The Zen Buddhist Order of Hsu Yun, developed by the founders of the Nan Hua Zen Buddhist Society, was the first exclusively electronic ministry on the Internet. The priests of ZBOHY follow the ancient teachings of Hui Neng and Lin Chi and the modern teachings of Hsu Yun. The Sangha has no dues or fees of any kind, neither do we accept donations of any kind. Our site is maintained by volunteers all over the world in a spirit of service. Precepts are given free of charge to correspondents who have demonstrated a sincere desire to follow the Buddha's EightFold Path.
ZBOHY elects Argentine Abbot. Shi Yao Sheng of Buenos Aires has been elected to ZBOHY’s top position. He brings the Dharma to thousands of Spanish speaking visitors to our ZATMA website. In the following section various members of the Order officially welcome him to his new post.
Estimados miembros de la Comunidad ZBOHY,
En primer lugar, quiero agradecerles a todos por su interés en nuestro sitio. Aquí encontrarán abundante material de lectura acerca de la práctica del Budismo Zen. Afortunada e imprevistamente, he sido elegido Abad de la Orden Budista Zen de Hsu Yun (ZBOHY, por sus siglas en inglés), lo que implica que llevaré adelante el mantenimiento y actualización del sitio web, tareas de edición y coordinación de actividades, entre otras responsabilidades. Es mi intención para este año que podamos mejorar la estética y presentación de nuestra páginas, así como incorporar más contenido en español (a través de traducciones y producción de ensayos nuevos).
Desde mi humilde posición, no espero más que poder ayudar a los practicantes del Budismo Zen a apreciar y profundizar su práctica, allanar sus dificultades, despejar sus dudas y asistirlos en todo lo que me sea posible para su realización personal.
A modo de bienvenida compartiré con Ustedes una serie de ensayos cortos sobre conceptos básicos del Budismo Zen, los cuales iré publicando en sucesivas entregas. Los animo a escribirme en caso de que así lo consideren.
Finalmente, quiero agradecer a la comunidad de maestros, sacerdotes y laicos de ZBOHY quienes han confiado en mí para esta tarea.
En el Dharma,
Yao Sheng Shakya
From Abbot John (Yin Din Shakya)
We have arrived at a pivotal point in our ZBOHY-ZATMA history at which we’re privileged to welcome a new abbot from South America,Yao Sheng of Buenos Aires. Abbot Yao has been a member of our sangha for many years. Well-versed in the Dharma, he is also, by profession, an electrical engineer and university professor. It will not be easy to fill Abbot Ken’s shoes, but he has the will and the skill to succeed. Yao Sheng is enthusiastic about presenting our Dharma Path to the many Latin American citizens who seek Zen’s Way to Enlightenment. We share his enthusiasm, wish him well, and congratulate him.
Abbot John (Yin Din Shakya)
From Chuan Yuan Shakya
Damos as boas vindas ao nosso novo abade, Yao Sheng Shakya. Temos plena
confiança que sua competência será mais que suficiente para enfrentar os desafios que temos por vir.
Agradecemos ao Abade Yin Cai por sua dedicação e excelente trabalho nos últimos anos.
Chuan Yuan Shakya(Je)
From Shi Zheng Fo and Shi Chuan Chao
For Yao Sheng:
Congratulation Reverend Yao Sheng! We join with the rest of the sangha is wishing you the best of luck in your new post.
Naturally, we will all miss Abbot Ken and the good work he has done for the last few years; but the prospects of introducing Latin American languages and sangha members to our website will help to compensate his loss.
We’re all excited about broadening the reach of ZBOHY’s zatma ministry and we look to you with confidence that you will guide our sangha and website readership to a fortuitous increase.
Once again, Good fortune to you in your endeavors.
Zheng Fo Shakya (Audrey) and Chuan Chao Shakya (Hal)
From Ming Zhen Shakya
Hola Abbot Yao!
At last I can practice my espanol. Welcome to the hot seat. Ken will be staying on to contribute his technical advice and (we hope) his writing, so things may go easier than expected for you.
You’ve been with us for so many years that it seems strange to welcome you to your new post. We all wish you the best of luck; and naturally, we’re all here to help. Don’t hesitate to ask.
Ming Zhen Shakya (Em)
From Shi Yao Xiang
Welcome Aboard Abbot Yao Sheng!
Your acceptance of this position assures all of us that ZBOHY-ZATMA will continue to be a strong presence in the global world of the internet.
I’d like to extend a warm welcome as you take the seat of The Abbot of ZBOHY-ZATMA.
I look forward to your vision and leadership and wish you all good luck!
And a final thanks to Kenny for all the heavy lifting. Good, good luck in your emeritus status.
Yao Xiang Shakya (Liz)
From Yao Xin Shakya
L’Ordre Bouddhiste Zen de Hsu Yun a le plaisir d’annoncer l’élection de son nouvel abbé, le révérend Yao Sheng Shakya.
Nous souhaitons le meilleur dans sa nouvelle tâche à notre homme de Buenos Aires. Puissions nous l’aider de notre mieux, dans la simplicité et la convivialité qui caractérise notre ordre.
C’est avec avec une sincère gratitude que nous remercions le révérend Yin Cai Shakya pour l’admirable bienveillance et la délicate attention dont il fit preuve dans sa charge d’abbé.
Puisse cette nouvelle année être également celle du renouveau pour notre ordre et chacun d’entre nous.
Bravo encore à notre nouvel abbé, qui sait qu’il peut compter sur les amis de l’ordre.
Yao Xin Shakya (Luis)
From Yin Shan Shakya
Yin Shan Shakya
For Yao Sheng:
I warmly welcome Yao Sheng to take the highest of high positions with our Order as abbot. With the Buddhist world, in and out of the U.S., becoming more multicultural, Abbot Sheng will help us in growing our outreach and support the millions of Spanish speakers to celebrate the Buddhist teachings world wide. I look forward to working with Abott Sheng in the months to come. May all be happy!
Yin Shan Shakya (Jeff)
From Fa Geng Shakya
Caro Yao Sheng Shakya ,
Mi hanno detto che potevo scrivere in italiano, e mi fa molto piacere.
Volevo farti i miei ed i nostri più sentiti Auguri e Congratulazioni per il tuo Incarico di Abate del nostro Ordine.
Il mio cognome e’ abbastanza diffuso in Argentina, ed un giorno mi piacerebbe venire a conoscere la tua città ed i miei parenti che ci vivono. Anni fa misi in scena uno spettacolo con i Tanghi dedicato al mio bisnonno Francesco Antonio che arrivò li’ nei primi del 1900.
Da dieci anni camminiamo insieme ed ora si aggiunge il mio gruppo romano di Attori che sperimentano Teatro e Zen.
Domenica avremo la nostra prima Sesshin e siamo molto contenti.
Ti auguriamo di svolgere al meglio il tuo incarico e speriamo di poter aprire una bella amicizia d’oltreoceano.
Fa Geng Shakya ed i ragazzi dell’Hokke Sangha di Roma (Teatro e Zen )
I had said, “And if there’s anything you really need me for, just call,” thinking that nobody expects such a remark to be taken seriously. I was mulling this over as I drove north up the East Coast just before the great blizzard. I was still mulling on the way back from Jersey when I decided to switch trains of thought and began to formulate a magnificent essay on the problem of atheism, hubris, and arrogance. Its foundation swirled around Kant’s pure and practical reason with a splash of Karl Jaspers in the mix. After four hours of driving and fine tuning I hit the cloud cover and lost my train of thought. I’ve been trying to get it back for the last three days but alas I fear I’ve lost another opportunity to drive the sword of discrimination into the heart of the opaque. That’s how it goes here in the mountains. I spend a week or two in and around NYC and the cauldron begins to boil and bubble but by the time I hit the mists of the mountains I can’t get a fix on what the trouble was.
While I was in Jersey I managed to escape being volunteered to go to Louisiana where I once lived for a year or two. Maybe more. Time kind of gets away from you down there. I think it was the one time and place in my life I could have mutated into a serial killer, had I cared enough about anything to actually kill it. God it was hot and muggy down there. I do recall thinking that I had fallen madly in love. Being out on one of the ever-present balconies sets you up for that kind of thing. It’s kind of like losing track of your three year old in the mall. A kind of tunnel vision sets in and you get real focused real fast. So I recall the infatuation but not much else except the sweat.
At least my timing had been good for the Jersey trip. I got back on a Saturday night without incident. Every winter trip before this one has usually found me stuck on the top of some mountain ridge in a soup of watery foggy elements, reducing visibility to a minus 5 feet. This time I made it home with only one short delay at the Tennessee border where I hit the cloud cover and had a small wait to collect a bit of courage before proceeding. A little reflection, thinking about what a great life I’ve had, found me deciding that I’ve lived longer than I ever thought I would. This thought bolstered me and with a strong tightening of the sphincter muscle, off I went into the great white ocean of fog feeling a bit like Ahab except that I, of course, was trying to avoid the whale.
All of this cogitation made it necessary that I play golf in Myrtle Beach with a group of aging men and their unravelling dreams. Between the warp and woof I had time to return to the topic of atheism which invariably exasperates me. I don’t know how or why this recent vitriol about The UnBelievers has gotten so much attention. I suspect, though I haven’t verified, that it is a result of our post 9-11 phase where fundamentalist religious views are seen to be existential threats. I remember a time (maybe the early 80s or 90s) when the newest scientific theories were abundant with references to eastern metaphysical thinking. The Tao of Physics and The Dancing Wu Li Masters come to mind. The authors spent a lot of time trying to explain the newest quantum mechanical theories using metaphors rife with age-old Hindu cosmologies. Suddenly those explanations fell out of favor only to be replaced by fundamentalist theories the tone of which was very angry. Everybody had an opinion.
Yes, it is true. A quantitative expansion results in a qualitative contraction. My cynicism bears witness to every media platform’s assertion: “Content is King.” Alas there is no content to the content. We deep thinkers are being driven underground by the avalanche of nothing and buried in the detritus. It used to be that originality always contained a hint of refinement, a certain distillation of that which came before. Nothing now but noise, the louder the noise the more originality is claimed for it. Is it even possible now to sit quietly in a room and let the vapors fall, as we play with the incredible aloneness the universe bestows for free. We are now all Borg.
Thoughts such as this are the inevitable result of driving through Jersey in the winter. It often reminds me of springtime in Berlin.
This brings me to the penultimate assault on my senses and the fallacy of retirement. In one way or another business traps the retiree. I was happy mulling things when I received some bankruptcy papers from an old client along with the request that I read them and either accept or decline the plan to pay off his debts to the company. Ninety pages of the most impossible slog that ca be imagined… what a talent these lawyers have for obfuscation, inveigling, and denial. Words, words, and more words… all these words and nothing was said. As a lawyer I would have been a natural.
In the midst of this I was asked by a brother in the Dharma to help him give a Dharma name to one of his new disciples. I didn’t know what to say. I’m more of a Shakespearean “what’s in a name” kind of guy. I don’t have much truck with names. Starting with my Roman Catholic system, from confirmation to seminary, through my Shaivistic and Zen lives I’ve collected a string of names like European royalty. I’m going to have to go for cremation or spend a lot of money for a big headstone to contain my moniker. If I remember correctly I’m now known as John Edmund Patrick Gavin Satya Das Yin Din Puetz. Ex-Abbot. The Chinese names are supposed to reveal something about a disciple’s personality or occupation. “What does the guy do?” I asked, and I was told that he was “an emotional and passionate lawyer.” Uh, oh. I shuffled the bankruptcy papers and suggested, “Howling Wind.” That didn’t go over too well so I digressed and asked, “Wasn’t some Zen sage called ‘Cold Mountain’ or was that a movie? Cold Iron Bound was a Dylan song.” As you can tell I had begun to free associate and ramble.
This led me into my last foray with the reality of retirement. I am certain now that my way is doomed to be Carlito’s Way. “Just when I thought that I was out, they pull me back in!”
In such a mood as this I tried to fill out all the paperwork regarding Social Security eligibility. More indecipherable legalese. I succeed in getting knocked off the government website twice and had government clerks hang up on me four different times. In my last call, after an hour of meaningless drek I was told by the clerk to change my language. I tried to tell her that English was the only fucking language I knew… but that didn’t fucking help. She disconnected the call and I am left having to go to the local government agency office in person and, while being on my best behavior, to make another attempt.
As I postscript I will add that one of the reasons I moved down here to retire was the great golf course that is situated nearby. It appears that the owner is losing money and wants to close it down so he can develop the land into condos etc. – unless we can come up with a plan to keep it open. What is meant by “a plan” is “come up with more money.” A meeting was scheduled and I was volunteered to attend as the members’ representative. The one who volunteered me obviously thought that being the reigning club champion I would actually care enough to do something about it. However, this gentleman failed to take into consideration my narcissistic view of history. What better thing than to be known as the last and forever reigning champion of High Vistas (ha ha). All conditional things are impermanent and all things are conditional things. This should be quite a meeting.
Gotta go. My wife is out in the garage screaming. It wasn’t supposed to be like this.
I rise at 4 a.m. to the sounds of a whimpering, sick but hungry old dog.
In the kitchen’s silent semi-darkness, I place medicines and supplements into his bowl and mix them with his food. As he watches, I recall the question, “Do people really believe that bread and wine can turn into flesh and blood?” I answer, “Why shouldn’t they? I trust that what I’m mixing into his food will strengthen his heart muscle and boost his immune system… that they’ll change his body and blood for the better. Conversion,” I whisper, “is a universal principle. Everything converts.”
I don’t know exactly how the change occurs, but I do know the medications, food, and even the water convert into something that is undying and timeless. Everything is recycled as if it is the first time. It is all fresh in the transfer from the bottom of the bowl to the bottom of his belly. I see his breath change, his cough diminish and his appetite grow stronger. I’m cheering for him as he eats. I’m witnessing something sacred.
I hear the doubter say, “Well, that is the result of science! The pills are supposed to work. That is not the same as bread and wine changing into the flesh and blood of some dead person.”
I point to the warnings on the labels of his medications. “Nothing is foolproof here,” I say. “I can’t claim certainty. Certainty is not the nature of the universe. If it were there would never be a plane crash. We love certainty, even while knowing that it has a downside which we often overlook: it kills our inner need to revere and to know what is sacred. It makes us smug, and whether in science or religion, it leads to a sense of superiority that alienates us.”
The doubter persists. “What does this have to do with bread and wine, flesh and blood?”
I repeat that conversion is a universal principle. We eat because we believe that physical food nourishes the physical body. Just so, we also believe that food consumed with spiritual intent can strengthen the spiritual body. It also undergoes conversion in the process.
Scientists must avoid getting stuck in a paradigm. In the 1960s Thomas Kuhn explained the revolutionary measure of establishing a “paradigm shift,” i.e., a new proposal that could absorb facts from old competing, deadlocked theories as it created a fresh interpretation. When we’re not open to change and refuse to see merit in anything beyond our viewpoint, we commit ourselves to a stale reliance on controversial opinion, a reliance that lacks the grace of tradition. No benefit can accrue from the attempt to disprove spiritual truth by applying scientific material-world criteria.
On the other hand, we can find insights into material’s conversion into spiritual “substance” in many works of art. One particularly good one is the film Babette’s Feast, a dramatization of Isak Dinesen’s short story and winner of the Academy Award for best foreign film in 1987. The story only seems to be a simple tale:
Two aging spinster sisters, pastors of their small church, are locked into their own austere interpretation of the Gospels. As the years pass, their congregation dwindles. They gain no new converts.
Babette, a political refugee from France, comes to their door, asking for help. Penniless, she is willing to work in exchange for room and board. Although she has once functioned as chef of a famous restaurant in Paris, she agrees to serve the flavorless gruel that the sister’s abstemious lifestyle requires. Her old life behind her, she lives happily with the sisters.
In that old Parisian life, however, a faithful friend continues to spend a few pennies each year on a lottery ticket for her. After nearly fifteen years, Babette’s ticket wins ten thousand francs. She can afford to return to her old life, but she instead spends every cent she has won on a feast for the sisters and the few remaining members of their congregation. To show her appreciation for all that they have done for her, she plans to help them experience the joy of fine cuisine.
As the ingredients for the many courses arrive, the sisters and their friends begin to regard such excess as sinful. They agree to eat the food, but think that propriety demands that they not “enjoy” it. Such pointless discipline fades when a distinguished man – one of their youthful lovers – attends the feast. He knows the culinary lore, and with great appreciation describes every dish. The food is so delicious that all the spinsters’ reservations dissolve, and they suddenly are free to escape the bondage of rigorous views and to embrace spiritual redemption. Love and all life’s enjoyments are now present at their table.
Asked if she will now return to Paris, Babette explains that she hopes to remain with the sisters. Besides, she has spent all her money and has no place else to go. She will not regard herself as being poor. She is, after all, an artist and, she explains, “An artist is never poor.”
The feast is of one woman’s self-sacrifice and gratitude. It arrives in the form of the body and blood of spiritual redemption, laid upon the sisters’ table as so many wonderful dishes. All that was needed was their willingness to open their minds to savor it.
It certainly sounds bizarre: the ritual consumption of food or drink that symbolizes or transmutes into the body and blood of a god. Atheists love to mock the ritual and inexperienced theologians try to find rational explanations for it, but the answer to this seemingly barbaric practice is best answered by endocrinologists and perhaps a few priests who have witnessed the exclamations of mothers and the confessions and orations of lovers.
First, there can be no historical beginning for the ritual. Communion celebrations are surely as old as man’s capacity to feel and to demonstrate love. For as long as the parasympathetic nervous system has provided an undeniable connection between adoration and eating, there has been an innate desire to assimilate the beloved, to have him or her in every cell in the lover’s body. Nobody screams “cannibal” when a new mother cuddles her baby and nibbles playfully on the baby’s foot, cooing, “I’m gonna eat you up!” If there are six billion people in the world, they each have a mother and it would be nothing short of sensational to find even one of these mothers who did not make raspberries on her baby’s belly and say “Momma’s eat her little peachy cake all up! Yes, she is!” or something equally sinister.
In the mammalian world, the first post-partum meal is the exchange of flesh: the baby drinks its mother’s milk and the mother consumes the nutrient-rich placenta, raw, cooked or dried. While the practice was mostly discontinued a few hundred years ago, human placentophagy was revived during the 1970s. On Google’s pages and in YouTube, information about preparing the placenta for consumption can readily be found.
Likewise, in the first overwhelming stages of sexual infatuation, cannibalistic terms of endearment are used. A female will gush, “Oh, he’s so cute I could just eat him up!” and a male will start to call his beloved delicious food names… “Sugar,” “Sweetheart,” “Honey,” or even, in a return to the original, “Babe.” Putting one’s salivating mouth upon the beloved’s body, biting, sucking, licking, and nibbling – it’s all part of the parasympathetic nervous system’s accommodation of love and nutrition, the hormones of ecstasy and feeding. The verbs we use for eating are also used for love making.
Image Credit: Wikipedia
Additionally, in the delirium of this infatuation, we find cases of urophagia as an expression of adoration – of merging substantive identities with the beloved by taking the beloved into oneself – actually digesting and assimilating what had been part of the adored body. The links between sex, food, and urine consumption are most clearly seen in the ancient holiday practice of drinking the urine of anyone who was brash enough to eat Amanita Muscaria (a.k.a. fly agaric, the toxic, red and white Santa Claus mushroom) – in order to appreciate its wild, maenadic erotogenic properties.
Throughout much of the world, wherever we find birch and pine forests, we find frenzied religious rituals associated with this mushroom. Sometimes the mushroom would be boiled or fed to a deer so that the animal’s kidneys would filter out much of the toxic ingredients; but often the shaman would consume the mushroom and then, using his own kidneys to process the substance, he would urinate for his congregation who in turn would pass on their urine to others. It is an elixir of this hallucinogenic mushroom that is claimed to be the “Divine Soma” imbibed in Vedic India. Robert Graves, an authority on Greek myths who had steadfastly believed that the wild celebrations of Dionysus and other gods were alcoholic but otherwise drug-free orgies, re-evaluated the evidence and now acknowledges that mushrooms had indeed made their hallucinogenic way into Hellenic rituals. Further, as Wikipedia notes, “The Dead Sea Scrolls scholar John Marco Allegro also proposed that early Christianity sprang from cultic use of the fly agaric in Second Temple Judaism and that the mushroom itself was used by the Essenes as an allegory for Jesus Christ.” There is virtually no civilization in the northern hemisphere that does not have in its ancient history religious rituals that involve the consumption of mushrooms and sacred urine. The fly agaric high was, sexually speaking, stratospheric and quite beyond the reach of mundane socio-religious law.
Set against this practice, the Last Supper request to consume bread as the body and wine as the blood of the Savior seems a distinct refinement in the practice of theophagy.
In Southern School Zen Buddhism, the Communion ritual follows the early Christian practice of “dismissing the catechumens.” While confirmed Christians were permitted to participate in the ritual, the newer members of the congregation were dismissed (hence, calling the Mass “the Missa” in many European countries). In Zen Buddhism only ordained members may participate. Lay members of the congregation are dismissed and the temple doors are shut. Altar boys pour water into a goblet and the officiating priest, after reciting the required mantras and making the required mudras – and often slapping the water with a small willow branch – consecrates the water which becomes the amniotic fluid that nourishes the Future Buddha – which was the ancient supposition regarding the function of amniotic fluid. The ritual, then, unites the priest with the gestation of Mithras-Maitreya-Miroku, the Future Buddha. However, for the ritual to be a valid communion and not just a liturgical drama, the participants must respond emotionally, and this requires gratitude and love for the hero-savior who did, in fact, save them from a life that had become unendurable.
Especially in Zen Buddhism, where participants are usually not raised in the religion, the ceremonies and rituals are not followed as a matter of custom. Most of us are converts to Zen, and our conversion comes as a rescue. We found ourselves depressed and agitated, disappointed in our relationships with family, friends, and work. We felt either unwanted or used, betrayed or ignored, filled with both regrets and accusations, and grudgingly tolerated by those who had become increasingly intolerable to us. Like Yudhisthira in the Mahabharata, we found ourselves standing amid the smoking ruins of our life and could not see a way to escape the desolation. And then we turned to Zen and the Bodhisattva’s great mercy filled us with new life. Rescued? You bet. Grateful? More than we can ever express. This new life, this rebirth, is of the Future Buddha now gestating within each of us.
Christians who assert that they have been reborn in the spirit claim also that they feel the same gratitude and love when they consume the sacramental bread, and whether or not they believe that it becomes the living body of their hero-savior who was sacrificed specifically for their redemption, the ritual accomplishes its purpose.
In Sir James Frazer’s overview of such universally observed rituals, The Golden Bough, we find under the heading, “Eating the God,” many examples of the sacramental regard of flesh and bodily fluids. The ritual is known among the more obviously primitive societies among us, as well as those who are the most religiously refined.
Frazer asserts that one motive for these rituals is simply the belief that the food source itself, “is animated by a conscious and more or less powerful spirit, who must be propitiated before the people can safely partake of the fruits or roots which are supposed to be part of his body.”
Breatharians notwithstanding, another motive is the obvious fact that we are made of whatever it is we eat and drink. Extending this into a spiritual realm, it becomes unassailable to some of us that feeding upon the flesh of a hero-savior imparts whatever spiritual property there was within him or her. The question then concerns the manner in which we consume the heroic savior or the divine inhabitant of grains or animals upon which we depend for survival. It may be a symbolic theophagy achieved by a special preparation of certain foods, or in ancient practices by the actual flesh of a sacrificed person who has been chosen to represent the divinity, or through a miracle of Transubstantiation of foodstuff into flesh.
Our atheistic friends always seem to confuse Communion rituals, which are, by definition, expressions of gratitude and love made by those who have been saved from sin, starvation or a deplorable existence, with cannibalism as a menu choice. There have been instances, probably many more than we know about, in which under conditions of extreme hunger people have resorted to consuming the flesh of the dead. The most publicized instance of such an event was the 1972 airline crash two miles high in the Andes mountains. Sixteen people survived the crash and during the two months they were stranded in the barren snow and ice, they subsisted on the flesh of the crash victims. All Roman Catholics, the men decided to consume the flesh ritualistically. Survivor Nando Parrado wrote, “Shortly after our rescue, officials of the Catholic Church announced that according to church doctrine we had committed no sin by eating the flesh of the dead. They told the world – as Roberto [Canessa] had argued on the mountain – that the sin would have been to allow ourselves to die.”
The attempts by atheists to link such extraordinary acts of spiritual exaltation with vampirism or cannibalistic lust fail because those of us who know better also know that those who disparage the rite are simply unlucky souls who have so far been excluded from the joy and peace of redemption. They have denied themselves the beauty of Michelangelo’s Pietá and Dali’s Corpus Hypercubus; they have limited their appreciation of the Parthenon, Hagia Sophia, Tikal, and Notre Dame to architectural considerations. They are deaf to Mozart’s Requiem and Bach’s B Minor Mass. Against their sophomoric arrogance stand mankind’s most wonderful accomplishments. Were we to eliminate all the religiously inspired art, architecture, music, and literature from all the world’s civilizations – from the caves of Lascaux to the stage of La Scala – we would not have a brave, new world of clever atheists but a world that lacked awe and was more than a little dreary.
Maybe someday they will understand. It is devoutly to be wished.
Salvation is in the air. We are going to make Zen relevant again. I’m all for it, although I do have a few nagging caveats when it comes to renewals. I’m not the man I was when I was twenty-five… but neither am I anybody else.
I look at Zen consuming itself in the fires of internet irrelevance and want to ask myself, “Would it be too much to ask that while Rome burns we just let Nero fiddle. Let him play his mediocre tunes with his fiddlesticks? And I answer, “Yes, it would.” I guess you could say that I didn’t come to praise Nero, but to bury him. (And if these aren’t fightin’ words, I don’t know what are.)
I’ve been fighting other religious battles, too. I would have responded sooner to our ZBOHY Call To Arms, but I just got back from a golf tournament (what else) in which we played for the Soul of North Carolina… I lost. At a crucial moment I was struck from behind by someone’s personal lord and savior. As a result, we watched par recede into infidel numbers.
But I did win my club’s championship and I cannot tell you how wonderful is it to have that assortment of North Carolinian Baptists now gather round the first tee to hear me chant: “Om namah Shiva yer, Om namah Sheev-eye.” Naturally, for my own protection, I play “drunken master” at the clubhouse.. It allows those I have offended to pass me off as either insane, at best, or drunk, at worst. I seem to have a better affect on the women than the men…save for one… and I married her.
It does appear that the world has gone to hell in a hand basket, but then again when doesn’t it appear that way? Some part of the world is always burning as religious zealots run around with torches, seeing what is flammable and what isn’t.
This retirement thing is an odd way to live. I’m not sure I would advise it as a lifestyle for everyone. I thought I would just sit back, play my guitar and watch that river flow. I quickly became surprised at how few songs I knew and to my great disappointment the river never flowed upstream. Having once been “out of time” and in no place I’m having a hard time resolving my “once upon a time” world to the one I now see.
The existential problem is different this time. There is no greater doubt than overcoming doubt, no greater faith than having none. I always remember that the Buddha once said he taught only The Path to the end of suffering, yet I constantly feel we gather in small rooms and talk a bit too bravely about the approaching storms. Winter is the horizon. Here in the mountains the trees do a lot creaking and even the dogs howl at the closeness of the moon. My finger may point at it and the dog’s tongue wag at it but there is no mistaking it. There is a grand forever out there yet we can’t seem to get out of the shit-house except in single file… it’ll take awhile to form a united front.
I have been keeping my focus sharp. There’s a pond just outside my window. I can encompass the entire surface without turning my head. There are thousands (if not millions) of midges, gnats, and bugs so small you can’t make out that they are there except they constantly hit the smooth surface and cause a three ripple wave. The pond is in constant motion as if being replenished with a gentle spring rain. I love that kind of rain, and when I first noticed it I walked outside to be cleansed by it. It was a surprise to learn there was no rain… just feeding time on the pond. On occasion a minnow or some bigger beast snatches one and causes a bigger splash. It disturbs the symmetry.
But there are always lessons I suppose, and it’s easy to understand that the bigger beasts are under the surface. Occasionally the midges have their revenge when the Blue Herron comes. She swoops in from out of nowhere and lands on the edges of that pond’s civilization. She stands completely still with eyes down as midges fall all around her then…with fantastic suddenness… her dagger beak thrusts straight through the surface into the nether world. And then her beak rises and points straight up. Something wiggles its way down to her gullet, and she turns like a slow motion ballerina and walks into the shade. Then the midges snicker as they keep falling like rain. For a little while there will be no more bigger splashes.
By now you can understand why I don’t write much about religious themes anymore. I lose track of things. My worlds get mixed up. My Maitreya Buddha is a Blue Herron standing in the shadows. And if Mike were still here he would be more supportive of my golfing expertise…after all he, comme moi, was not to the manor born, and it has been nothing but “the practice.” The Links as Temple; the White Cup as the Holy Grail.
And talking about Viagra… Nanci was cleaning out my golf bag the other day and found an elliptical blue pill in one of the pockets. She came into the kitchen with fierce eyes and hammered out; “What the hell are you doing with this? Don’t tell me you’re out there golfing all this time.”
I laughed and she got more furious, until I reached into the medicine cabinet and broke out my “almost full” bottle of 200mg Aleve, the “all day” medication for pain. Which I must say does look surprisingly like a Viagra pill (or so I’m told). She immediately mellowed out and her emotions went into an entirely different direction. I am constantly amazed at how similar anger, vengeance, and sex seem to be.
And lastly it is very, very good to hear from you all again. But where’s my Kenny? Has the world finally caught him despite all suggestions to the contrary? And the Serpent King Jeff and the Southern Tiger Je…ah what a motley crew. Life is a long and winding road.
Keep me in the loop with this new enterprise we’re forming. I may have a little left (with proper editing of course). Let’s talk about it. But beware, my perspective may have changed a bit. Bob Dylan in his 20s was not the same man in his late 60s but neither was he anybody else. Perhaps this little chorus illustrates it best:
“People are crazy and times are strange
I’m locked up tight, I’m outta range
I used to care, but things have changed.”
FXX is showing every one of the 550+ episodes of The Simpsons that have appeared on the Fox Network since 1989. In a year where most of what we see on TV is too insanely true to be funny – even though it really really is – the unrelenting sanity of the series is, to put it in religious terms, a blessing.
But we are not going to discuss that Homer Simpson. Instead we’ll consider the original Homer Simpson, one of Nathanael West’s all too human characters in The Day of the Locust, a title that refers to Chapter 10 of the Old Testament’s Book of Exodus.
Homer is – temporarily at least – a financially independent man who has no poise or any quality that would attract another human being to him, except perhaps a certain vulnerability that invites others to exploit his financial independence. He is a man without hope.
And hope, to Nathanael West (Nathan Weinstein), was never Dickinson’s “thing with feathers that perches in the soul.” It was always the vulture circling overhead. If you had it, the scavenging bird would land on you and tear you apart. If you didn’t have it, the scavenging bird would land on you and tear you apart.
Considered one of the hundred best books of the 20th Century, West’s brilliant novel was published at the end of the 1930s, a decade in which every Jew in Christendom had to be aware of Hitler’s pogrom of “undesirables.” American films during this period were largely feel-good flicks designed to lift spirits during the economic depression: Broadway understudies got their big break when the star caught a cold; inside the Dustbowl’s black and white tornado-devastation there was a colorful place where we could find courage, intelligence, and compassion; songs and dances were splints for whatever was broken in the American psyche. And if folks still weren’t convinced that everything would get better, they were reminded that they could be ever so much worse. Dr. Frankenstein, Dracula, and a few cursed Mummies showed them that.
But if you were Nathanael West, you kept one eye on Europe and you were not so easily satisfied with cinematic palliatives. Behind the political rhetoric of newspaper headlines and the sham of movie posters, the World of Hollywood and the World of the Third Reich came together in a doomsday vision that must have suggested the incomprehensible first dozen chapters of the Book of Exodus.
The day that the locusts come is the day that suffering people lose what little they have left.
Egypt in the days in which the account is supposed to have occurred (1446 BCE) must have seemed as fabulous as Voltaire’s El Dorado. But Egypt was indisputably real, and even to the far off, its art, literature, science, architecture, and military power had to excite the imagination – much as Mars excited ours when Lowell saw man-made canals on it.
n the 8th Century BCE when the Book of Exodus is said to have been composed, this fantastic civilization easily lent itself as a literary device. Besides an estimated four to six million Egyptians who lived along the length of the Nile, Exodus states that there were 600,000 Israelite men… “not counting women and children” (an estimated two million people) who desired to leave Egypt and who apparently lived near the Pharaoh – the great warrior king Thutmosis III and his royal residence in Thebes. Although there is no lack of Hebrew names and genealogy, neither the Pharaoh nor the city is named in the Biblical account. No matter how we try to find reasons that explain the events in the story, nothing makes sense. The first dozen or so chapters of Exodus could not have been created as an historical record.
To someone who is not bound by loyalty to a verbatim account of his own religion’s scriptures, the opening chapters resemble a “social cohesion” pep-talk, an antidote to the poison of self-doubt, and the reassurance of rightful claims.
The document is without pity for the victims who most closely resemble Homer Simpson: the people of Egypt who are made to suffer in the cat-and-mouse game that God plays to show the Egyptians how powerful he is and to build confidence in his not always appreciative followers.
According to this inventive account, 430 years after Hebrews first settled in Egypt their number had so increased that by 1446 BC, Pharaoh regards them as a Fifth Column and fears that if they joined their power to that of an enemy’s, they could defeat Egypt. To limit their growth, he conscripts them to work in labor gangs; but their population continues to increase. Pharaoh then decrees that Hebrew males should be killed at birth.
One Hebrew mother puts her infant son in a reed basket and sets him at the Nile’s edge, leaving her daughter to watch over the basket. Pharaoh’s daughter comes to bathe, discovers the Hebrew baby; and, when the infant’s sister steps forward to suggest that a Hebrew mother could be summoned to nurse the child, she accepts the suggestion. The infant is fortuitously returned to its natural mother. Later, when the child is weaned, he is brought to Pharaoh’s daughter who adopts him as her son and names him Moses.
Moses, who is aware of his Hebrew origin; visits his religious brethren and one day witnesses an Egyptian beating one of them. He waits and when he thinks that no one is looking, he kills the Egyptian and hastily buries his body. The next day he returns to find two Israelites fighting. When he asks why they are turning on each other, the man who was winning the fight gives him the “Who made you boss?” speech and shouts, “What do you want to do? Kill me the way you killed that Egyptian?” Moses is effectively ratted-out by a fellow Hebrew and word of his murderous act gets back to Pharaoh who orders that Moses be captured and executed for the crime. Moses flees to the desert.
In Midian, after helping a group of young women to get water from a well, he goes to their home and continues to live, marry, and have children with the Midians, who later will become the Druze, a monotheistic religion now somewhat associated with Shia Islam.
Years later, while shepherding the family’s livestock, Moses sees a burning bush that, curiously, is not consumed by the fire. God speaks to him saying that he is aware of the Israelites’ enslavement and commands Moses to go to Pharaoh and tell him “to let my people go.” He has promised that the Israelites’ new home will be Canaan, a land of milk and honey, which is presently occupied by settlers from various nations and ruled by Egypt.
God also intends that the Israeliites “borrow” so much gold and silver jewelry from their Egyptian neighbors that when they suddenly leave Egypt with the loot, the country will be financially “despoiled.”
After several preliminary actions, God tells Moses that he will show the Egyptians his true power. The scheme requires the following: Moses will demand that the Israelites be freed; Pharaoh will refuse. Moses will threaten to cause a disaster, Pharaoh will ignore the threat. God will create a catastrophic event, Pharaoh will relent and grant the demand. The catastrophe will end, but then God will manipulate Pharaoh’s mind and force him to renege on his promise. And again, Moses will go through the same scene with the threat of a worse punishment. Request, denial, threat, refusal, catastrophic occurrence; acquiescence upon cession of catastrophe, and forced reneging of promise. (Israeli communities are spared any of the nasty effects of these disasters.)
The First Plague: Every drop of Water turns into blood. Fish die and putrefy. After a week, Pharaoh promises to let the Israelites go; but then, after the water is restored, God “hardens Pharaoh’s heart” and he reneges on his promise.
The identical scene is played out with the Second Plague: The Inundation of Frogs.
The Third Plague: Swarms of Gnats.
The Fourth Plague: Swarms of Flies.
The Fifth Plague: Death of all Egyptian Livestock by Disease.
The Sixth Plague: Boils of Infection on all Egyptians.
The Seventh Plague: Hail that Destroys half the Crops.
The Eighth Plague: The Swarm of Locusts that Completes the Destruction of the Crops and every green plant and tree.
The Egyptians are now forced to endure the superfluous Ninth Plague of Total Darkness and Tenth Plague of the Death of every living creature’s First Offspring. Pharaoh agrees to let the Israelites leave Egypt.
The Egyptian people give or lend their gold and silver to the departing Israelites. No reason is given for this largesse.
The Book, often cited as a divine transfer of title to land now belonging to Israel, includes, in Chapter 15, the famous parting of the Red Sea and, in Chapter 20, the Ten Commandments given to Moses.
The first group of Chapters, while no doubt fascinating and the subject of much scholarly exegesis, does not jibe with Egyptian history or the archeological record. Its value lies in its eloquence and in its startling example of man’s inability to comprehend divine methodologies. We are not meant to understand “Acts of God.” Yes, we may know the factual causes and effects of natural disasters, but not our ill-luck in being subjected to them. Only a religious faith that “God’s will be done” can be truly supportive.
Homer Simpson lacks faith of any kind. He’s a tall man and not exactly unattractive, but he exudes the kind of cringing-dog timidity that repulses people. Worse, Homer is that specific type that we meet so often in Zen: he comes with neither understanding nor experience but has a unrealistic expectation that he can start at the end – not at the beginning. He does not know how to proceed in an orderly way. His fear and ignorance obliterate the niceties of pleasant greetings, of introductions that inspire interactions, of actions that allay fear and enhance confidence.
Homer, a forty year old virginal bachelor, had been employed as a bookkeeper at a hotel in Iowa. His passions were incited by a young woman of questionable morals with whom he had once ridden in an elevator. She, having spent her last dollar on gin, was behind in her rent. The hotel manager sends Homer to her room (#611) to collect the money. She is a pitiable waif… “blue button eyes, pink button nose, and red button mouth,” says West.
She weeps. She has no money. Homer responds by dropping his wallet into her lap and then, when she turns to him in gratitude, he grabs her so forcefully that she recoils. But she well knows that money given without love is given with expectation, and she stretches her body into an unmistakable position, one that sends inexperienced Homer running from the room. She uses the money to pay her bill and then leaves the hotel. Homer searches for her but she has apparently left town. Forlorn, he sits in the rain and develops a cold that becomes pneumonia. By the time he is well enough to return to work, someone has been hired to replace him; and while he is considered for other employment there, his doctor authoritatively tells him he ought to seek the warmth of California.
In Los Angeles, he has enough money to live for several years – providing he is frugal. He rents a two bedroom cottage. Alone and miserable, he fills the tub with water and sits in it and sobs for the loss of the girl in “six eleven.”
An ex-entertainer named Harry Greener comes to the cottage, selling phony silver polish. He immediately regards Homer as the type sucker who will yield to his vaudevillian pitch. His beautiful young daughter, seventeen year old Faye, is waiting outside. When Harry Greener suffers a mild heart attack, she comes into the cottage, and her presence has a bewitching effect on Homer. He makes lunch for her and slips her father some money. Harry makes a suggestive remark about Homer’s extra bedroom. Faye is annoyed by it.
“Well, then, let’s get going,” she snapped.
“There’s plenty of time,” Homer said.
He wanted to add something stronger, but didn’t have the courage. His hands were braver.
When Faye shook good-by, they clutched and refused to let go.
Faye laughed at their warm insistence.
Homer is in love again. Faye is a complicated girl – a mixture of teenaged movie-star dreams, sweet vulnerability, and unpredictable venality. She is beautiful and desirable, and Homer cannot conceal his adoration. Faye finds his attentions laughable. He is a “big dope” that she could never be romantically interested in.
West comments, “It is hard to laugh at the need for beauty and romance, no matter how tasteless, even horrible, the results of that are. But it is easy to sigh. Few things are sadder than the truly monstrous.”
And here again we see the inevitable bad result of flawed beginnings.
“When the days passed and he couldn’t forget Faye, he began to grow frightened. He somehow knew that his only defense was chastity, that it served him, like the shell of a tortoise, as both spine and armor. He couldn’t shed it, even in thought. If he did, he would be destroyed.
He was right. There are men who can lust with parts of themselves. Only their brain or their hearts burn and then not completely. There are others, still more fortunate, who are like the filaments of an incandescent lamp. They burn fiercely, yet nothing is destroyed. But in Homer’s case it would be like dropping a spark into a barn full of hay.“
Advanced practices of Zen follow the Microcosmic Orbit of Daoism or Kundalini Yoga of Hinduism. When someone tries to skip over the beginning and intermediate stages and jumps right to these sexually-charged practices, we invariably find spiritual disaster. Zen is a religion; and however much one’s health or psychological state is improved by religious practice, the devotion to its spiritual principles cannot be ignored or given a cursory glance while the eyes focus on more adventurous techniques.
The Path must begin with the realization that the material world is painful and that the Buddha’s Way leads to delivery from pain. The Word has to be listened to and accepted, and then the meditative techniques can be tried in order to test the veracity of the Word. Success then promotes faith that our religion is not something we do, but something we are. Webecome Zen Buddhists.
Harry Greener dies and Faye works in a brothel to pay for his funeral. When the debt is paid, she leaves such employment because she fears that she might contract a beauty-marring venereal disease. Homer’s money, chastity, and desperate need for attention are a better solution. She moves into that other bedroom in his cottage. The promises and plagues begin.
Homer is happy. The beautiful girl with whom he is infatuated lives in his house. Although Faye desperately wants to be an actress, she has neither talent nor skill and she makes no attempt even to study the discipline. To the naive, such beginning skills are unnecessary. What is required is the appearance of success. In Zen it is the robes and beads; in acting, at least to Faye, it consists in being seen wearing beautiful clothes. She must also live the pampered life of a movie star. Homer does the housework and brings her breakfast in bed – duties which limit his entrance to the bedchamber. Dressing flamboyantly, he takes her to places where she can be seen and, naturally, he buys her the garments that will give credence to the lie of her success.
When questioned about this arrangement, Homer insists that it is a legitimate business contract, and he repeats her promise that when she is successful she will repay every cent he is investing in her career – with interest. Her promises, like Pharaoh’s, are fated to be broken.
Emotionally, Homer has mistaken a common address for the bonds of co-habitation. Faye is young and beautiful and what else can youth and beauty be but pure? He believes that while he might not be the man in her bed, there surely is no other. He thinks that he can sustain the terms of their life together by living each day as he had lived the day before. But –
“As time went on, the relationship between Faye and Homer began to change. She became bored with the life they were leading together, and as her boredom deepened, she began to persecute him. At first she did it unconsciously, later maliciously.
Homer realized that the end was in sight even before she did. All he could do to prevent its coming was to increase his servility and his generosity. He waited on her hand and foot. He bought her a coat of summer ermine and a light blue Buick runabout.“
To please her, Homer opens his home to her friends who turn his garage into a cock-fighting arena, consume his food and drink, and have drunken brawls in his living room. In one such after-the-cockfight-party, Faye is so fixated on a guest who is associated with “the pictures” that Homer and another hopeless admirer of hers go outside and sit on the curb. Homer’s attempts to excuse Faye’s behavior are so irritating and unrealistic that his companion says – as if the news will dispel his deusions – “She’s a whore!”
Stunned and confused by the charge, Homer retreats to his bedroom and sits in the dark, while the guests continue to squabble drunkenly. Eventually the house grows quiet and he falls asleep only to be awakened by the sound of Faye moaning. Believing that her moans are an indication of sickness, he enters her bedroom and discovers her naked in bed with the man who owns the fighting cocks. Faye screams at him, waking another guest who has been sleeping in the living room. While the man in the bed goes into the hall to fight with the man who had been summoned by Faye’s screams, Homer sits in Faye’s bedroom, “guarding” her. As soon as the fight is over, she tells Homer to get out, and he again retreats to his bedroom. In the morning, Faye and all her possessions are gone. Homer cannot process the sight of her empty closet, drawers, and dress boxes. He sinks into near catatonia, becoming zombie-like, only half alive, like a dormant volcano. He has been plagued to extremity.
The rage that he has suppressed for decades churns inside him, ready to erupt; but his years of disciplined control crust over it. He packs his suitcase and decides to return to the Iowa town from which he had come. Stiff and blank he heads for the railroad station and is inadvertently swept into a destructive locust-like swarm of movie-star aficionados that is determined to watch a film-premier’s red carpet parade. Extruded from the swarm, he sits on a step where he is seen by a bratty child performer who has pestered him at the cottage. The child tries to play tricks on him, but Homer is incapable of interaction. The more numb he remains the more frenetic the boy becomes. Finally the nasty kid is so frustrated by his inability to torment Homer that he picks up a rock and throws it, striking Homer’s forehead. The blow cracks the caldera’s crust and Homer explodes in a violent attack upon the boy. He chases him, catches him, flings him to the ground and begins to jump up and down on the child’s body, presumably killing him. The Day of the Locust for Homer Simpson will end with his being bereft of everything.
Nathanael West, who died in 1940 at the age of 37, was apparently rushing to attend the funeral of F. Scott Fitzgerald when he ran a red light and crashed into another car. The loss in two days’ time to American literature was enormous.
West describes the human condition, he doesn’t treat it. He shows us X-rays and leaves it to us to interpret them. We are like the Egyptian people in the Exodus: disasters happen and that is all we know. Hitler’s fanatical army can swarm over Europe and millions will die. A similar insanity drives the mindless mob that wants to glimpse movie stars.
What could Homer have done? Ruling out more serious conditions that require neurological or psychiatric assistance, he could have tried to rid himself of fear. If he had been subjected to bullying, he could have studied Karate or Jiu Jitsu to build confidence. Had he been religious, his pastor might have helped him to offset his fight-or-flight hormones with their congenial opposites, particularly serotonin, the output of which is increased by employing breathing techniques: anything from singing in a choir, chanting prayers, to doing the Healing Breath. Yoga, Tai Ji Quan, or long on-foot pilgrimages all accomplish the same gentle stretching of muscles that produces serotonin. Cortisol, a stress hormone, can be countered with herbs readily available: ashwagandha; banaba leaf; ginseng; holy basil; and relora, among others – as well as a proper caffeine-free diet – one that includes a vitamin and mineral supplement. Religion, aside from the fellowship of weekly meetings and the always available comfort of prayer, scriptural reassurance, and meditation, also offers more direct social interactions: scouts; sports; study groups. There are positive actions a person can take to overcome timidity and awkwardness. We are not told why Homer never sought to alleviate his destructive shyness; we can only assume that he never tried to correct the problem that plagued his life and led to his downfall.
The Day of the Locust is not an exposé of Hollywood’s meretricious values. It is an indictment of every society, of every town on the planet. Too easily, we corrupt the Caesarian admonition – that something must not only be virtuous, it must also appear to be virtuous. We are content with just the appearances and assume that if we look like an enlightened soul, we miraculously radiate goodness. Everything, then, that is evil resides outside us. In truth, it is the enemy within who harms us and, in doing so, makes us vulnerable to external culprits. Fighting the enemy within is no simple skirmish. To quote the Buddha, “One man may conquer ten thousand men in battle, and anther man may conquer only himself. But this man is the greater victor.”
It could be supposed, and probably should be, that Richard Dawkins and Lawrence Krauss believe that science stands in opposition to religion in much the same way that brave, intelligent David stands before big, dopey Goliath. The problem is not that they see themselves as Davidian agents, but that they lump all religions and religious people into that one belligerently stupid enemy.
Constrained in such a way, ordinary religious persons find it difficult to follow the arguments that the two atheists make in The Unbelievers. We cannot tell who or what constitutes the “pro” when they are presenting the “con,” and vice versa.
First of all, Science and Religion are not in the same category of “things” that can be compared or opposed. We might as well argue the pros and cons of Fish and the Constellation Pisces. Yes, there are many observations we can make about them that suggest a certain commonality… the name and the familiar fishy shape… but what is there to argue about? As Dawkins and Krauss would answer, science can demonstrate as objective fact what it observes about fish; but astrology’s belief in the earthly influences of the Constellation Pisces is unprovable conjecture.
Regardless of what astrology was in antiquity, today it merely has an oracular function. As such it does not lend itself to the rigor, the scientific methods, of ichthyology – no more than the study of fish induces a man, as he begins each day, to be more self-aware and to consider the psychological significance of other environmental factors. People do not study fish in the same way that they study horoscopes.
As to the belief in Evolution and the Big Bang Theory, I’ve conducted a ministry for a quarter-century, and I have never met another human being who didn’t believe in Evolution or in the Big Bang. (time) t = 0 seconds, or t = 1 is a fascinating subject and while it in no way affects my spiritual life, I and everyone else I know would like to hear more about it… especially t minus 1.
Zen’s “God” is not a big guy with a beard and galaxies for earrings who stalks the cosmos. He is the Buddha Amitabha (Infinite Light) a.k.a the Buddha Amitayus (Infinite Time) and he exists inside every human being – that’s why he’s omniscient. He witnesses everything we think and do. (Back in the ’70s, the first thing I learned at the Zen Center of San Francisco was, “The Buddha we bow to is the Buddha within.”)
If people want to believe that in that second before the Big Bang, God decreed that the material world should come into being, that’s ok with me. If someone wants to nominate another “First Cause,” fine. I’m listening. We all are.
As to Evolution, I own an old copy of The Origin of Species and the Descent of Man. I live in the desert and collect fossils. All my neighbors do, too.
Religious Fundamentalists protest what they perceive to be attacks on their faith’s scriptures: News gatherers cover their protests because they are sensational, sometimes outrageously so. The placards of the Westboro Baptist Church are shockingly vicious. Often, these protestors are fanatical because they have “snapped,” or “gone over the edge.” They’re enacting a defense mechanism as they try to cope with distress of some kind and degree. Nobody fully sane is thatcompletely vicious. We understand why newsmen cover them. “Dog bites man” won’t sell newspapers. “Man bites dog” will.
And where we find sane and reasonable folks who would like the Bible’s version of creation accommodated, we find precisely what Lawrence Krauss noted: “If you have to pick and choose you’re better off throwing the whole thing out.” These people do not want to diminish the Bible’s moral and ethical influence by tossing out one section of it and then, as Krauss suggests, dumping the whole while they’re at it. Their lives are governed by these scriptures. It is their faith in God and in the country that trusts in God that makes them stand patriotically and pick up a rifle when they are called to duty.
Is it fair to imply that because science dismisses astrology as so much nonsense, only simpletons consult their horoscopes? And more… that the same “simpletoniety” that scientists find in astrology permeates all of an astrology believer’s thought processes? Dawkins uses the example of a hypothetical surgeon who believes that babies are brought by the stork. He relates his unfortunate experience with real people to whom he had just delivered a talk on the subject. After the talk his audience protested that the surgeon’s private thoughts about reproduction via storks are irrelevant and that what is important is how well the surgeon performs surgery. Dawkins was upset by even the memory of this apostasy.
What Dawkins fails to understand is that his audience bloody-well knew that he had substituted the word “stork” for the word “God.” And what the audience was protesting was evaluating a man’s abilities to perform a job in terms of his religious beliefs. What Dawkins is assuming is that any jackass who believes in God just ain’t qualified to do anything more than manual labor. He indignantly asks, “Would you want this doctor to treat you?” In Buddhism we refer to the Poisoned Arrow parable. Now, if Dawkins were wounded by a Poisoned Arrow, would he tell the surgeon who has come to remove it not to touch him until he has first explained his views on human reproduction?
By Dawkins’ reasoning, men who fly planes or operate missile systems are unfit to do so if they are stupid enough to believe in God. If his ass were threatened by a foreign power, would he institute suit to prevent God-believers from using the weapons that scientists have developed to protect him? Or would he more likely break into a chorus of Onward Christian Soldiers?
According to Dawkins’ Stork example, we ought to throw The Principia into the trash as just another raving from a deluded Believer. Obviously, if we wouldn’t let a surgeon who believes in such nonsense operate on our kids, we wouldn’t let a professor who believes in Divine Creation teach our kids. I don’t know how the Brits feel about the works of Isaac Newton, but on this side of the Pond, we think they’re rather wonderful. And that probably goes for Canada, too. But Gadzooks! Isaac Newton was *gasp* a Believer.
No doubt we will be told that Einstein made Newton irrelevant so it really doesn’t matter what the Bible-thumping mathematician thought. Yet, as was admitted by Einstein himself, even scientists can be wrong in startling ways. When Jesuit George Lemaitre, a Belgian Roman Catholic priest and a physicist/astronomer, first presented the mathematical “proofs” of his “Cosmic Egg” (Big Bang) theory, Einstein dismissed him saying, “Your calculations are correct, but your grasp of physics is abominable.”
When we discuss science and religion we are, in essence, discussing two distinct worlds: Zen lays them out on a cartesian grid. Thirty-six hash marks are inscribed on the abscissa. The ancients marked off the material world from #36 down to #6. (36 is Earth; 35 is Water; 34 is Fire; down through people and perception and a lot of other archaic designations. Number 6 is where T=0. It is Maya, the point at which the spiritual gives rise to the material and where spirit becomes flesh. When we transcend #6, we enter #5, the spiritual world’s glorious state of meditation. We proceed through #4, visionless divine union or protracted orgasmic ecstasy. #3 is the brief but momentous experience of being aware that the Buddha Amitabha is looking out of our eyes. This is Satori. Numbers 2 and 1 are Divine Marriage, a deliriously visionary androgynous state. From #1 down to the origin is the province of the Divine Child – who grows up very fast. On the negative side of the origin is The Void. All religions provide their followers with the guidelines and methodologies to attain these identical exalted states. Atheists are free to confine themselves to the material world – the world that we call “illusionary” because everything in it is in flux… everything. Only in the reality of the spiritual world, from #5 down to the Origin and into the Void, do we find stability, uniformity, and bliss that beggars language. To people who have spiritual experience, the Big Bang and Evolution are fascinating material-world subjects; but they lack a certain urgency.
And is it really necessary to ridicule the Crucifixion and to deride the idea that God would allow his son to be subjected to the tortures of a sacrificial death? Is it beyond Dawkins’ imagination to suppose that when a Christian mother feels the pain of losing a child, when she falls to her knees and weeps, begging to understand her child’s suffering or death… that she then looks to the Madonna and finds a modicum of comfort in the sharing of such a terrible experience? To live in the material world is, on occasion, to experience pain… the desperation of loss, of defeat, of being helpless to provide, of being victimized or betrayed. At such times people need words of solace. They need to know that they are not alone in their grief. This knowledge is often curative. If knowing that even Christ, himself, could be subjected to such adversity can make a person’s despair seem less egregious, well, what is wrong with that?
For this same reason, a few millennia ago, when famine and hunger were major problems, Buddhists created the icon of the Fasting Buddha.
Photo credit: Diogenese101
Why was it necessary for Dawkins to ridicule the Communion ritual? He wants to know if Christians honestly believe that the Eucharist turns into the body of Christ. Well… yes, some of them honestly do. If physicists have no trouble conceiving of something from nothing, then they should have no trouble conceiving of one thing becoming another. How Christians regard the Eucharist is their business. In Zen Buddhism we, too, have a Communion ritual. The priest at the altar consecrates water – the ancients believed that amniotic fluid nourished the divine child (the Future Buddha). In our transubstantiation ritual ordinary water becomes divine amniotic fluid which is poured into a goblet and passed around for all to drink.
Kwannon, the Androgynous Boddhisattva, nourishing the Future Buddha.18th Century Silk Painting, Japan.
And about Dawkins’ “no first parent” a la homo sapiens… Whatever happened to the Eve Hypothesis? We were told that between 100,000 and 200,000 years ago, a mother in Africa experienced a bigger-brain mutation that kicked-started our homo-sapien superiority. What is so imperceptible about that?
Krauss mocks Cardinal Pell. During a Q&A discussion in Sydney, the Cardinal (who is visibly annoyed with himself for having consented to participate in the discussion) wants to dismiss the whole irrelevant topic of Evolution. He flicks off the subject of Neanderthals… our ancestors… whatever. Dawkins is very nearly speechless. He sputters, “They are our cousins! We are not descended from Neanderthals!” Excuse me… but a couple of years ago (check Google) there was a flurry of scientific papers in which it was proposed that our human ancestors interbred with Neanderthals. If that science was what the Cardinal had in mind, then yes, we might be descended from them to one degree or another. But other scientists discredited that theory. Shame on the Cardinal for not keeping up with the next-to-the-latest theory. Shame on Dawkins for failing to mention the 2012 Theory of Human-Neanderthal Interbreeding.
Krauss smarms triumphantly, asking his own audience if anyone watched the Q&A program. He then says, “Manifestly the Cardinal doesn’t understand Evolution. In fact, he manifestly doesn’t understand anything.”
Also, when a young Muslim wants to make a point about quantum mechanics, Krauss interrupts him disdainfully, “whereas I, who actually understand quantum mechanics, [and you don’t]know that…”
Yo, Larry… Do you and Dick think that nobody has figured out that you’re deliberately being smug and contentious because you know that controversy sells books and increases talk-circuit fees? Liberace’s spirit must be dancing on your shoulders. You provoke criticism so that you can “cry about it all the way to the bank.” Nobody cares if you make money. Just don’t forget to tithe.
But let’s get to tougher stuff.
The pettiness that Dawkins and Krauss deplore is nowhere better exemplified than in the case of Apollo 8. When the spaceship circled the moon on Christmas Eve, the three astronauts aboard, moved by the beauty of the shining blue earth “rising” in the blackness of space, read a few verses from Genesis to the listening world and concluded with a wish for all to have a Merry Christmas. It was, in mankind’s history, a lovely moment. Yet, Madalyn Murray O’Hair, President of American Atheists, immediately filed suit against NASA for violating the separation of Church and State. Atheists were so offended by this “Christmas Card from space,” that when Colonel Buzz Aldrin – who got his PhD from M.I.T.- prepared to be the second man to stand on the moon in the Apollo 11 mission, he celebrated Holy Communion with consecrated bread his pastor had given him. But naturally, nobody on earth was allowed to know this because of atheist objections.
The crew of Apollo 8 were the first humans to witness Earthrise on December 24, 1968
Photo credit: Nasa.gov
Religious zealots may have brought us the Inquisition, but Torquemada has many avatars and some of them are highly educated.
It is too soon after breakfast to talk about the “American science” of Eugenics that in the first half of the 20th Century dominated biological scientific inquiry. Universities were given huge grants by Carnegie, Harriman, Rockefeller, and Kellogg (among others).
Heralding the survival of the fittest, Darwin – not Charles Darwin but a relative of his – led a parade of scientists to decide that the human race could be improved by selective procreation since worthless defectives took up so much of the time and money that would otherwise be spent nurturing perfect kids. People were poor and uneducated because they were stupid and/or lazy. Criminality as well as clubbed feet were inherited. Preventing the problems presented by these undesirables made good, old-fashioned common sense. Sure. The Eugenics movement forced thousands of sterilizations – African-Americans and other poor persons; individuals with questionable morals or intelligence; and people born with diseases considered incurable or with congenital deformities considered uncorrectable. They were all targeted. Hitler loved American Science since it justified genocide; and when Eugenics’ advocate Charles Lindbergh visited Germany he was given a medal… a nice square cross to wear at his neck. National Geographic did a beautiful spread on Der Fuehrer. Jews fell into the category of “defective undesirables” that the Nazis were determined to remove from the civilized world.
Who knows how much such idiot science influenced the course of the 20th Century? When the Jews were deprived of their rights and property and were herded into concentration camps, and when London was Blitzed (in one period of 57 straight days of Luftwaffe bombing, 40,000 Londoners were killed and a million homes destroyed) we sat on our asses, prodded by our pro-German Master Race sympathies to stay “Neutral.” These atrocities went on and on. (I recall listening to FDR’s radio address in which he noted that December 7th was a date that would live in infamy and then declared war on Germany and Japan. My father, an Amsterdam Dutchman and WWI U.S. Army vet, said with disgust, “It’s about time!”)
Who knows how true a scientific truth is? Maybe Dawkins and Krauss would like to remind us of Berkeley Professor Peter Duesberg’s scientific works on AIDS. He was quite persuasive.
Nelson Mandela’s successor, President Thabo Mbeki believed Duesberg so much that he appointed him to an advisory panel. South Africa curtailed the use of anti-retroviral drugs because, as Duesberg insisted, AIDS is caused by long-term consumption of recreational drugs and/or anti-retroviral drugs, and HIV is a harmless passenger virus. The government’s solution? “Eat more broccoli, lemons, and nuts, and stay away from drugs… then you won’t get AIDS.” The government’s policies, created on the assumption that AIDS had no connection to HIV, “in great part,” to quote Wikipedia, “is thought to be responsible for hundreds of thousands of preventable AIDS deaths and HIV infections.”
How beautiful, how wonderful science is, says Richard Dawkins, but, he adds, “Religion is not wonderful. Religion is not beautiful.” How does he know? Some religious activity can cause trouble. So can some scientific activity. Many scientific accomplishments were demonstrated in the Blitzkrieg’s aviation science; many were seen in V-1 and V-2 rocket science; and much science went into Zyklon-B’s chemistry science. But, hell… the Nazis were Believers… not in Christianity, of course… but quite of few of them literally worshipped Votan. I’m serious.
We’ll leave Nazi Medical Science for another time.
And how can Dawkins gush so sweetly about atheist countries?
I recall only three officially atheist countries. The Soviet Union; China, and Cambodia. The Soviet Union had its Gulag; the Red Guards in China closed the universities and put physicians, teachers, scientists of all kinds, and clerics that they didn’t kill outright into forced labor camps. (My own master was imprisoned for 20 years.) Get PBS to show “The Cancer Detectives of Xian” if they can find it in their archives. In Cambodia, the Khmer Rouge was so pro-atheist and anti-intellectual that they slaughtered anybody who even wore eyeglasses or could speak a foreign language – along with a million and a half Buddhists. Google “The Killing Fields.”
As to the choice Krauss gives Dawkins: “Would you rather explain science or destroy religion?” You guys are kidding, right?
Newton said it best. “Actioni contrariam semper et qualem esse reactionem:” Try arguing with that.
Perhaps the proliferation of those little social network logos – that line of little boxes we find at the top of texts or superimposed upon them – is telling us that we’ve reached the point of diminishing returns – more and more is required to achieve less and less. When the saturation is complete and the movement ceases, Newton’s Third Law of Motion will kick in. And then we can scrape the name off our inboxes, set our filters to a stratospheric level, change all those addresses that made targets of us, and give ourselves cryptic monikers, preferably numbered ones that give no hint of any exploitable affiliation, Seven-of-Nine comes to mind. We will crave privacy, a space of our own around which we can create a ring of fire or a moat.
What we first perceived as a good thing – our own page that would function as a showcase for our excellence as an individual or a family, a site that would be an efficient way to show a multitude of strangers two hundred photographs of our daughter’s wedding – did not produce the kind of envy and admiration that we expected. We looked forward to receiving a host of original comments, but instead we got a few snide remarks from anonymous persons who had posed as friends to let us know that a white bridal dress was supposed to indicate purity. A few well-chosen shots of our little princess baring her breasts in a wet T-shirt extravaganza, or winning first prize in a “¿Quién tiene el castor más espeso?” contest had made some people think that it seemed somewhat improbable that she was eligible to wear white.
Some of the comments were so hurtful, that the bride of whom we were so proud had now become the object of scorn, amusement, and, if we were lucky, pity. How did we react? Did we quit the battlefield and become incommunicado pacifists? Were we made “kinder, gentler” folks who turned the other cheek? Or did we retaliate, responding to one mouthful of anonymous, vitriolic spit upon Right Speech’s sacred ground with our own poisonous lungers, spewed wherever we could aim them?
As to our own comments about other people’s offerings, did we sacrifice honesty just to avoid nasty retaliations and become so bland that we could assert a claim to stasis. Things we hated we called, “interesting.” Boring shit became, “thought provoking.” “Adorable,” we commented on ugly stuff. “You must be so proud.” (If we said anything else, someone might note that we’ve added another cliché to our collection of knee-jerk platitudes.)
And now we find that we check the site less for positive news and more for negative rebuffs. Things that we might have preferred to discuss in a private conversation, are being compressed in toneless type. All in all, the investment in wasted time – not to mention in anger, hurtful feelings, or the malaise of unrelenting dishonesty – is proving to be not worth the effort.
Maybe we thought we could cut back – that belonging to five social sites was a tad too much. We excised ourselves from a few but our happiness did not return. We learned what recovering alcoholics know: “One is too many and a hundred’s not enough.”
The pendulum swings back. A ball thrown straight up in the air will reach a point in which its upward thrust cannot overcome the force of gravity. The ball stops and reverses course with a vengeance. Jung called it enantiodromia – Greek for running towards the opposite direction. It is the natural decay that follows the embrace of the limit. When there’s nowhere else to go, we collapse in a great fall, implode, or dash to the other side.
If we’re unhappy, or hypertense, or experience loneliness instead of solitude, we’ll likely consider the world a cruel place; and the irony is that we may still continue to look for approbation from things outside ourselves – out there in the material world – which is the last place we ought to look for approval. We might have tried so hard to be admired and to belong to some coveted group that we maxed-out our credit cards and became a stranger to those who did want and need us. Us… not our status at the club or workplace… just us… tall persons who play pinochle, chess, catch, basketball, video games, tennis, swimming, hiking, etc. We turned up the volume so that we wouldn’t hear the voice inside our head that told us that an excess of material goods and troublesome people is ever the antithesis of Elegant Simplicity, Zen’s Wabi Sabi.
Some of us may feel that those electronic gadgets have become part of our anatomy… that we’re bionic men and women who’d be lost and helpless without them. No. No. We’d be lost and helpless without our “better half” and the kids. Maybe the dog. Ultimately, without our faith and spiritual center we’d truly be lost and helpless.
Perhaps we need convincing. All right. A quarter-century ago, when this electronic revolution was in full-swing, we put our faith in science. Hey… it got us to the moon. Consider the universal euphoria experienced when mankind was first presented with cyberspace’s possibilities. We assumed that only light would come from that screen, that only good could come from non-face-to-face interactions. While the good did arrive on schedule, nobody allowed for the inevitable dark side of human nature to show itself.
For example, we were told that we’d make our kids safer by giving them cellphones and smarter by giving them computers. U.S. kids became the most electronically pampered kids in the world. Last year in an international test of 15 year old students, the U.S. came in at #36, below average, and even below Viet Nam. Hmmm… well… definitely not smarter. Safer?
The leading cause of teenage death and injury in the U.S. used to be driving under the influence. 2700 deaths and 282,000 injuries annually. Now cellphone use by teenaged drivers results in over 3000 deaths and 300,000 injuries annually. Hmmm… well… definitely not safer, either.
And what else came in addition to this? No, we won’t go into wholesale hacking of personal information, identity theft, or worms, viruses, or spyware. That’s another problem.
Between 2004 and 2008 State and local law enforcement task forces reported a 230 percent increase in the number of documented complaints of online enticement of children. In those same years, they reported a more than 1000% increase in child sex-trafficking complaints.
The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children reported that as of June 2014, they had reviewed and analyzed more than 115 million child pornography images since the organization was created in 2002.
What are our children studying on that laptop? Genghis Khan or Genital Piercing? Face it. We don’t have a clue. Yet we let the gadgets replace us and think we’ve met our responsibilities by paying for the stuff.
We also never figured that we’d squander the small amount of time we had to spend on our spiritual life on the venom and the drivel of social networking. It is not merely a question of time lost; it is a question of spiritual deprivation. Are we happier at work, at home, at play?
If we’re not, and we notice that we feel chained to our desks like an animal whose foot has been caught in a trap, and now know why animals sometimes gnaw off their foot to get free, perhaps we’re ready to step back and consider ourselves survivors.
Those of us who fell victim to being baited by the nasty element out there in cyberland – whether or not we posted it – may have to be reminded about the Lex Talionis. Here is noted psychiatrist Karl Menninger on the subject:
“There are certain laws governing the activity of the conscience with which we have come to be familiar from clinical experience. One of them is that the ego must suffer in direct proportion to its externally directed destructiveness. It is as if that part of the destructive instinct retained within the ego had to carry on within the microcosmos of the personality an activity precisely comparable to that which the ego is directing toward the macrocosmos outside. If the individual directs an attack of a certain nature upon some person in the environment, the conscience, or super-ego, directs an attack of the same nature upon the ego. This formula is well known to us in social organization in the form of the lex talionis, the intuitive basis of all penal systems.” He later adds, “One more fact or ‘law’ about the conscience: a sense of guilt may arise from other than actual aggression; in the unconscious a wish to destroy is quite equivalent to the actual destruction with regard to exposing the ego to punishment.”
What to Menninger is a “super ego” is to us is our interior Buddha Self or Buddha Amitabha, yes, the Buddha of Infinite Light. This says, then, that what we sow we reap: we’ll get dark deed for dark deed, and dark thought for dark thought. And we won’t necessarily get them back in the same form. We won’t ever know why we tripped over something, or depressed the accelerator in a known speed-trap, or put our keys where we couldn’t find them, or forgot to mail something important on time. We’ll get paid back for the nasty little things we do or think. If we can understand it better by calling it Karma, then let’s call it Karma. But we can also aim for good results and share a good laugh, a good meal, a good game or movie with people who really do care about us. We can have a mind that doesn’t seethe with resentment and jealousy, but rather smiles to itself about how good life is.
Heaven and hell exist and they exist here and now, inside our own mind, and we can choose to live in one place or the other. So, unless we’ve been decapitated, we carry our heaven and our hell with us wherever we go. We can cease these blindfolded interactions and instead come face-to-face with a little self-imposed discipline. We can set an example for spiritual indomitability. The first rule: Don’t have “friends.” Just be friendly to everyone. Maybe we can argue with Sartre when he said, “Hell is other people.” But why argue? Let it go. If we don’t accept invitations, we don’t have to reciprocate. We can have our own picnic with our own family and if others drop by, we can welcome them. And we shouldn’t think we’d be hurting someone’s feelings by not specifically inviting them. Years ago there was a candidate for Congress who sent out invitation-threats. He did very well indeed when he said, “If you send me a donation of $25.00 I promise not to invite you to my political fund-raising dinner.” Twenty-five dollars was a lot more money in those days than it is now. Evidently, people thought it would have been cheap at twice the price. He didn’t have to serve anybody tough chicken and reconstituted mash potatoes.
Fear drives us to attend most social gatherings. Fear, anxiety, pride, or networking greed… pride at wanting to show off or talk about material-world accomplishments; fear that our absence may occasion gossip or all sorts of terrible suspicions. This is no way to live.
So, Sign off, shut down, and come back to Zen. We don’t need to use our spiritual practice as an excuse to withdraw. Just by announcing that we’ve initiated a spiritual program, we will cause a multitude to step back and do all the withdrawing that is necessary. When people can’t influence and control us… when something bigger and more powerful than they is in our lives… they bail out.
Now, literally, for the love of heaven, we can tell our fellow employees that our work-day ends when we leave our place of employment, and then we need to find the guts to leave our cellphone in the glove compartment when we park our car at home. Whether we’re a bachelor or the head of a family, we have certain rights to “Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”
If we prefer to get our happiness at work rather than at home, we need to get our priorities examined. It may require a period of adjustment to sit at our table and watch all those strange faces look at each other; but after a week or so we’ll know the name that goes with the face, and also when small people say, “Hey, Dad!” we’ll know who they mean.
Each reader is now clamoring for information! “How am I to get started in a real (not phony) Zen regimen? Ok.
Start a small morning routine. If you want to do it in private, go into your bathroom ten minutes earlier. Start with the Sun Salute.
The pdf file can be downloaded from various sources on the web. Just look up, “The Seventh World of Chan Buddhism” by Ming Zhen Shakya.
Above all, learn the Healing Breath given in Chapter 10. Secondly, watch the diet. Get in shape.
And if anyone has a problem he or she wants to kick around privately, write to any of our priests. We have no fees or dues or charges of any kind and we don’t accept donations. We ask only that nobody supposes that what is free is also worthless.
The Zen Buddhist Order Of Hsu Yun: Zen And The Martial Arts isn’t a blog. But a problem that could use some Zen elucidation will get the needed attention. Contact us.
Remember, the Path’s two important rules: Begin and Continue.
…despite the impossibility of tracing back a single effect to a single cause, human nature allows for no other response to an event. …emotionally….there is always a determined effort to isolate an effect’s cause and to appropriate praise or blame to it. -Anthony Wolff, Recovery, Revenge, and Rescue: The 3R Murders
This past winter was harsh. The cold weather came in November and worsened. Snow, ice and bitter winds blew across the Great Lake of Michigan. Ice, more ice than recorded history shows, formed on the Lake. A dog, a stray, an Australian shepherd got stuck on the ice for the entire winter. Five rescuers, unknown to one another at first, began heroic attempts to save the dog. The ice, the cold and the wind were massive foes against the brave attempts to save her. The five did not give up. BUT all they could do was get some food to her, reassure her she wasn’t alone on the ice and that when the ice, the cold and wind changed with warmer spring weather they would be there to get her off the ice.
For weeks she struggled alone, on the ice, on the frozen Great Lake until ice began to melt allowing the five to rescue her. But even with when a waterway opened she was so used to struggling when the rescuers tried to get her, she was afraid. She had spent so much time on the ice she had worn her front teeth away and parts of her tongue froze permanently blackened. The scars remain.
Eventually she began to trust the rescuers and was brought in to a shelter, half-starved, frozen and frightened. Soon she may be adopted. She is a sweet dog, her tongue is still blackened, she still has no front teeth, but she gave up her struggle on the ice. She allowed the five rescuers to help her. They didn’t know if they could help her. They gave her shelter, a warm place to live, good food, a medical check-up, and looked after her. But she had to be willing to eat, to drink, to come towards them even though she was terrorized with fear. Something in the dog allowed her to be helped. Australian shepherds are leaders of the pack. They are working dogs; they are used to being in charge, running the pack to safety. She had to surrender her instinct for self preservation in order to get off the ice.
But rather than see her responsibility, probably because she is a dog, our tendency is to hunt for the human being who was irresponsible, the one who was responsible for her being stuck.
According to the Zen Master Anthony Wolff, it is human nature to look for the person or persons who were the cause, to isolate the cause and affix blame or praise on the offender. This nature, our human instinct needs to be given up for us to get off this slippery slope. We have to go against this compulsion to blame or praise. We have to do something much more difficult.
The Zen approach is not so much to let anyone get off scott free or award a trophy to the rescuers when it comes to cause and effect, but rather to start with our own mind. As a Zen teacher explains to a young woman in Anthony Wolff’s novel The 3R Murders–
…The place to start is to take your mind back to the event. Ask yourself if you…contributed in any way to the disaster. Did you choose to overlook…that something was wrong?
This advice is simple in explanation and difficult to accomplish. When we see things go wrong, when help is needed, our human propensity to look outward is a well-fertilized, natural and reactive habit. This instinct, to find the wrongdoer, coupled with our tendency to help, propels us into an external man hunt for the culprit.
We like to draw lines, definitive lines which complete a shape or form and there is nothing more complete than drawing a line of conclusion around the guilty party. It gives us a sense of nailing the perpetrator which circles back to praise for those who seek justice. But this is not the Zen Way. The Zen Way is to realize that our human inclination to find the cause, to help when we see a need is to overlook our contribution. We prefer, which is our ignorance, to blame, praise, fix and repair. We tend towards this approach with little or no understanding of our self involvement.
In Wolff’s novel, the young woman character, Lilyanne hears the Zen teacher, Sensei Wong’s words, perhaps wants to take them to heart but her conditioned habits paired with her human tendency to externalize darken her ability to implement the Zen Way in her own life.
In a previous book by Wolff, Monja Blanca, Lilyanne is coaxed by her parents to leave her vocation in a Catholic convent to return to lay life, in order to find a suitable husband and provide grandchildren to her parents.
At this point Lilyanne does not know the Zen teaching of Sensei Wong but let’s just say she did. This decision to leave the convent was one step in a series of many that lead to Lilyanne being traumatized by her would-be husband and his partners in crime. Although she is not killed she is metaphorically led to the slaughter like a lamb. If we apply Sensei Wong’s teaching, we may circumvent our natural inclinations to blame the criminals who took advantage of her. If we apply the teaching, rather than react from our natural instincts Lilyanne may begin to grow-up and may dodge the identity of a poor, poor pitiable victim.
Lilyanne’s decision to leave the convent was most likely not the first time her parents coaxed her into doing something they wanted, and most likely it would not be the last. We have to remember that Zen is about getting free and what we get free of is our human bent to get caught up in suffering and misery. It’s as simple as what Sensei Wong tells her. It’s a place where she asks the question, “Did I overlook something? How did I contribute to the mess I now have gotten myself into?” This question in itself is a Zen leap of great magnitude. Since those around this young woman would most certainly see her as a victim, as the poor innocent, maybe even holy innocent who was mistreated by rapacious criminals. It requires that Lilyanne and any Zen adept swallow the burning cannon ball of self reproach without blame or praise. It means to stand up and take the medicine without any accusation towards anyone.
The place to look along the line of cause and effect is not as important as the looking and the investigation. In this case, Lilyanne wanted to please her parents and so left the convent. It sounds so human, so much a good, obedient daughter thing. Doesn’t it? Fair enough, it is. Lilyanne follows her human nature and not her divine nature despite the five years in a convent. She is rooted in her identity of being a good girl. We might surmise that she entered the convent to please her parents in the first place. She has not yet found her own two feet and lacks sense. But when she asks Sensei Wong for help, which she does, she opens the possibility of seeing her own eye, her culpability in regards to her own life. This inward turn is the start towards freedom from the suffocating identity of being an innocent, good girl who was victimized.
It’s not to speculate on the countless possibilities of why a young woman, in her twenties might leave a vocation as a celibate nun to the possibility of a life with a handsome, wealthy mate. This work is for her to do. No one can do it for her. The caution for her is to stay away from the edges of praise or blame towards anyone who was even minimally involved. If she is to follow a Zen path to liberation, to divine liberation she must continually ask, “Did I overlook some nagging sense that something smelled fishy?”
This investigation requires a spiritual, ethical and emotional honesty that not many are able to face. It may mean that we recognize that the prize of liberation from one’s own cock-eyed blindness is far too costly. If so, then the blindness continues and a pattern of action gets formed and repeated again and again until death. In Lilyanne’s case she does ask Sensei Wong for some advise which he gives. The question remains for Lilyanne whether or not she remains under the influence of her parents and a victim of abuse or does she enter the embrace of divine sufficiency.
If she sees what she is up to, through looking at her own mind, she can change. Self-sufficiency is ever-present, but she needs to seek it. Otherwise Lilyanne like the rest of us, continue in the darkness of blame and praise, which is an ignorant, dependent place of being self-concerned and not self-aware.
Here are two brief portrayals of self-awareness. In Wolff’s novel, Murder by Suicide, we get a glimpse of what self-awareness might sound like for Beryl, one of the three detectives in the series Zen and the Art of Investigation. She speaks to two of her clients when she hears their dithering, self-concern.
“Beryl stood up, ‘Oh, for God’s sake. Listen to the two of you. Men. Men are such pussies.’ She held out her hand. ‘Give me the keys…'” Anthony Wolff, Murder by Suicide
At the end of The 3R Murders, George another detective in the series speaks to Lilyanne, with whom he has fallen in love. George, several years her senior begins to realize she is still dependent upon her parents when she shows gratitude that he is willing to legitimize the baby of another man. He responds to her worried self-concern.
“‘I understand,’ he murmured. He wanted to shout he understood all too well and then to castigate himself for being such a fool.” Anthony Wolff, Revenge, Recovery and Rescue:The 3R Murders
Of course, this is not whole story; to get the whole story, well…read the books. Find out for yourself. Zen is priceless.
For those who do bad things: For them there are no pains; Their bodies are sound and sleek. They do not share in human sorrows; they are not stricken like others.
Parables have been and still are a fundamental method of teaching often illustrating crucial principles of spiritual truths. At least the succinct tale with a universal punch is. The simple reason, which is most likely the main reason for this teaching method, is that we love stories. We love stories because stories touch the heart. Stories bypass the reasoning mind and often go straight to the heart like warmth and light on a bud. Stories open the heart. And this is quite a teaching feat.
When we combine the mastery of storytelling with a master of Zen there is the possibility to leap clear of reason, technology and global sophistication. There is the possibility of transcendence, but only if you seek it.
When the heart is pierced things change. Recall Cupid! When struck by Cupid’s arrow we are slaves of the heart. But there is a caution here for every would-be story teller, especially those who wish to share the heart of Zen. Cupid’s prick, we must remember, is equivalent to a tale without balance, a tale that pounds out stimulating depravity in such a way that there is no reason, no universal merit buried beneath the titillating perversity. As every Zen Master knows life isn’t one-sided by any obsession, even crime. There are no anti-heroes in spiritual mysteries.
‘Shoot’em ups’ and ‘screw-ups’ are part of the human condition of suffering but a tale that does not place the misery that we inflict on one another in the middle of the Big Truth does not show any essential principles of Reality. The storyteller who chooses the task of showing spiritual principles by telling a tale runs between Cupid’s bow and the Billy Sunday pulpit performances. It’s a big job and requires finesse and an elegance of refining the tale in delicate and tactful ways that unlock the heart of the reader as well as provide a short and to the point Dharma message.
Ming Zhen Shakya is a Zen Master, a writer and an avid reader of mystery. And in the name of Anthony Wolff she has cast her lot in with those storytellers that attempt to pull the latch on the hearts and spirits of her readers and nudge them towards the summit of salvation. But the work does not hammer anything down rather it taps and pats out a Dharma message somewhere in the story leaving it up to the reader to contemplate it or not. In typical Zen fashion the reader needs to be a seeker to find the jewel, but the jewel is there if sought out.
Ming Zhen Shakya’s spiritual pioneering in her series Zen and the Art of Investigation, written under the name Anthony Wolff, cross into the world of spiritual storytelling without preaching and without flagrant titillations. Her intent is to tell a good story and tell it in such a way as to sprinkle the Dharma rain somewhere in the book. There are crimes, tensions, and the uncovering of ugly hardheartedness. And in this mischief there are Dharma showers.
Anthony Wolff’s (aka Ming Zhen Shakya) choice of genre is the mystery story. And as many know mystery stories are moral tales. The moral part of the story is often overlooked because readers of mystery love the mystery and rarely contemplate the moral rectitude since morality naturally follows the demands of a mystery. There are good guys and bad guys. The good guys find out about some bad thing that has happened and attempt to stop it from happening again and again. The good guys have to stop the bad thing. This is the basic mystery plot. Who did it and how? And how do the good guys find out who the bad guys are and stop them.
Enthusiastic and keen mystery readers know this at the cellular level and they never question it unless something is missing. Anthony Wolff’s choice of ‘mystery’ books assumes that the good guys, the three detectives, get the bad guys, without giving away the plot, generally do.
Wolff’s three main characters, George Wagner, Beryl Tilson and Sensei Percy Wong are sleuths that take their work seriously and attempt to do the right thing for their clients. But Zen works in the Middle Way perhaps the only place where the wholeness of reality is seen. No one is left out of the travails of life. Wagner suffers with a disability from his professional past and lives with the remnants of addiction. Tilson, a man’s woman, struggles as a widow to get educated, to raise her son and work at the same time. Sensei Wong, a karate master and Zen priest, perhaps the most even-minded and stable of the threesome was born into a cultural dichotomy. His parents divided everything along the lines of the likes of ‘cheerios’ versus ‘rice’ leaving Wong to choose between them.
Wolff lets the reader know no one, not even the good guys are left out of the bitterness of life. The difference between the good guys and bad guys is etched out across what they have in common. The ups and downs of feelings, moods and spiritual needs touch all of the characters. Wolff knows that no one is left out of troubles. Good guys suffer. Bad guys suffer. The response to trouble, for the most part, is what separates intentions, decisions and actions.
And the good guys know the truth of the Zen adage,”…(T)he eye cannot see itself…,” which seems to be central to the detectives understanding of everyone as “…self-concerned, but…rarely self-aware.” The reader is left to discern the difference. It’s understood that Beryl and Sensei Percy, two of the detectives are Zen practitioners and martial art adepts which comes in handy when fighting hand to hand the foes, con artists and transgressors. George, the only detective having professional training was a former police officer, opens the detective agency. These are the good guys. The bad guys are those who respond to the demands and needs of modern life with skills outside the bounds of the law of the land.
In one of Wolff’s earliest novels, Monja Blanca we find somewhat questionable aristocrats hiring George to investigate the virginity of a would-be bride. A tough assignment to be sure! The main con is a woman, who is smart, savvy and successful at running the swindle. It’s a trans-generational business; her husband taught her and she taught her son to cheat. But there’s loyalty amongst these thieves for they seem to share everything from money to bed partners. The gang leader, the Contessa suffers from thwarted ambition and humiliation and finds her scams lucrative and satisfying. She appears to live up to psalmist’s description of those who do bad things; sound, sleek and without sorrows.
Monja Blanca is full of the mystery genre’s twists and turns. Victims are left holding empty bank accounts and stunned by the finesse of these thieves. Justice, where things get wrapped up and the good guys brush off the dust from the oppression of the crooks, ends this whodunit with a revelation from the good guys.
Pioneers are often best understood after they have led the way where they break new ground. Anthony Wolff may fit this breaking ground description. The set-up of each book is a must-read preface especially for the new reader. It sets the Zen stage with an old Zen adage, “…(T)he eye cannot see itself” which is what the three detectives in each book rely on to determine what is true and what is rubbish. But none of it, none of the spiritual message is rubbed into the reader’s nose. It must be sniffed out in asides, descriptions, in contemplation of the nature of the bad guys and their bad deeds.
Anthony Wolff gives spiritually pithy hints, little Dharma talks given by Sensei Percy, George’s foolish sense of being enlightened and whispers of Hui Neng and Hagakure recollections as indicators of where the detectives really are and what the action suggests. Anthony Wolff’s work, the moral tale of light and dark is akin to the eighth Chinese Zen Master Shitou Xiqian’s understanding of the merging of difference and unity.
“The subtle source is clear and bright; the tributary streams flow through the darkness. There is light in darkness but don’t see it as light, there is darkness in light but don’t see it as darkness.”
Mystery readers know this truth. The good guys stream into the darkness of the criminal world in the light of the subtle source never actually uttering a sermon or discourse. They show up and face the darkness on behalf of those in need.
Anthony Wolff’s storytelling proposes to those who seek the subtle source that ‘(T)he absolute works together with the relative like two arrows meeting in mid-air. It’s not elsewhere, some separate place that is foreign. For Wolff, the good guys work together with the bad guys in much the same way as two arrows meeting in mid-air. But as in any morality story of worth, the good guys, disturb, disrupt and dislocate the darkness with ordinary skills of body-mind training and strong determination. There are traps and mishaps along the way but in the end the Zen truth “…(T)he eye cannot see itself…,” but everyone is “…self-concerned, but…rarely self-aware” is turned upside down and inside out. Wolff holds out the faith that Wagner, Tilson and Wong’s intentions, decisions and actions are rooted in self-awareness and less in self-concern.