How to Find God on the Zen Path: The Heart Sutra, The Thread of Love by Fashi Lao Yue


What no eye has seen or ear heard…..



In the Zen tradition there is a ritual for tending to and disposing of the remnants left after burning a stick of incense. When the incense burns down it leaves a tiny bit of incense in the ash which is still in stick form. It is smaller but it is still of the same form and goes by the same name of incense.

The ash in the bowl after many burnings looks a lot like a miniature logging accident. There are tiny logs of incense scattered helter-skelter poking up throughout the ash.

The Zen ritual is to clean the ash by removing the remnants that did not burn and saving them until the New Year. At the New Year, the remnants along with the burnt matches are gathered and burnt in a ceremonial fire.

It is a simple, loving act of care with a deep message for spiritual adepts. The deep message is also a simple loving act of care but we need to know what to do and how to do it. In a very real sense we need to clean up the remnants of the seeds deposited in the form of old hurts and old grudges in the body and mind. It includes old loves and old wants; these bits of old attachments still floating up into consciousness that disturbs and harm.

When we look at anything whether it is in the external world of name and form or the internal world of name and form we look with attachment. Often the attachment comes disguised as wanting or hating. This attachment is the unburned bits, the remnants that continue to surface distracting us from what the eye has not seen or the ear has not heard. The eye cannot see and the ear cannot hear when it is looking at name and form that floats up from the past. These remnants veil our true nature.

In order to understand the deep message and in order to know what and how to find it for ourselves we need to look at one section of the Heart Sutra. Arguably there are many versions of the Heart Sutra and an ongoing, continued debate of the origin and the author, but for most practitioners there is agreement that form and emptiness as well as a negative approach is the common ground of this sutra.

In this sutra we have a saint who gives us the message and tells how to know it.

Avalokitesvara Bodhisattva (Saint A.) when practicing deeply the prajna paramita perceived that all five skandas (the five heaps of stuff we call the stuff of the body and the stuff of the mind which include the remnants of attachment) are empty….empty of form, feelings, perceptions, impulses and consciousness. That’s it. It is to practice seeing and hearing everything we meet without form, feelings, perceptions, impulses and consciousness.

A recent example is a trip to the Y to go for a swim. The pool is small, just 5 lap lanes. There are close to 9 million names and forms close by.  During this time of year the pool is packed with these five heaps which includes this close-up bag of heaps in the shape of complaints…too many people…my lane…rude swimmers. If I go and begin to look at any of the remnants of the heaps, form, feelings, perceptions I go full and not empty. Full of concepts and judgment and wants and aversions and you name it. The fullness of mind remnants guarantees to block transcendent wisdom.

That is what the message is…to go empty….without a hair breadth of desire…. then what we find is the perfection of wisdom. Empty the body and mind of attachment to the remnants of the heaps.

The word empty can be substituted with the word love. It could read from a connotative perspective….all five heaps of the body and mind are love, but when we look at just name and form we do not see it as empty or love. Name and form trick us into seeing it as something to want or something to hate, something to attach to and something to discard. Name and form conjure up old hurts and old desires.

If the face of someone we knew comes to mind notice how all the heaps come up along with all the attachments to one or more of the heaps. These are the remnants. And they are not to be attended to except to be gathered and burned up.

As we go along, it hopefully will become clear that this love is not the romantic, brotherly or parental love depicted in most art forms (film, books, paintings, poetry). Although parental love sometimes comes close it in itself is not IT. .This love, this emptiness is not seen with eye or heard with ear. It is transcendent.

Now we need to clarify the method, the approach Saint A. used.

When we lose a set of keys, as a common example,  we often go through rounds of searching for the keys which is certain to include a round of – no, not there – I didn’t leave them in the car even though we might have to double check that we didn’t. No, not there in my jacket pocket, no, not there in the junk drawer. This method is a familiar way of finding something. The familiarity of the search suggests we somehow intuitively know we have lost something or are separated from something we once had. This intuition is based on the waking up to the sense of something is missing. In the example, the keys are missing. For Saint A. transcendental wisdom was missing. When this awareness happens, many of us begin to look for what it is that is missing. Often we go through rounds and rounds of finding out no, not there. We all have a list of no, not there.

How many times have you looked for something you never had and never lost?


Saint A. practiced deeply looking for transcendent wisdom and found it. She did it. She saw and heard the emptiness, the love not seen with the eye and heard with the ear.  And her method was very much rooted in – no, not there.

Saint A. found transcendent wisdom on a negative path which we all know. Saint A. was looking for something. There is some subtle factor that cannot be overlooked here. She looked because she had some intuitive sense she knew something was missing. And when something is missing we tend to rely on this negative, – no, not there – approach.

And with this approach she sums up where transcendental wisdom is not. The method is to be done not believed. Is the body where the eternal, unborn, undying is? Nah. It ain’t. The body is subject to aging, sickness and death. It is going to vanish and return to the dirt.

How about those feelings? Nope. Our feelings seem to be at times in a hyper state of change, especially if we fall in love. It’s that time when everyone waits for the lovers to sober up.

How about perceptions? Ah….it too succumbs. At one point in life we perceive a toy as our biggest treasure only to give it away, throw it away or store it in some dusty attic.

Impulses? HA! These little babies are on speed and not to be trusted.

Perhaps the hardest one is consciousness. This seems to be pervasive, prodigious and perpetual. Everything has consciousness. But wait. Does consciousness itself change and fall apart. Yes it does. Here is my example.

I was sitting with someone who was courteous in conscious listening until a bee buzzed through bombing any ability to concentrate and focus in a conscious way. What happened to their consciousness?

No form, no feelings, no perceptions, no impulses, no consciousness. All let downs as far as the transcendental. No, not there.

In short order we are able to see, hopefully, these heaps of what the body and mind are made of are not the unborn, undying, eternal nature. God ain’t there.

What does this mean?


It means when Saint A. studied the perfection of transcendent wisdom she eliminated these things from the list. She no longer polished them up because polishing them up led to suffering. No matter how much you rub the five heaps it will not lead to finding what is missing.

But she goes further. She goes through every part of the body as not it. The logic being the gross form is not it, but maybe God is in the little stuff, like the eyes, the ears, the nose. But as you read the Heart Sutra we soon discover – no, not there – continues to be what is found. But this is all on the way to finding God on the path of the perfection of transcendent wisdom.

In short, stop looking there. It’s like the keys. I looked in the car and I know they are not in the car. More precisely stop looking in the way you are looking. Begin by looking at what it is not and then shift to looking at what it is. Transcendent wisdom is not in the heaps.

Where, then do we look and how do we look. Well, you look backward into that which is powering up the looking, the hearing, and all the actions of life. You stop looking at the remnants and you look at the Source. This is the emptiness and love that Saint A. discovered. It is right here, in everything waiting for you.

We meet the Source. In order to meet the Source we must know all the heaps are empty of transcendent Wisdom. This is a two-step process. (1) We meet everything for what it is not. (2) And then we can meet it for what it is. This is love, transcendent love that is indefinable, ineffable and immeasurable.

When we approach life from the place of benefiting and generating from the heaps, we will miss the Source. If we meet anything with the remnants of the heaps, we will get sick and look and feel very much like a logging accident. All sorts of miseries will come along. When we meet everything empty, we meet everything with the love not seen by the eye nor heard by the ear. And IT is indescribable, ineffable transcendence.

Everything is waiting in this great patience to come alive from what is powering up everything. In a very real sense every single thing is waiting to be, to awaken and to be transcendent. IT is never apart from right where we are.



Connections: Religion & Spirituality

Credit: Fa Ming Shakya


by Ming Zhen Shakya, OHY

All religions at their base level – the level at which they intersect the plane of ordinary citizens – are merely civilizing media. They post their Commandments, Precepts, Yamas and Niyamas; and through the nearly foolproof means of threatened punishment and promised reward, impose law and order on a community. Nobody has ever improved on the system.

While we notice many differences between the participants and practices of various religions – especially at the fanatical extremes of the base level – we also see that each religion has a mystical ladder by which individual members may ascend to spiritual heights. And, astonishingly, the people who climb and the methods they use to ascend are strangely identical. On mystical ladders, all saints are saints and all holy books holy.


Why, we may wonder, are the people at the bases so dissimilar while those who attain spiritual goals, those exalted mystical states, are so similar – indeed, identical to the point of being interchangeable? The answer is simply that geography and culture have everything to do with religion but nothing to do with spirituality. A human being’s ability to experience divine grace is genetically encoded.

And the methodologies for attaining such spiritual exaltation are predicated upon the same universal physiologic facts.

An old Hasidic tale illustrates the point:

It happened that a great Rabbi was scheduled to visit a small town. As was the custom, the religious elders would meet with him and present him with their spiritual problems and he would answer all their questions. The Rabbi’s visit was regarded as a great honor and so, feeling the pressure of so significant an event, each elder struggled with the daunting task of formulating a proper question, one that would not only help him to overcome an obstacle but would also reflect his piety and maturity and intelligence and scope. What question should he ask? What question? And how to phrase it?

On the appointed evening, into this agony of competitive self-doubt came the great Rabbi. He was used to situations like this.

He entered the temple’s library and allowed himself to be seated in the place of honor at the head of a large table. The elders sat around the table, but after the scraping of chairs and the adjusting of robes, there was silence. They stared at him not knowing what to say.

Suddenly, the great Rabbi began to hum an old Hasidic song. The elders looked at each other quizzically, and then courteously they began to hum, too. And then the great Rabbi began to sing the words of the song; and they, too, began to sing. Soon the great Rabbi stood up, and as he sang he began to stamp his feet and clap his hands to the rhythm. And so did they. And then he sang and raised his arms and snapped his fingers and danced in little circles around the table; and they merrily followed him dancing and singing and snapping their fingers as they circled round and round.

And after they had all sung and danced so joyfully together, they returned to their chairs.

The Rabbi cleared his throat. “I trust that all your questions have been answered,” he said.

If we ignored differences in architecture and dress, would we have seen anything different in a Sufi meeting of Dervishes, whirling to the music in a transcendental moment? No, and not with the Spinners of the Grateful Dead, either. And if we looked at the participants of an Amerindian Pow Wow, wouldn’t we find the same rhythmic beating of the feet and turning round and round to the drum’s demand? Yes.

The engaging power of a humming sound we have many times heard when “Mu” or “Om” is chanted in our ashrams and Zendos.

As to the song, there, too, we find the same exhilarating cadence of breath and phrased tempo when, for example, the great Dharani to Guan Yin is recited in unison by temple congregations. A group of monks singing a Gregorian chant may sing with seemingly less verve, but always with the same depth of emotion.

And the clapping of hands and stamping of feet, and arms and voices raised in song… this could just as easily have been a Revivalist Meeting or a choir of Gospel singers.

People are people and when they seek to unite their spirit to God’s, there is a limited number of ways they can proceed. The question is, why do these ways work at all?

The late and much missed Itzhak Bentov, a mechanical engineer by profession and an observer of spiritual expression by avocation, gave the problem some thought. He studied and measured the effects of self-generated harmonic motions upon the meditating body. Using as his subject a person who is sitting in an apparently motionless posture while practicing deep, controlled breathing, Bentov identified five separate wave motions which, through rhythm entrainment, beneficially amplified their effects, conducing to the meditative state.

The principal resonating oscillator – the pulsating heart/aorta system, entrained four other systems and produced a fluctuating magnetic field around the brain.

According to Bentov, the beating heart and the standing wave produced in the long “stretched” aorta create an oscillation of about 7 Hz in the skeleton, including, of course, the skull. This movement causes the brain to accelerate up and down, actions which generate acoustical plane waves that reverberate at KHz frequencies. These waves drive standing waves within the brain’s ventricles which in turn, noted Bentov, “stimulate the sensory cortex mechanically, resulting eventually in a stimulus traveling in a closed loop around each hemisphere. Such a traveling stimulus may be viewed as a ‘current’, and, as a result of these circular currents each hemisphere produces a pulsating magnetic field. These fields are of opposing polarities.”

He illustrates the pathway of these stimuli as follows:

Cross section of the left hemisphere of the brain. (Illustration taken from Bentov’s Micromotion of the Body as a Factor of the Development of the Nervous System Published in Kundalini, Evolution and Enlightenment, edited by John White, Anchor Books.

After citing his experimental results, Bentov concludes, “Thus by meditating in a quiet sitting position, we slowly activate five tuned oscillators. One by one these oscillators are locked into rhythm. This results eventually in the development of a pulsating magnetic field around the head. When this occurs one may simultaneously observe other characteristic and automatic changes in the functioning of the nervous and circulatory systems. It is the purpose of meditation to bring about these changes…”

We get an image of these circulating waves engulfing the brain and immediately we recall the term “vritti” to which Eastern meditation literature so often refers. Vritti is a whirlpool, a little brainstorm that produces an idea and has a purifying, clarifying effect. And indeed, anyone who has experienced Satori speaks of the sensation of his brain revolving backward in his head, turning half-way round, as the ego is engulfed, totally submerged beneath the weight of a divine hand, or shriveled to nothingness by the scintillations of a divine glance. Chakra activation is likewise experienced as whirling energy.

There, too, is that peculiar sensation of the soft light at the back of the head gently pulsating, and the tremendous glare of the frontal white light that stops the breath and obliterates everything except itself.

But the great Rabbi danced as our beloved Rumi danced and now we wonder to what degree forceful rhythmic movement affects the spinal cord. Can this vital pathway be entrained to produce spectacular transcendence – the euphoria that leads to rapture and ecstasy, to Samadhi or Divine Union? Hmmm. How do the body’s various rhythmic activities resonate with this celestial harmony?

We know that there is a runner’s high. After ten minutes or so – even on a treadmill – a person may enter a zone in which time is cancelled and mundane thoughts vanish and there is only the feet’s rhythmic beating on the hard surface, a percussion wave that travels up the legs and spine to the brain. Many runners run only for this reason: to recapture again and again those moments of entry into eternal, “outside of time,” precincts.

And the sexual charge of Samadhi, the exquisite delirium in which the pleasure centers of the brain are clearly and unambiguously accessed, this, according to ancient Chinese lore, is connected to the activation of the Kidney Meridian, the beginning point of which lies immediately behind the ball of the foot. In the marvelous Chinese film, Hang The Red Lantern, when one of the wives is chosen to join the master in his bedroom, a servant comes into her room and gently beats the soles of her feet, stimulating that sexually critical point. This, too, is the rhythmic sole-beating of the dance.

The repeated striking of the buttocks such as a yogi may practice when he takes the Mahabheda posture, or the little man tou cushion’s anal pressure which exaggerates the blood’s pulsations at the base of the spine – it all seems magically to tie together, the foot fetishes, the flagellations, the rhythmic recitations of mantras, the cadenced breathing -all comprising an array of methods which human beings of every culture may employ to ascend to spiritual heights.

Bentov scientifically explained why sitting in meditation works. We turn our attention inward; we concentrate on the beating of our heart or the pulse in our Hara – that point deep in the abdomen where the aorta bifurcates; we mentally repeat the Buddha’s name or intone “Om” holding the “m” as our lips gently close and vibrate; we measure the inhalation and exhalation of our breath; and one by one the systems rhythmically entrain and gather the strength to carry us up, rung after rung, to the final step of Unity.

This kind of communion is best attempted when we are alone; and then it is indeed sweet beyond description.

But for gatherings or for overcoming obstacles in the meditative path, there is the great Rabbi’s advice: to hum, to sing, to clap our hands and dance, to circle round and round as the Dipper circles the Pole Star. There is the divine gift: music.

Perhaps the last Psalm, 150, says it best:

Praise the Lord.

Praise God in his sanctuary;
    praise him in his mighty heavens.
Praise him for his acts of power;
    praise him for his surpassing greatness.

Praise him with the sounding of the trumpet,
    praise him with the harp and lyre,
praise him with timbrel and dancing,
    praise him with the strings and pipe,
praise him with the clash of cymbals,
    praise him with resounding cymbals.

Let everything that has breath praise the Lord.

Praise the Lord.

Welcome Fa Chuan Shakya


Fa Chuan Shakya – Ordination Remembrance

We are happy to share with you the first anniversary of the ordination of our friend in the Dharma, Fa Chuan Shakya.

Fa Chuan Shakya received full ordination from the Zen / Chan Order of HsuYun from the hands of Venerable DaShi Chuan Sheng, a historic member of the Order, old friend of our beloved Ming Zhen Shakya, and Master of the Order of Lohan tradition of Chinese martial arts.

The ceremony took place at the Lohan Spiritual and Cultural Center, also known as Las Vegas Buddhist Temple.

We wish our dear Fa Chuan Shakya to continue practicing and sharing the Dharma of the order he received from these masters!

May all beings know the end of physical and mental suffering!




Sangha News


June 22, 2017


Dear Friends of the Order,

We are sad to say our dear Abbot, Yao Sheng Shakya needs to resign as Abbot for personal reasons. We would like to thank our dear Abbot, Yao Sheng Shakya, for his wonderful years of service to ZATMA.

Thank you! Abbot Yao Sheng. We appreciate all the work you freely gave to spread the Dharma on a global level and wish you well in your continued practice.

In the light of this change, we want to recognize and announce our gratitude to The Zen Buddhist Order of Hsu Yun, created by Chan Master Wei Miao Jy Din Shakya and the Zen mystic and Chan Teacher Ming Zhen Shakya, our old Sun as our 20th anniversary approaches.

At this important time, the board of our order chooses to enter a new phase in the spreading of the Dharma, respecting two essentials: (1) to offer the Chan (Zen) Dharma through the internet media and (2) to recognize the importance of a relationship between those who seek the Dharma and those who offer the Dharma.

We are thus announcing the creation of the Council of the Order, replacing the Abbotship, with a Co-Prior structure of two senior members of the ZATMA clergy, Fǎshī Yao Xin Shakya and Fǎshī Yao Lǎo Yuè Shakya. This change comes in order to better serve the Order and its needs in this modern and demanding age.

Dharma Teacher and founder of our contemplative practice of  A Single Thread Sangha, Fǎshī Yao Lǎo Yuè Shakya and Zen Master and founder of Dharma Winds Zen Sangha , Fǎshī Yao Xin Shakya offer both a strong devotion to the Dharma as well as a strong commitment to the work of  ZATMA/ZBOHY. Both are two direct students of our Old Sun, Ming Zhen Shakya. They  will serve the Council of the Order and the administration of its communication, ordinations and teachings as Co-Priors of the Zen Buddhist Order of HsuYun ( , ,

Please welcome them in their new roles as Co-Priors.

Mirror, Mirror: The Riddle of Self Reflection, The Seeker

face-on-a-page-postered.jpg (2334×1314)

By Fa Shi Lao Yue

Are we at words?

I hope not.

My purpose in writing this essay is to offer a spiritual practice of examining what comes out of our mouth. In other words, to scrutinize what we say about our world, whether it is the world of our family or the world of our neighbors.  When we study what comes out of our mouth about others we get a chance to see our tendencies that block the shining light of illumination.

What comes out of our mouth is a mirror of where we are.

We begin with an image of everything that we meet as a mirror. This mirror image includes the face of the other, the things in the world, the voice of someone else, the touch, the smell and the taste of what we meet everywhere we go.  And most certainly this mirror includes the thoughts in the mind. Nothing is left out.

Everything is a reflection of the ego-self until we see everything with Buddha eyes.

All of what comes out of our mouth mirrors our spiritual state. And that in itself is a mouthful. This is a boon, a spiritual boon for us. It means the mirroring of everything is an omnipresent teacher, a characteristic of our Buddha nature, of God, of the undying, eternal Self.  But it is only a teacher when we look into it as a self-reflection of our spiritual state. If we are unwilling to see our ego-self’s condition in this mirror we remain in ignorance, mired in the swamp of suffering.

We need a skill to look into such a potent spiritual mirror.

The skill requires a glimpse of the illumined Self. It is the illumined Self veiled by ignorance that shines the light on the ego-self in such a way that the eyes begin to see, even just a little, that everything is a reflection of the ego-self until we merge with and disappear into the Illumination. We practice the skill by recognizing that what comes out of our mouth is a reflection of the mess of me. This change helps us to see the hindrances for what they are and when we see what they are, we have an opportunity to let them go.

The true spiritual seeker is able to see what needs to die off. He begins to know everything that comes into his life as a light reflected on the ego-self. He begins to see without shame, pride or fear.  There is less and less defensive protection around the ego, because there is no ego to defend.

He begins to see how he is in a crap shoot between good and bad or right and wrong and how it is best to get out of the crap game. A standard test to see where one is to notice when, where and how we experience shame, pride and fear and under what situations we defend our position as a being a somebody. When that drops away we begin to see through the reflected light of the indescribable, ineffable nature that is present.

The limitation for those who are wholly or even partially attached to the opposites is a stiff-necked defensiveness, an arrogant hold on a position, a fear of being seen, a shame that stymies and makes him hide out, often in anger and greed. But even these states are spiritual jewels.  They tell the seeker where he is. Once the seeker moves in this direction and is able to reveal where he is he moves toward the light. It is a divine grace to have such freedom to see the pride, the shame, the fear. It’s an essential part of the practice. If, for some reason, the seeker bucks this acknowledgement, he veers into a ditch. The ditch also is part of the practice. But it is a psychological ditch, a battleground between what he sees and how he wants to appear. Often a teacher is needed to help the seeker out of the ditch. The ditch can quickly become mud turning the ground underneath to a swamp. The seeker in a ditch either seeks help or covers over the mess and pretends to be something. It is a painful place which all those who have gone before know.

The true seeker does not give up even if he finds himself in the swamp of suffering. He keeps going. With each effort upward the old dead karma drops away bit by bit even when the seeker does not see with Buddha eyes; even if he finds himself covered in mud up to his eyeballs. It’s never too late.  It is a realization, a grace to see how ignorant he is. He continues to practice with the mud all over him. He puts himself into situations that support his practice of finding the Dharma, being illumined and letting go of the ego-self defense team. This is a remarkable indicator when the seeker sees the spiritual help in pride, shame and fear as grace from above. If he is stopped by these states, he has given in to them and given up.

Still the seeker is encouraged to continue. Begin the practice, don’t give up and continue.

Everything is workable for those who are willing to find the Way.

Good luck.

On Being a Master: Sinking into the Mud

Photo Credit: Fa Shi Yao Xin Shakya



When discussing what a “master” is or can be in our tradition with Yao Xiang Shakya, in preparation before her Master Transmission, she said “I feel being a master is sinking further into the mud so the lotus may rise higher”.

And indeed, knowing we sink into the mud so the lotus may rise is the essence of practice. It is essential to have some basic self honesty to see how shitty and humanly dark we can be. How our tendency to be self-involved is a threat to the rising lotus.

We need to be able to admit our mistakes and our self-centered tendencies.

Yes, my basic thoughts, habits or desires are a mess leading nowhere at all. By directly seeing the mess, knowing it, chewing it in my daily life, I can point to it without shame, pride or fear. With this in mind, especially to those who want to share and teach the Dharma, the question is, do you see how shitty you are? Are you able to be honest about it without being defensive? Are you still hiding out in the walls of your defensive cover-up?

In order to be matter-of-fact and honest, one must know the darkness and light that arises in the mind without shame, pride or fear. Much of the work is busting up these tendencies so one is illumined by our true nature.

A master transmission is not much different from a new ordination; masters don’t forget that the taking of the precepts is a transmission in itself. The main similarity may be symbolized in the fact that when receiving master transmission, we take precepts facing the same altar, the same goal, with the same mindless mind of satisfaction as our own master! In addition, Masters vow to teach our own students and also instruct them to teach. To do this we remain open and focused on the Sincere Center (our awakened Self). Being a master comes with humility from an inner illumination that is bright enough to know darkness and light without seeing it as such. It is a non-dual awareness.

Masters are just very respectful and grateful for the attention and training we received and we try to manifest our Old Teacher’s Dharma (Ming Zhen Shakya), in our own flesh, life, and heart. Much of the work is done in our homes with those we live day to day, and in our communities.

Masters don’t spend time thinking about establishing a big center or figuring out what Buddhist ministry will arise. Our Zen groups/hermitages are close to house churches. They are the nests of our practice in this world, in the middle of all the joys and difficulties, in the middle of all the things we do.

Masters recognize each student who enters the door to be ordained as a lay, novice or full priest has his or her own story, interests, and capacities. Each one could become a teacher and it is a matter of what type of teacher will they become. We have no interest in turning them into clones, like blind and soulless parrots. But whatever their particular Dharma is, we help them grow in it where we both learn and are taught along the Way.

Their interest may change, their lives may take another turn but, like us, they keep mirroring their lives in the tradition our teacher has left us. Everyone has his own relation to that lived tradition. But what binds us is that we keep mirroring our life and spiritual practice in the same mirror.

So despite our differences or personal affinities, may we all sink further into the mud so that, under our Old Sun’s teachings, the lotus may rise higher.

Fa Shi Yao Xin Shakya

Heaven and Hell

Credit: Fa Ming Shakya

Heaven and Hell

by Ming Zhen Shakya, OHY
I wish I didn’t enjoy my prison ministry so much. If it were less agreeable I could make myself seem like a martyr for making the trip out to Jean every Wednesday.

But the fact is, I like going there. It keeps me on my toes. Every cleric is a philosopher of sorts and prisons are often the true enclaves of philosophy. The men don’t have an awful lot to do in their free time. So they think and then discuss what they think and then, I think, lay intellectual traps for me to see what I think.

The subject of heaven and hell came up recently. One of the men quoted Milton to me…. or threw him at me, I should say. “‘Better to reign in hell than serve in heaven,'” he challenged. “Geez,” I said, responding with the standard comeback, “What makes you think that if you go to heaven you’ll be a servant but if you go to hell you’ll be a king?” And he countered with a certain, histrionic flair, “If? If I go? I am in hell.” And after the others stopped grunting in affirmation, I said, “Well, Your Majesty, there you may be, but not for the reasons you think.” And then I had to start thinking about reasons and as I say, it keeps me on my toes.

Fortunately, he had picked the best known passage in Milton’s Paradise Lost. Had he been more esoteric in his reference, he might have made me switch subjects… after all… I haven’t read the whole of it. He probably had… but then it would pretty much take a prison term — I’d better quit before I offend Milton lovers.

“Well,” I said with a sizzling riposte, “just before Satan said that, didn’t he say something about the mind being its own place and inside itself could make a heaven of hell and a hell of heaven?” This equally famous line constitutes, you see, the core belief of Zen Buddhism. We can’t help it if Milton put the line in Satan’s mouth. Satan surely can get a few things right. As they say, even a stopped clock is correct twice a day.

Then, to illustrate the point I was trying to make, I invited the men to play a kind of game and tell me what I was describing: I said, “I see a group of buildings surrounded by a high wall and a locked gate. The inmates wear uniforms of plain, coarse material. They eat simple food, prepared without garnishment or sauce. They rise early and retire late. Everywhere they go and in everything they do, they are subject to someone’s absolute authority over them, and to endless rules and regulations and punishments for breaking same. They are expected to work for many hours a day and to keep silent for many other hours. They have virtually no freedom of choice. They sleep in rooms called cells, and when they retire to their beds at night, they are alone… for no female companionship is allowed them. OK,” I said, “What am I describing?”

I didn’t fool any of them. “A monastery,” they all answered, and we laughed because it is funny the way a monastery headed by an abbot and a prison headed by a warden are so strangely similar in design. But there the similarity ends. The obvious difference between monks and convicts is that the former desire to live under such conditions and are usually happy and the latter are forced to…and are usually miserable. The conditions are the same. The state of mind… the desire… is different.

Zen has a very pragmatic approach to the subject of heaven and hell. We recognize them as two states of mind that can be experienced in the present moment. Regardless of whatever happens at the end of life, Nirvana and Samsara, our earthly states of Heaven and Hell, can be experienced right now while we’re still breathing.

According to Buddhism’s Four Noble Truths, life in the world of the ego, which we call Samsara or Hell, is bitter and painful. No argument there. And the Second Noble Truth is that the cause of this bitterness and pain is egotistical desire. And isn’t that the difference between monks and convicts? One group wants to be where they are and the other doesn’t. The question is why… specifically why do monks want to be there? If you ever spend any time in a monastery, you’ll likely ask yourself that question a few times a day.

But the answer is really quite simple. The monks are seeking heaven and they’re trying to qualify for gaining it. They’re turning their attention inwards – away from the world – because they wish to become One with the King who reigns there, in that Kingdom that lies within. And before they can do that, they must learn to serve that King with unconditional love, in egoless humility and purity. The convicts were still living in the world of desire.. the one presided over by Satan or Mara – to use his Buddhist name.

What is the nature of this desire that in seeking its satisfaction they, and we, create such hells for ourselves? Back in 600 AD Saint Gregory listed the Seven Deadly Sins and they’re still very much alive and well – even after Brad Pitt and Morgan Freeman got finished with them. Those seven universal expressions of egotistical self-indulgence have lost none of their virulence: pride; greed; jealousy; lust; sloth; gluttony; and anger. The mind that is infected with any or all of these Seven Deadly Sins is attached to, i.e., is emotionally engaged by desire or aversion to the people, places and things of this, the ego’s, world. This ego-mind wants to be loved and admired, to be feared and respected, and to indulge itself in a variety of sensory pleasures; and it doesn’t much care what it has to do to get what it wants.

If Zen’s goal had to be stated in a single word that word would be non-attachment… freeing the mind from its fixations on the things of the outer world and turning it inward, to its relationship with God or the Buddha Self. And it doesn’t matter whether you are housed in a monastery or a prison since the accomplishment of this goal depends not on the nature of the real estate, but on the nature of the heart.

I’ll close this little Dharma talk by relating one of Zen’s favorite stories:

There was once a very proud and powerful king who fancied himself a philosopher. After much disputation and argument, mostly with himself, this King reached the conclusion that there was no such thing as heaven or hell. These were mere superstitions, he decided, and he therefore decreed that henceforth there would be no further talk of heaven or hell in his kingdom. Anyone who defied his Royal Will by even mentioning them would be severely punished.

One day a holy man visited the kingdom; and despite numerous warnings, this holy man began to preach about heaven and hell. Naturally when the king heard about it he was furious and ordered the man arrested and brought to court.

“Everyone knows that my conclusions are correct,” the king said to the holy man. “Why do you persist in preaching a doctrine that is so obviously false?”

The holy man sneered and laughed at the king. “Do you expect me to discuss philosophy with a buffoon like you?” he asked.

Instantly the king was on his feet! Enraged, he shouted at his guards, “Seize him!”

Then the holy man raised his hand and said, “Sire… Sire… Please… One moment! Understand! There is a hell and right now you are in it!”

Suddenly the king understood! He saw himself standing there, burning with rage, consumed with violence and contempt; and he understood that hell wasn’t a place where the body burned, but where the spirit burned.

And horror-struck by his own actions, he sat down on his throne and trembled and covered his face with his hands. And when he finally looked up again, he was filled with love and gratitude, and the wonder of enlightenment.

Quietly, he said to the holy man, “And to think of your great generosity in teaching me this! To think how you risked your life just to enlighten me to this truth! Oh, Master! Please forgive me.”

And the holy man said, “And you see, Sire, there is a heaven, and right now you are in it.”

Welcome Our New Novice Shen Na of Dharma Wind Zen Hermitage

Ordination de novice de Shen Na (Lena Savarit)

La DWZS/OZHY a la joie de vous annoncer la récente ordination de Lena Savarit!


La cérémonie a eu lieu au Dharma Winds Zen Hermitage (Namur) ce mardi 30 mai 2017. Lena Savarit a reçu les préceptes de bonze novice dans le lignage Linji/Yunmen de notre Ordre ainsi que le nom de novice Shen Na (Profonde/Totale Acceptation) des mains de Shi YaoXin.

Puisse-t-elle aider tous les êtres à réaliser la Sublime Illumination!

Puissent tous les êtres l’aider à réaliser la Sublime Illumination!




Shi YaoXin

DWZS/OZHY has the pleasure to share the ordination of Lena Savarit!

The Ceremony took place at Dharma Winds Zen Hermitage (Namur, Belgium) on May 30 2017. Lena Savarit received the precepts of a Novice Priest in the Linji/Yunmen lineage of our Order and the Dharma Name ShenNa (Profound Acceptation) from YaoXin Shi.

May she help all beings to realize Sublime Enlightenment!

May all beings help her to realize Sublime Enlightenment!




Shi YaoXin

The White Birds

Credit: Fa Ming Shakya

The White Birds

by Ming Zhen Shakya, OHY

Kanin, a professional hunter, was a good man. He was brave and reliable; and his skill with bow, net and spear was such that his reputation flourished even in lands he had never visited.

It pleased Kanin, but did not puff him up, to know that whenever an elephant or tiger was threatening a village, or whenever a visiting potentate required a guide to lead a sporting party, Kanin’s name – not the name of any younger, stronger man – would always be the first name called.

One day, while tracking a tiger into an unfamiliar part of the forest, high in the mountains, Kanin came upon an uncharted lake, a wondrous place, a hidden sanctuary that teemed with dazzling white birds. Incredulous, he blinked and rubbed his eyes; but they continued to identify waterfowl of every kind – heron and crane, goose, duck, egret and swan – and all in such profusion that he shook his head and giggled for many minutes before accepting his vision as genuine. Not even in legends or rumor was such a place as this mentioned.

“I believe that I see them,” Kanin shouted at the sky, “but how can I ever believe my good fortune?”

Proprietary thoughts began to crowd the hunter’s mind, for he realized that since it was unlikely that anyone else could know of the lake, all of its riches were his alone to exploit. “Why was I blessed with such a discovery?” he asked as he sat and marveled at the scene.

He could see the future clearly. “I need never work again,” he announced to the indifferent birds. “No more trekking through mud and brambles! No more insects and snakes! I have found enough wealth here to keep me prosperous for the rest of my life.” He would open a poultry shop, he decided, and every week he would come to the secret lake and take all the birds he could sell. Of course, great care would have to be taken to ensure that no one followed him! No one else could ever be allowed to know the location of his treasure.

His hopes for the future gave way to plans and plots and then to the deceptive schemes of secrecy – for he was a hunter and well understood the requirements of strategy, tactics, and stealth. Then, noticing his hunger, he roused himself and built a cooking fire.

Selecting a plump duck that swam nearby, Kanin drew his bow and took aim; but just as he loosed his arrow, the duck dived and the shaft harmlessly parted a few of its tail feathers. Annoyed, Kanin shot another arrow. This time the duck moved sidewards just enough to let the tip graze its breast. Again Kanin tried, and again he missed. Disgusted with himself, he tried to regain his composure “My excitement has put my aim off the mark,” he said, and he chose a larger target, a white swan. But again and again, his arrows struck nothing but water.

Out of arrows and furious with himself, Kanin resorted to his net. Carefully approaching some cranes that were wading at the water’s edge, he flung his net at them; but the birds quickly stepped out of range of the encircling net. Repeatedly Kanin retrieved and flung his net, but the birds always managed to elude it.

Trying to assuage his anger and frustration, he told himself that after all, his arrows and net were of a gauge suitable for tigers, not birds. The finest hunter in the world is dependent upon his equipment. He would simply have to return with finer arrows and a much lighter net.

Hungry and defeated and having neither the appetite nor the energy to search for rabbit or other game, he quenched the fire and turned homewards, carefully marking his trail as he went.

The next day at the marketplace he provisioned himself. He obtained new fowler’s nets, a tall backpack of wicker cages with a padded tump line, and the finest arrows the fletcher sold. Then he strolled through the marketplace and chose the perfect location to erect his poultry shop.

The following day, rested and equipped, Kanin followed his trail back to the hidden lake. The steep climb and heavy burdens slowed his progress and the sun was near to setting when he finally arrived. Yet the splendid sight renewed him. He could spend a lifetime, he thought, just trying to count the birds. “What good fortune!” he exclaimed. “What incredibly good fortune!”

Noticing the hour, he quickly made camp in a nearby cave, built a fire and then, with a quiver filled with fowler’s arrows, he strode to the water’s edge and took aim at the nearest birds. To his astonishment, his arrow missed the target. Again and again he tried, selecting other birds; but he could strike nothing but water.

Somehow, he reasoned, he was warning the birds. Some movement of his, imperceptible to him, was signaling them. He needed to observe their reactions more closely, but it was too dark to see clearly. Kanin retreated to his camp convinced that he had failed because he had hunted at a disadvantageous time. “I was exhausted from travel. My movements were clumsy. Tomorrow I will get up very early and then, when I am alert and the birds are still sluggish with sleep, I will kill one and capture many.”

He awakened before dawn and crept to the water’s edge. As soon as he could clearly discern a target – a sleeping duck – he shot at it; but the duck simply turned out of the arrow’s path. Kanin could not believe it. “What can this be?” he raged as he watched his arrow pierce only the still, cold water. “What black magic is this?” But though he seethed and fumed and repeatedly tried to strike a bird, he invariably missed. He also flung his nets, but they, too, entangled nothing but branches and water lilies.

He struggled to control himself, to find a cause for his failure. “I’m angry… furious… and the angrier I get, the worse my aim gets,” he reasoned. “Who knows better than I how emotion can confound the hand and eye?” When he regained his confidence and calm, he tried again. Still, he could not strike a single bird.

Dejected, he sat in his camp alternately cursing himself and his quarry until hunger nudged him, sending him into the thicket to hunt for lesser game. “Am I not known for my tenacity?” he asked himself. “Has any quarry ever successfully eluded me?” And he truthfully answered himself, “No. I brought down every elephant, deer or tiger I ever pursued; and I will bring these birds down, too.” He snared a rabbit, and as he roasted it, he formed a plan and waited for morning.

At first light he began to jog towards home. Not having to mark his trail or stop to eat, he moved quickly and was able to return to his village by early afternoon. Gruffly he dismissed his friends’ greetings and neighborly invitations. Nothing could deflect his concentration from its single- pointed goal.

The following morning, carrying all the equipment he needed to manufacture arrows, repair nets, and establish a permanent camp, he returned to the lake.

Though in the days and weeks that followed he shot hundreds of arrows, none ever struck its mark. Though he flung his nets hundreds of times, none ever settled upon a single bird. But his obsession was complete. Though exhausted and nearly maddened by defeat, Kanin continued to prowl the lake’s uncanny precincts, vowing that though he died in the attempt, he would capture the birds.

Several months passed. The hunter began to look and act like a wild man, crazed and brutish. His hair and beard grew long and tangled. He wore animal skins instead of tattered clothes. He snarled and grunted and the only words he spoke aloud were challenges and curses.

It was only when he sat near the entrance to his cave, at a point which overlooked the lake, and stared impotently at the birds that his expression betrayed his wild appearance. Only then did his face show that look of hopeless longing, that bitterness and sorrow which only human creatures know.

One morning as Kanin was beginning to stir, he heard a strange noise. A human voice! Someone not too far away was singing or chanting. Kanin crept out onto his lookout point. There, on the farthest stone of a row of stepping stones that extended into the water, stood an old priest; and all around him, nuzzling his legs, perching upon his shoulders, vying for the caress of his hands, fluttering, cooing, chirping and singing, were the damnable birds! Kanin winced in disbelief. He covered his face and bit his lip, then he crawled back into his cave and cursed himself more violently than he had ever cursed the

birds. But as the beautiful melodies continued to torment him, a scheme formed in his mind. Was he not a hunter?

Surely, he thought, the priest’s scent would be in his clothes. If he could only get those robes! He would shave his beard and hair and with pine boughs scrub away his own scent, and then dressed in the priest’s garments and singing the priest’s song, he would trick the birds.

Kanin returned to his ledge and studied the priest’s movements and memorized his song. “I hope you stay long enough to require rest, old man,” he whispered to the distant singer, and he added menacingly, “I also hope that you disrobe when you rest,” for Kanin had already decided that if necessary, he would kill to get the garments.

But the priest did not stop to rest. Instead, he simply bid the birds good bye, stepped back to shore and ambled into the forest.

Quickly Kanin left his lookout point, grabbed his knife and followed the priest.

The trail was difficult to follow. The priest did not go down in the direction of the villages Kanin knew, but instead moved laterally, over rocky ledges, until he reached the opposite side of the mountain.

For hours Kanin pursued the priest. Then, just before nightfall, he trailed him to his destination, a temple situated in a small and isolated town.

Kanin waited, hidden in shrubbery. He was sure that the priest, fatigued from his journey, would retire quickly. The old man would, of course, sleep soundly. Kanin would simply steal his robes and return to the lake. Fortunately, there was a full moon. It would aid escape just as the obliging night would discourage pursuit.

Unaware that a servant also shared the priest’s room, Kanin entered and reached for the robes. The servant, terrified by the intruder’s wild appearance, shrieked in alarm. Kanin struck him had across the face and, clutching his prize, ran into the forest.

On and on he ran until the cries of alarm dwindled into silence. Then he stopped; and after wrapping the precious garments in fern fronds to keep his own scent from contaminating them further, he climbed a tree. There, secured in the nook of a stout branch, he waited for morning.

At dawn, as he heard the distant temple bell summon the villagers to prayer, he continued to retrace his path back to the lake. He knew that he was being followed for he could hear dogs barking whenever he stopped to catch his breath or determine his direction.

Kanin moved quickly; but it was not until his pursuers stopped to eat their noon meal that he was able to gain safe distance. All day he travelled without rest until, near sundown, he arrived at his cave.

Quickly he began to sharpen his knife and to hone it finely to a razor’s edge. Then he lathered his face and head with the juices of marsh roots and shaved his hair and beard, carefully drawing the blade across his skin to remove the least stubble.

He entered the water and with pine bristles scrubbed his body until all his own scent had been washed away. It was dark as he dragged himself from the water and collapsed in exhaustion on the cold ground.

At the first light of dawn he was ready. He draped himself in the priest’s robes and, concealing a fowler’s net within the vestment’s folds, he followed the stepping stones out to the exact spot that he had seen the priest stand.

Kanin began to chant, his voice floating gently across the still water. Its unfamiliar sound captured his attention. How strange and beautiful, he thought. There was even an echo! Then, as he stopped to listen to the sweet reply, he happened to glance down into the water and was startled by what he saw. A face he did not recognize – a serene and gentle face – looked up at him from beneath the surface! Kanin gasped and the face also gasped. And suddenly Kanin realized that the submerged countenance was his own! “I’ve startled myself,” he confessed nervously.

Then, as he looked up, he saw in the distance a silver- ribboned waterfall which he had never noticed before. “Strange,” he said, “that in all this time I never even wondered about the source of the lake.” A peculiar feeling came over him. He felt as if he were just regaining consciousness after drugged sleep or a fainting spell. He squinted and rubbed his eyes.

Color began to fill his vision. Darting past him came a hummingbird’s iridescent green and the celestial flash of a bluebird. And there were roses by the lake… red and pink and yellow… and he detected their fragrance… and the fragrance, too, of honeysuckle vines that cascaded down the bank and into the water. How could he have missed all this? How beautiful this lake was… how the morning sun streamed down through the trees and glistened on the water… and the birds… how lovely they were… how innocent and peaceful. And suddenly an anguished cry rose up from deep within his chest and he covered his face in shame. “What a blind and ignorant fool I am,” he cried. “What a vile and savage brute! Oh, Lord, forgive me!” Tears rolled down his face and he raised his hands in a beggar’s gesture. As he extended his arms, the net slid from his shoulder and fell into the water. Then the water birds came to gather at his feet.

That night the villagers returned to the temple. “The thief got away,” the servant said. “We thought we had tracked him all the way to the lake, but he wasn’t there; and since it was getting dark, we turned back.”

“Oh,” inquired the priest, “then you saw no one?”

“Only a priest,” said the servant, “rather like yourself. He was kneeling in the water chanting the Buddha’s name.”

No one understood why the priest suddenly laughed. 

Essence and Expectations: Digging for the Gold of Insight

Credit: Fa Ming Shakya

Essence and Expectations

by Ming Zhen Shakya, OHY


Archimedes was stymied. The greatest mathematician in the world had a problem that baffled him. How could he determine whether an intricately wrought crown was pure gold or gold adulterated with a base metal? He knew what a given quantity of gold should weigh and that the same quantity of adulterated metal would have a different weight; but how could he determine the quantity of material in the crown? He couldn’t cut it up into measurable pieces. What to do? What to do?

As every troubled thinker does, Archimedes decided to take a hot bath. And it was then, as he sank into the water and the liquid sloshed over the sides of the tub that the concept of displacement occurred to him. Two things cannot occupy the same space. He might not have been able to measure the space the crown occupied by measuring the crown, but he could easily measure the amount of water the crown displaced. He could quantify the material! Jubilant and still naked, he ran through the streets shouting “Eureka!” I have found it! I have found the answer!

How do we tell false from true and penetrate surface to probe core? Insight requires the hard work of disciplined thought and observation; and most of the time we’re too tired, or lazy, or distracted to bother. So we laugh or gape or, if we do feel an emotional response, we look at the reflection of what we’ve projected onto the surface and coo adoringly or cast the glancing shadow of our own malice; but usually we see nothing but what it suits us to see. We don’t care to look behind the mirror.

From the trove of oriental wisdom comes a famous parable which illustrates the meaning of dharma, the nature or natural order of a thing, the design ‘plans and specs’ to which the thing conforms. Regardless of any superficial characteristics it may present, everything has its dharma, its true, interior nature.

In the parable, an encounter between a venomous creature (a scorpion) and an innocuous one (a holy man) is observed by an uncomprehending man who, though he thinks he understands what he sees, has no real insight. He cannot penetrate the surface to plumb the depths of meaning.

Several years ago, in his film, The Crying Game, Neil Jordan brought a version of the parable to the West’s attention: A soldier, while making love to a woman, is captured by rebels who hold him hostage. Hooded, his hands bound behind him, he is guarded by a calm and gentle man who tries to make him as comfortable as possible.

The soldier, fearing execution, plays upon the guard’s compassionate nature by evoking manly sympathies. By action and word he poses the Archimedian problem: what is our true nature? Are we what we appear to be?

On the surface they would seem to be opposites. Racially, one is black, the other white. Politically, one is a soldier in service to the ruling power, the other a rebel in arms against it. But underneath these surfaces, do they not share a common nature? Do they not love, play, joke, urinate, and do all things that make them human? Are they not equals? The captive displays a photograph of the beautiful woman he loves and asks the guard to visit her and to convey the final thoughts of his undying love. It seems little enough for a condemned man to ask.

But the soldier further attempts to compromise the guard, to seduce him with voluptuous praise. There are, he insists, only two kinds of people in the world: “those who give and those who take” – the implication being that they are both good ‘giving’ men who give because it is their nature to be kind and compassionate. “You will help me,” says the soldier, “because it is your nature to be kind. You won’t be able to act against your nature.” And then, to illustrate his point, he relates the parable of the encounter between a venomous and an innocuous creature, in this version, a scorpion and a frog:

A scorpion, desiring to get to the other side of a river, asks a frog to carry him across. The frog is reluctant because he fears that the scorpion will sting him; but the scorpion dismisses the possibility saying that it wouldn’t be in his interest to sting the frog since then they’d both drown.

“The frog,” says the captive soldier, “thinks it over and then agrees to the deal.”

But mid-way across the river the scorpion stings the frog who, shrieking in pain, asks the scorpion why he has done this; and the scorpion replies, “I couldn’t help it. It’s my nature.” The theater audience laughs. It’s a clever explanation… the divine blueprint, the genes and chromosomes of scorpionhood. Yes, the guard will likely yield to the imperatives of his nature and help the soldier.

But if we are seeking insight, immediately we are confused. There is a problem here. Neil Jordan has dunked us in the Archimedian tub. First, there is the flaw of contract. There has been no “deal.” What is the necessary consideration? What benefit would the frog receive from ferrying the scorpion across the river? None was stated. If we are to believe that he is acting out of simple kindness, why then is the guard’s adherence to his own nature being likened unto the scorpion’s? He is being asked to act as benignly as the frog, not as detrimentally as the scorpion. Something does not jibe. We sink into the bathwater and await enlightenment. In television’s small claim’s court program, Judge Joe Brown, we recently heard another version of the parable. The judge, after deciding a case in favor of the defendant, responded to the plaintiff’s claim that her faithless and irresponsible lover had unduly enriched himself at her expense, by turning to the camera and lamenting, “It’s always this way. A person falls in love with someone who keeps breaking promises and acting badly. But the person keeps on forgiving the bad conduct. And then, when the relationship finally ends, there’s the inevitable complaint of breach of contract. ‘I gave this and I was promised that…’ On it goes. It reminds me of a story,” the good judge recalls, “of the woman who finds an injured snake on the road. She brings it home and nurses it until it recovers. But as soon as the snake is healed, it bites her. She says, ‘How could you bite me after I did so much to help you?’ And the snake says, ‘Lady, you knew I was a snake when you brought me home.'” The spectators in the courtroom laugh. A snake can’t help being a snake. Yes, the woman’s got nobody to blame but herself.

But something is wrong with this scenario. And once again we are sloshing in water, trying to understand, squinting to see truth. Do we assist only those distressed persons who post a bond, who give us a surety, a guarantee of reward, or payment-in-advance for our trouble? What is the judge trying to teach us? That we should be indifferent to the sufferings of others or restrict our charitable assistance to those who are certifiably impotent? Wouldn’t we rather be the Good Samaritan and risk ingratitude – or worse, than be the kind of person who ignores a signal of distress?

Perhaps a look at the original parable will help to clarify the problem:

A holy man is sitting by a river into which a scorpion falls. Seeing the creature thrash helplessly in the water, the holy man reaches down and scoops it up, placing it safely on the ground; and as he does this, the scorpion stings him.

Again, the scorpion falls into the water; and again, the holy man rescues him and is stung for his trouble.

Yet a third time the scorpion falls into the water and is saved by the holy man; and yet a third time the scorpion stings him.

Standing nearby is a man who has been observing this indignantly. He approaches the holy man and angrily asks, “Why do you keep rescuing a scorpion that keeps stinging you?”

The holy man gently shrugs. “It is a scorpion’s dharma to sting,” he says simply, “just as it is a human being’s dharma to help a creature in need.”

In the holy man’s demeanor and his explanation, we understand the parable. He has acted without egotistic desire, without expectation of reward or compensation, without entering that realm of conditional existence that is, for a spiritual person, assiduously to be avoided. He has acted in perfect freedom, doing what he considers is the right thing to do, without fear of consequence because he knows that his happiness does not depend upon exterior events or eventualities. He is an individual, independent, needing nothing or no one. He is responsible only to his God; and because he respects God’s designs – all His blueprints for life, he acts without singling himself out for special consideration.

And this equanimity is possessed by the guard just as it is prescribed for the plaintiff.

In The Crying Game we’ll indeed discover that the guard is the counterpart of the holy man. He, too, acts innocuously, without contract, without expectation of reward. It is the seductive soldier who is the poisonous scorpion; and, regardless of how he promises to conduct himself, he will act in accordance with his own ego-nature’s self-interest. All his talk of brotherhood, of a shared, generous nature was calculated to manipulate, an allurement to conscience. It was not what it seemed to be. In fact, he has secretly untied his hands and, relying upon the guard’s sense of decency – which surely will not allow him to shoot a man in the back – he breaks free and runs away, leaving the guard to face summary execution for having allowed his prisoner to escape.

And then we recall… as Judge Joe Brown would have had us recall… that we had indications of the soldier’s character at the outset of the film. Didn’t we witness his infidelity in the opening scene? Wasn’t he betraying ‘the great love of his life’ at the time he was captured? And later, didn’t he lie and conceal relevant truth when he cleverly aroused the guard’s interest in the photograph? His faithlessness and duplicity were already a matter of record.

Judge Brown, in his examination of the Plaintiff’s case, also established this point. At the outset of the relationship, the evidence of character, of nature, was there; and the plaintiff chose to ignore it, preferring to see what she wanted or needed to see. Only in retrospect, was each gift of money a loan. But why, the plaintiff was asked, when the man had not repaid the first loan did she give him a second? And, when he also failed to repay that did she give him a third and put her credit cards at his disposal for the fourth and fifth, and so on. The woman had an ulterior motive, one with which we all can sympathize, but one that had nothing to do with business agreements. She wanted to be loved and appreciated. In fact her gifts were bribes, inducements to yield the love she sought. But her image of herself – and her explanation for her actions – was that she was a kind and generous person, one who couldn’t ignore someone’s needs. She said that she helped because it was her nature to help. But if this were true, why was she demanding repayment?

In the absence of any evidence of agreement to repay, the Judge had to find for the ungrateful defendant. And so he spoke of a woman who had nursed a snake and who had not been prepared to accept the consequences of snake-handling.

The soldier’s and the Judge’s version of the parable are not intended to explain anything. They merely serve to warn, to caution us against accepting self-serving assurances and self-gratifying suppositions – and never to discount dharma. Yes, we are free to help an injurious person as often as needed, and to forgive him as often as we wish; but we cannot expect him to reform himself in accordance either with our hopes or with his manipulating promises. We are not asked to refrain from helping a scorpion, but only to remember – to remain aware – that it is a scorpion we are helping.

And implied in this awareness is the need to determine why it is we are helping him. Did we profess kindness as a means of huckstering a holiness which, in truth, we did not possess? Did we require love and appreciation so much that we were willing to purchase it? Is our ego such that we imagined that we could convert a scorpion into a canary, a serpent into a lapdog?

And if it is true that we have lavished so much attention upon someone who was so unworthy, so snakeish, what does that say about our powers of perception, not to mention taste? The ego’s desires are like beads upon a mala, an endless concatenation of fondled expectations. If ungratified, we experience disappointment; if gratified, we drop the bead and palpate the next desire.

In a social context, if we act purely to help someone, we do so without quid pro quo arrangements. If we are repaid, fine. If not, fine. Where there is no contract, there is no remedy – nor need of one.

In The Crying Game‘s final scene, the guard, asked to explain his self-sacrificing nature, repeats the parable of the scorpion and the frog. But he does this entertainingly, without guile. He exaggerates the shriek of the frog and dramatizes the scorpion’s response. In perfect simplicity, unaware even of his own humility, he likens himself unto the scorpion. He can’t help his nature – which we know is unconditionally loving and expansive.

The plaintiff, upon whom humiliation has been imposed, will likely shrivel. She’ll no longer grovel for snake love, but we must suppose that until she can look within herself and discover her own egoless self-worth, she’ll continue to see reflected love or hate in those upon whom she has cast her imaged desires.

Archimedes did not allow himself to be deceived by appearance. He tasked himself with the hard work of achieving insight which required simply and monumentally that he solve a problem in measurement.

The crown was not what the goldsmith said it was. The metal was gold alloyed with cheap copper. In the process of ascertaining this, Archimedes had discovered a great, eternal truth.

With what joy did that old man run naked through the streets. 


Dharma Up Close: An Approach to Study

Dharma Up Close


On Being in Prison

As I read and reread Ming Zhen’s article on Expectations I thought I’d share both my approach to her work and my great finds in it. My approach is simple….rather than explain the approach I thought I’d show what I do.

The work starts out comparing religious backsliding to prison recidivism. What, you may ask, does this have to do with me?

The first thing to note is to check with yourself if you are skilled at self inquiry. Or do you meet what comes into your life, in this case this article, as something to judge as mere balderdash or brilliant writing. Do you begin to judge it rather than ask how might this apply to me? You might argue that you are not a criminal nor a backslider and dismiss the work altogether. But hold on….why would Ming Zhen write such a piece? Just for your editorial review? Never. Let me tell you she did not care what others thought of her work….she cared about the Dharma and offering the Dharma. Everything comes into your life to awaken….everything.

When I read the first paragraph I took note to realize we are all, each one of us dealing with backsliding and recidivism in our lives, not just one part of our life but all parts of our life.

Let’s see.

The word regression is both a statistical and psychological term which explains the falling back towards the mean, commonly known as the average in mathematics; Freud used the term to describe a return to an earlier stage of development as a defense against something we dislike. Ming Zhen would have been aware of both. The word recidivism in this context refers to a habitual relapse of some criminal behavior. In this first paragraph Ming Zhen shakes us up….if we are willing to study and to take to heart what she says.

We all regress and relapse….we have a tendency to do so. We fall back to some familiar average….some ordinary garden-variety approach to our life and we defend it with regressive behaviors of an earlier psychological stage. In more common terms, we conform to get along and we revert to some juvenile, latent or infantile impulse, e.g., storm out, clam up or kick and scream.

Are you aware of this in your self? That’s the first step. To be aware of you and what you tend to do. If you are not aware of what you do….you need to ask what inhibits your self inquiry? Maybe you think you are set….that your character is fixed and unchangeable.

Let’s go on….

As mentioned, we all regress and relapse….we have a tendency to do so. In Zen Master Hongzhi’s 12th century work, Cultivating the Empty Field we read the injunction to ….purify, cure, grind down, or brush away all the tendencies (we) have fabricated into apparent habits.

Master Hongzhi admonishes us to stop backsliding and regressing by purifying, curing, grinding down or brushing away the tendency to do so. Huh?

Are you using everything that comes into your life as a way to practice this admonition? To stop going back to old, familiar patterns and to stop defending them. Are you aware how and when you do this backsliding and relapsing?

The consequences of going along as usual is twofold: you remain in prison and give way to some immature defense of not wanting to do the work to get out.

So this is just a little taste of one approach.

May the merit benefit all beings in the ten directions.

Expectations by Ming Zhen Shakya

Ming Zhen Shakya speaks…On Expectations


by Ming Zhen Shakya, OHY

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I know some people who live there.”


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

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

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

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

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

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

“It’s in South America.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I said I knew and understood.

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