turn, I said that I was sorry I could not help her and explained that I had been ordained in a celibate, “right hand” Path. I recall the arrogance in her voice as she responded, “Pity…” and hung up.

I finally met her for the first time when she called again in August and came to my home for tea and a discussion of a stubborn problem she was having, the full extent of which she would not, unfortunately, learn until a few more weeks had passed.

She complained that she was being victimized by people who pretended to be what they were not. They had said that they were knowledgeable in the methods of meditation but they were either fools or knaves – incompetents or lying cheats. Everyone had assured her meditation was a simple matter; but though she had spent much money on books, hypnotists, on the purchase of a mantra, on spiritual therapists, on seminars, on a lava lamp and crystal ball, she still could not enter the meditative state.

I was dazzled by the spectrum and the zeal with which she had traversed it. But why was she so motivated? Almost with annoyance that I had not intuited the problem, she blurted out the distressing diagnosis and then continued to enumerate the methods she had tried.

I had been startled and as the situation became clear to me, her efforts took on a bizarre, ludicrous character. She had tried laughter therapy but the lump’s increasing size tended to deflate such risibility as the amusement offered. And every morning she spent half an hour visualizing microscopic “good” white-cell knights jousting in the tumorous lists of her breast with many “nasty” cancer-cell knights. She did not know why they weren’t performing at tournament level and flat-out asked me what she was doing wrong. I gulped. “Everything,” I said.

“Meditation,” I explained, “is not something you can learn the way you can learn to tango. It is difficult and all the determination in the world doesn’t guarantee results. It requires a certain faith and peace of mind and humility.” I stressed humility again and then concluded, “Meditation, like prayer, is a devotional exercise. Nobody, especially someone who has no spiritual ‘history’, can demand a miracle or purchase instruction in Divine Union.” Her attitude and her approach were wrong. I agreed that meditation could be a beneficial adjunct to conventional therapy, but I insisted that it should never be used to replace it. “There may be miracle cures associated with meditation but no one should count on the occurrence of a miracle.” I urged her to return as quickly as possible to her physicians, to seek other opinions if that would satisfy her, and then, when she was in more responsible hands than self-help, alternative-cure quacks, I’d gladly give her religious manuals and whatever technical help I could with meditation.

Disdainfully, she rejected my advice. I stood up, expressing regret that I couldn’t be of more help. “Perhaps,” she said, “if you understood why I can’t submit to surgery, you’d understand.” I sat down again and listened to her pathetic tale of love and adventure.

Then she asked if I had ever heard that a priest must be without blemish. I said that I had and recounted a sad event in my own ordination in China: a woman whose hand had been severed in an industrial accident was not permitted to become a priest because, among other reasons, she could not perform sacred hand gestures, mudras being an indispensable element in Buddhist ritual.

Then she said with astonishing sincerity and simplicity, “Now if you, an ordinary priest, cannot be with blemish, how can I, a Yogini, consent to be marred? The law is stated,” she offered for my edification, “in Leviticus, Chapter 21.” I’m not often at a loss for words; but I was stunned into silence that day. I muttered that I’d check the Bible and offered to speak with her again at some future time. I gave her a copy of some pranayama instructions I had written and again urged her to consult her physicians. She studied the paper I had handed her “like a duchess looking at bugs,” as Tarkington would say. It was insultingly elementary and she folded it in half and then in quarters and dropped it into her purse.

The next time she visited me she came fortified with an old batch of spurious arguments:

“Doctors lie, you know.”

— “Then why did you believe them when they told you you had cancer?”

“Stress causes cancer and meditation relieves stress. Relieve the stress and you relieve the cancer.”

— “Pediatric wards are filled with babies who got cancer without having to worry about mortgage payments or cheating spouses. Stress may weaken the immune system and contribute to the disease process, but a cancer is not dependent upon stress to maintain itself.”

“Countless people have been cured of cancer by diet and meditation.”

— ”If diet and meditation could cure cancer, countless saints… Sri Ramana Maharshi, Sri Ramakrishna, and a host of others, including many vegetarian Zen masters, who were all adepts at meditation, would not have succumbed to cancer. But they did, and they had even become diseased despite their extraordinarily stress-free lives.”

At several different seminars she personally had talked to people who had been cured of serious disease by meditation. “Were they liars?” she asked.

— “I discount neither the placebo effect nor the body’s ability to cure itself. I also know that imaginary treatments can cure imaginary illnesses.”

“What about all the books out there… testimonials written by patients who were cured with alternative-medicine methods?”

— “Fifty cents worth of bullshit for every nickel’s worth of truth,” I said, adding, “The failures don’t get published. They’re dead.” I gave up trying to convince her.

A week later she called again, frantic and violently angry. A few of the friends to whom she had so lavishly bragged about her love affair had betrayed her to her husband and he had surreptitiously emptied their joint bank accounts and had canceled her credit cards. Worse, he was in possession of many love letters which she had insouciantly kept in a lingerie drawer. She cautioned me not to nag her about medical treatment, adultery, or improbable love affairs. “I just wanted you to know that nothing is going to deter me. Without love, there is no life. I have been given love and I intend to live.”

She wrote to her beloved about this new test of their commitment to each other, sold some expensive jewelry and returned to India in time for her appointment.

But despite the sacrality of their lovemaking, she detected a certain secular uneasiness in his manner. Something was troubling him and it couldn’t have had anything to do with money, as her friends would later insist, because he was no more nor less troubled before or after she gave him eight thousand dollars towards the downpayment on the Inn. Yes, he had expected more, but until they gathered the necessary sum, he would resign himself to accepting the delay which, on the other hand, would give them more time to enjoy each other without the distractions of pecuniary considerations. Had she no other assets to pledge? Yes, but to get them she would have to get divorced, a complicated procedure.

He continued to brood until, walking along the beach, after she had implored him to confess the cause of his dark mood, he proposed marriage to her, or rather demanded it. She had to marry him, he said, because only then would he have exclusive rights to her. It had been disturbing to him to think that God had doubtlessly intended that she lead other men to enlightenment as she had led him. He knew he had a duty to serve her and to share her, but – God forgive him – he could not bear to do this duty. She loved him all the more for this weakness.

Radiant and sanguine in certainty, she returned home to attend to the legal details of divorce and the division of property and, incidentally, to a new and irritating little bulge in her armpit.

Several weeks later, she visited me again.

She was euphoric and when I commented on the expansiveness of her mood, she told me that she thrived on adversity. She was triumphant. Let her husband accuse her and cancel her credit cards. What was money, anyway? Let her children side with her husband and threaten to have her committed. She had never been so sane as she was now! Besides, she noted sardonically, they would never commit her – it would cost too much money and money was all they were really interested in. Thank God she had already sold her jewelry! Let her friends desert her. Good riddance to jealous fools. She would prevail. She was surrounded by ugly people who had shown her the ugliness of her former existence. How lucky she was to be set against them. Yes, God had seen fit to bless her with adversity. She was stronger for it.

It was a Saint Crispin’s day speech and I got the feeling that she was trying to rally my help in what might reasonably be considered a hopeless cause. It was an awkward moment. I asked why she had come to me. She stared blankly into space, not knowing the answer. I asked again, and suddenly she began to cry. She had not heard from her young lover since her return from India. He had not answered any of her letters. She had called the school in which she had taught and learned that he no longer lived in the village. His family said they didn’t know where he was. She had called the Inn and learned that months earlier it had been sold to a Swiss couple. Where could he have gone? Had her husband harmed him?

A smug, impervious certainty enveloped her mind, and reason could not penetrate it. I begged her to reconcile with her family and to seek medical help. She looked at me as though I were mad. “One poison in my body is enough. You want to put a second one into my system!” We were back to the old arguments against chemotherapy and surgery.

By Christmas, she was dead. To my knowledge she never heard from her Beloved again. But right until the end she engaged spiritual consultants to come to her bedside to effect telepathic communication with him and, of course, to teach her how to meditate. With fluids dripping into her, with her body skeletal and wracked with pain, with eyes so glazed that she could barely distinguish light from dark, she received them. Her husband paid them with his personal check.

Humming Bird

On Shi Ke Two Minds in Harmony

We begin alone in contemplation and practice.

We awaken in harmony that cannot be grasped.

by Ming Zhen Shakya

We don’t know precisely when Shi Ke drew it. The day, unfixed by coordinates, ambles somewhere across the Tenth Century’s calendric grid. But it must have been a sunny day for such history as we have informs us that the Master, preparing to execute his composition’s major strokes, picked up a handful of dried grass, squeezed the clump into a brush, and lapped the bristles round the ink tray until they were soft enough to yield to rice-paper demands.

If we look carefully we can hear the monk snoozing in soft cadence to the tiger’s steady purr. “Two Minds In Harmony”, Shi Ke called the work. What was he trying to tell us when he furiously scribed into existence this mellowed, dozing pair?

What else do we see? On gross examination the two figures are conformed to suggest the “on guard” position of the martial artist’s hands: the right hand is contracted into a fist and the left hand is laid securely upon it. Together they are furled and held before the chest.

The configuration is an ancient diagram of polarity: Yin/Yang. Shakti/Shiva. Power and the Law Power Obeys. The fist is power, emotion – movement away from. The overlaying hand is law, intelligence – the internal governance of reason, a hand position which reminds the martial artist that his mind must always control his use of force.

What happens to this Yin/Yang hand-configuration when the man who is poised for combat becomes the man who reposes in meditation? As the function is reversed, so is the hand position: the clasped hands are simply inverted, rotated l80 degrees, and gently relaxed, the left hand going from suppression to support and the right hand from fist to cup – a spiritual begging bowl. Indeed, the meditator assumes a passive posture and in a conscious act of supplication surrenders to the Buddha within himself.

But the Yin/Yang configuration suggested here is neither that of combat nor of meditation since both activities require an alert awareness; and the monk and tiger, in this Yin and Yang embrace, drowse as a unit in blissful oblivion. Again, what is Shi Ke trying to tell us?

We know that in our everyday lives of chopping wood and carrying water we must balance emotion and reason, the interests of eros and logos. We know that we cannot have a harmonious performance if we entertain one member of a duet to the exclusion or disadvantage of the other.

The harmony of tiger and monk has not been achieved, let us quickly add, by the victory of some vaunted superior human nature over an equally mis-termed inferior animal nature. Dogs can be more loyal than men; cats more affectionate than women. We should all improve from the company of wolves.

Neither can we suppose that the drawing conveys the idea of sexual hegemony: male sovereignty over some vassal female state, Creative over Receptive. Science has taken us beyond supposing that “seminal”; conveys the fact of “seed”, that the male supplies a pret-a-porter zygote needful only of a convenient female’s nutritional depository. The Yin and Yang concept admits to no such facile interpretation. Were this an intended meaning, Hexagram 12 (Heaven over Earth) would be a desirable one; it is not. It indicates No Progress… Disjunction… Obstruction. And the left or “sinister” hand would be represented as the female force. It is not. The right hand is the fist.

It is a matter of artistic license to term certain qualities feminine. But feminine is not female. In order for any human being to be complete the qualities so described must be equally present and harmoniously blended with those qualities designated as masculine.

But this message, however valid, is mere commonplace, too jejune and trivial in its limits… hardly enough to engage a master and surely insufficient to inspire him. What, then, is Shi Ke so determined that we see?

Where are the dynamics of intellect and passion? Isn’t the slumber an expression of peace, and the peace an implication of harmony?

Isn’t he illustrating the Seventh Day… The Day of Rest… The culmination of effort… the stasis of sleep?

Shi Ke has depicted the transcendence of opposites: the passing beyond prejudicial judgments of good and evil, of male and female, of eros and logos, of need and satiation, of conflict and repose; and, most especially, of ego and other. There is no more Yin and Yang. The distinctions are obliterated. Sleep has emptied the Circle. Shi Ke has taken us into the Nirvanic Void.

This is the effortless state of simply Being… a freezing of the pulse, a stoppage of the Turning Wheel, an end to the alternations of struggle and repose. Sunyata. Perfect entropy. The heat death of Samsara.


Images, Credit:

Shi Ke (石恪, 10th century), Five Dynasties period (907-960)

Two hanging scrolls, ink on paper, 35.3 x 64.4 cm, Tokyo National Museum

       This work is attributed to Shi Ke of the Hou (later) Shu kingdom in the period of Five Dynasties. He studied under Zhang Nanben (張南本), who was a master at painting fire, and was good at figure painting. Although he did not care what other people think and pursued his own free style with ease, Shi Ke’s painting style, where faces are painted in details while clothes are drawn with simple strokes became the standard for subsequent figure painting in China.

Humming Bird
ZATMA is not a blog. If for some reason you need elucidation on the teaching, please contact the editor at:

Mystical Zen by Ming Zhen Shakya

On Zenmar’s Presentation of
The Sutta on Antecedentness by Breath

by Ming Zhen Shakya, OHY
(Majjhima Nikaya 3.82 Translated by Ven. Shakya Aryanatta. From
The Authorized Dark Zen Meditation Manual of Buddhism.)

The question has long taunted Zen Buddhist scholars, Zenmar among them: when the Buddha meditated, which form of meditation did he use?

Zen’s various schools disagree about the correct method to follow. Some schools essentially limit their practices to thought suppression and passive breath observation, while others insist on a more comprehensive program of controlled breathing and meditations on objects, qualities and scriptures. Since these differing methods are often the cause of conflict, knowledge of the Buddha’s meditation practice would be of more than academic interest. It might serve to bridge the growing rift between our schools.

In the absence of documentation there has been no definitive way to settle the issue. Such scripture as exists – at least in its old accepted translation, fails to inspire any reasonable confidence that the lines refer to the Buddha’s own practice. There are, to be sure, directions given here and there for performing a specific kind of meditation; and there are discussions about different methods of meditation. But no single program has gained liturgical notice.

Whether in discovery of new or revision of old, in the matter of scripture there remains always the not insignificant problem of translation. In order to access the original meaning of the lines it is necessary to excavate them from beneath a few millennia of distorting linguistic strata.

A sutra written a few thousand years ago would surely contain fossilized words, skeletal remains of their former lives, unfamiliar to us now except in their mutant varieties. Experts could flesh them out with all the rigor of scholarly exegesis, yet we would be unsure about the true nature of the genus until the work passed that final, critical, individual meditator’s test: did the information conform to what we know experientially to be true of spiritual deliverance?

Zen is a mystical path and as such is realized only in the actual experience of exalted states of consciousness, states that are apprehended with little external evidence of their attainment. Zen practitioners do not wear their achievements like chevrons on a sleeve. We may squabble about dogma, tenet, and style; but in our hearts we find consensus when the subject is the Buddha, himself. Intuitively we know that the Buddha’s practice must be inclusive and, as such, supreme. It cannot omit or dismiss the practice of anyone who has attained enlightenment in service to his holy name.

Zenmar calls attention to a new translation of a section of an ancient text in the Majjhima Nikaya – presumably the Anapanasati Sutta – which was prepared by the Venerable Shakya Aryanatta, a Pali scholar and associate of his.

In his publication of The Sutta On Antecedentness By Breath,. Z contends that ‘something has been missing in Buddhist meditation… the Buddha’s original idea of meditation whereby the adept accesses the immortal spirit…” By specifying “adept” he has set the bar rather high; and if, in fact, the new translation meets this standard, we will have criteria by which to judge our own ‘personal bests.’

There is, in popular access, but one other translation with which Zenmar’s offering can be compared; and a look at it indicates why a new translation is welcome.

The old translation is one line after another of that insipid, repetitious, and cryptic instruction that at first glance appears to be profound but upon closer inspection proves to be less than shallow. In an extremely brief lesson, the devotee is told to train himself in fourteen pairs of breathings, inhalation and exhalation constituting a pair. These fourteen disciplines require that he breathe in and out (1) “sensitive to the entire body”; (2) “calming the bodily processes”; (3) “sensitive to rapture”; (4) “sensitive to pleasure”; (5) “sensitive to mental processes”; (6) “calming mental processes”; (7) “sensitive to the mind”; (8) “satisfying the mind”; (9) “steadying the mind”; (10) “releasing the mind”; (11) “focusing on inconstancy”; (12) “focusing on dispassion”; (13) “focusing on cessation”; (14) “focusing on relinquishment.” No further explanation is given.

What does this scripture mean? What it suggests is that someone said, “The Buddha advocated fourteen meditation stages that have something to do with breathing. Find a dozen topics.. something similar to, ‘Breathe in sensitive to the mind and breathe out sensitive to the mind’ or ‘Breathe in sensitive to the entire body and breathe out sensitive to the entire body’ and then fill in the blanks.”

This is gibberish, drivel intended to appear insightful and instructive. It was not written by an adept, and anyone who knows anything at all about meditation must shake his head in wonderment. Meditation is, by definition, a transcendent state. The scripture purports to offer training in “The Mindfulness of In-&-Out Breathing” but the mind is on everything but the in-and-out breathing. That passive, “short breath is short and long breath is long” exercise is dealt with immediately in the opening lines of the sutra. It is acknowledged and then the fourteen breath training instructions are given.

Now we can look at Zenmar’s offering of Aryanatta’s translation. Scholars will no doubt inspect the work; and those of us who are not scholars will do what we have always done: we will subject it to our own testing methods.

Using the analogy of putting together a jig saw puzzle that has been given to us in a box that has no guiding cover picture, we begin by emptying the jumbled contents of the box onto a table.

We do the physical chores of turning all the pieces face-up and moving all the end pieces to the sides.

Gross inspection allows us to make a few suppositions. If some of the pieces are brown and others blue and the fractured images we see suggest a landscape, we expect that the brown pieces are at the bottom and the blue pieces are at the top. If we detect people, they are likely to be at the bottom along with the flowers… just as birds and clouds, excepting as they might appear reflected in water, are likely to be at the top.

Then we begin the work of putting the pieces together.

Zenmar has insisted that this scripture is the Buddha’s own meditation practice. If so, it must conform to a recognizable image. We are followers of the Buddha. His practice cannot be alien to us. Let us emphasize this: if the subject is meditation – and it surely is – it is concerned with the eternal, unchanging, unconditional world of the Spirit. Culture and fashion and fad have nothing to do with it. If it is true now, it was true then. If it was true there, it is true here. Samsara – the material, historical world, has no part in the discussion.

Although the pressures of time and use may have warped the original meaning of the sutra’s words, any translation must be recognizable as variations on the original theme. Again, style may vary and the interpretations may be somewhat skewed, but the original intent must be contained, even as potential, as acorn is to oak, within the translation. This is not an historical text in which the accuracy of names, dates, and events is vital. This is a meditation guide. And the accuracy of translation, as we have noted, is entirely dependent upon what we know experientially to be true.

The Sutta On Antecedentness by Breath as presented by Zenmar contains a few sentences of introduction and some perfunctory instructions to remove ourselves from worldly distractions, to assume an erect posture, and to be vigilant in our aspirations.

Next, with that delicate sense of humor we find in the Diamond Sutra and in the parables and anecdotes, the Buddha lightly acknowledges the practice of passively watching the breath go up and down. Amazingly, a short breath is short, and a long breath is long. Those of us who practice the strict Healing Breath technique smile accordingly – even though we know how difficult “mere” breath watching can be.

The sutra’s fourteen pairs of breath cycles instruct us to fix our mind upon that which comes before “breath.” Immediately we notice that the mind is not to be kept vacant. In fact, the fourteen pairs of cycles make extraordinary demands upon our powers of concentration: we have to go forward to the past, i.e., to enter the contemplative arena before thoughts arise or, to use a Zen expression, “to see our face before we were born.”

In five of the fourteen pairs the term “recollective antecedentness” appears. And in the introductory paragraph, we find the peculiar expression, “to attend to thorough antecedentness in recollective conjoinment.”

Here, an ambiguity occurs: antecedent means occurring at a previous time, or preceding in rank or place or time. It also, however, means one’s ancestors, ancestry, or past life. A human being has antecedents and, usually, descendants. To recollect is to recall or remember and has a latin root of “gather together.” To conjoin is to connect or unite two or more things.

As we begin searching the word-images looking for something recognizable, we find little that is not similarly cryptic or, as in the all too familiar language of Buddhist scripture, awkwardly worded. The Buddha did not speak the sentences that are often put in his mouth. When we read, “I shall breathe in supremely beholding the mind in recollective antecedentness to it,” we know that these are not his words. These can be only clues to his words.

And then, as we lope along, resigning ourselves to a long, tedious and possibly fruitless investigation, we come to the ninth pair and find the stupendous assertion: “I shall breathe in collecting the mind unto the focus upon the hypostasis.” Whoa!

“Hypostasis” is the strange way we refer to the Holy Trinity of Buddha; Future Buddha; and Bodhisattva, which later Christianity would call Father, Son, and Holy Ghost. Here, “Buddha” refers not to Siddhartha, but usually to the Buddha Amitabha (Infinite Light) or Amitayus (Infinite Time) which physicists tell us are one in the same.

Now the picture begins to take form. We suddenly have a very strong suspicion that we know what we’re looking at. We read on to the conclusion and it quickly comes together.

Buddhism is such a confusion of definitions and standards that it is seemingly impossible to list the sequence of meditation experiences that are followed at the higher elevations of the path.

We can, however, appreciate the better documented Shaivist and Daoist gradations. In Shaivism, briefly, there is the “Ground Zero” of All Being followed by thirty-six principles or Tattvas, #1 through #36. The first five of these Tattvas are Nirvanic, indicating five descending spiritual states. Tattvas #1 and #2, Shiva and Shakti (which may not be separated) refer to the Rebis Experience; Divine Marriage; or The Union of Opposites – the entrance into the Trinity which the “Ground” and the marital offspring, the Future Buddha, complete.

This is followed by Tattva #3, the experience of Satori and those states in which the ego is not only eclipsed but in which the interior Buddha presence is experienced.

Tattva #4 accounts for Samadhi and its orgasmic, mind-enveloping bliss.

Tattva #5 represents true meditation (as opposed to Quietism or auto-hypnotic states) and all of true meditation’s exuberant instances – achieved by realizing the Platonic Ideal Forms and through music, dancing, chanting, gazing upon yantras, koan study, reciting mantras, and so on. At this point, the Spiritual Life “proper” terminates.

Tattva #6 is Maya, the converting principle by which spirit devolves into the various stages of material world development, culminating in the familiar Space; Air; Fire; Water; and Earth of, respectively, the Vishuddha, Anahatta, Manipura, Svadhisthana, and Muladhara (Tattva #36) chakras.

The principles of creation, or Tattvas, have qualities or “vrittis” associated with them. At the lower levels of chakras, the qualities are negative and defiling (such as being jealous, lazy and cruel); towards the middle they are mixed (such as being hardworking and hypocritical; and at the top (in or near the head) the qualities are positive and pure (such as being humble and patient). It is the task of the devotee to reform his character, to purge himself of the poisons of greed, lust and ignorance, and to attain such egoless merit as would admit him to the sacred precincts of the first five Tattvas. The chakras which represent the states of spiritual deliverance are in the Ajna and Sahasrara systems (Ajna, Nada, Soma, Kalachakra, Guru and Sahasrara); and, above all, the Parama “Ground” of All Being.

As we study the picture emerging from The Sutta On The Antecedentness of Breath, we can assign the first twelve pairs of breath cycles to the first five Spiritual Tattvas of the Shaivist Path. The thirteenth and fourteenth pairs would seem to be the braces of Tattva #0 (the Infinite Ground of All Being) and Tattva #6, the point at which Spirit converts to matter – or matter converts back into Spirit.

Let us look at the famous wall rubbing and a drawing of it from Daoism’s Bei Yun Monastery in Beijing to see if these comparisons extend to Daoist interpretations of the Path and to the clues given in The Sutta On The Antecedentness of Breath:

Rubbing (left) and sketch (right) of the famous wall rubbing
from Daoism’s Bei Yun Monastery in Beijing

The Sutta’s first training breath-pair requires that the meditator consider “the entire body in recollective antecedentness” and, next, that he “behold that which lies before the arising of the body’s formation.” The body, in its spiritual presence, is represented clearly in the wall-rubbing. We see the lower chakras – Muladhara’s earth, the boy and girl at Svadhisthana’s “water wheel,” Manipura’s fire and caldron, and so on up the spine.

Since it is subtle spirit which devolves into gross matter, the antecedent of the physical is the spiritual, illustrated by the spiritual energy centers or chakras.

Meditation on the Platonic Ideal Forms of material objects provides for the spiritual apprehension of the gross material forms.

The ecstasy of Samadhi is suggested in the Sutta’s instructions to train in “beholding exquisite joyousness” and in “beholding exquisite bliss in recollective antecedentness” while Platonic Ideal Form meditations fulfill the instructions to “behold mental formations in recollective antecedentness” and to “behold that which lies before the arising of the mental formations.”

Satori’s ‘face-before-you-were-born’ experience is accomplished in the next requirement to “behold the mind in recollective antecedentness to it” and in “delighting in the supreme mastery of the mind.”

The Bodhisattva Trinitarian experience is specified in “the focus upon the hypostasis” which, indeed, “supremely emancipates the mind.” It is the liberation attendant upon the Union of Opposites.

In the illustration, the male (figure in Heart center) and female (spinning maiden) have lines that travel up to the back of the head where they are joined in a dwelling (more clearly shown in the drawing of the wall rubbing) called, usually, the Bridal Chamber. For several weeks of the meditator’s life, time stands rapturously still. This is the initial “hypostasis” of the Trinitarian state, represented iconographically as the androgynous Bodhisattva or Shiva and Shakti in conjugal union.

Accordingly, we see that most of the activity in the figure is contained in the throat and head. The negative “vrittis” are purged as the meditator accesses the spiritual centers of the head where only positive qualities reside, “emancipated from defileness” – the Sutta’s twelfth pair.

The illustrations in the head of the Daoist wall rubbing – Lao Tzu, Bodhidharma, the Sun and Moon discs, etc., represent the various chakras associated with the purified spiritual states.

The Sutta ends with the instruction to “return unto the Unific which bestows all, which is all that is.” This hardly requires any further comment.

Zenmar puts his own “Dark Zen” spin on these lines; and perhaps the beauty of the lines is precisely that – that in true oracular fashion they lend themselves to such variations on the theme and accommodate the teaching methods employed.

There are many routes we can take to the summit. We are certain only that as each of us reaches a specific level, the altimeter reading will be everywhere identical. 

Humming Bird
ZATMA is not a blog. If for some reason you need elucidation on the teaching, please contact the editor at: