Introduction to Nienfo Chan/Nembutsu Zen and the Traceless Mind by Fashi Yao Xin Shakya

Nienfo Chan/Nembutsu Zen is the most common practice taught in China to enter the gateless gate of Zen. It consists “simply” in the recitation of a sacred or symbolic name, such as the name of a Buddha or a mantra. Such a practice is a popular form of devotion for simple and helpless people in need of refuge, but it is much more. Please don’t be fooled by the simplicity of the practice, it is a wonderful Dharma raft.
This recitation practice fits all situations, and all spiritualities. It is a blessing that matches the Linji/Rinzai mindset of always giving the mind what it needs. My late Dharma teacher MingZhen Shakya used to say:
Always, give the mind what it needs to enter the gateless gate.’
Recitation is a universal Buddhist practice found in Mahayana and Theravada Buddhism. The roots of the practice come from BuddhaSmriti (mindful awareness). The practitioner recollects the Buddha’s name. It is as simple and beautiful as that.

There are different intentions the practitioner may have when doing the practice. But the main intention is to harmonize the intention with what the mind needs. If I am standing in the middle of a crowded train, for example, the intention needed may be a peaceful mind. I may need to dispel the irritation of noise or the smell of the underground cars. Recitation is a wonderful practice. I shift away from reacting to the situation to resting on Buddha’s name in mindful awareness.

There are many levels and ways to cultivate the practice of recitation. The old Chinese booklet “48 Doors to Nienfo,” also titled Taming the Monkey Mind is a good resource. This small booklet allows the reader to enter into the realm of the practice of Hua t’ou.

There is no fundamental difference between practices, one practice leads to another. The key is attention. You need to pay attention when you recollect the Buddha’s name. Attention to practice leads to Pure Mind.

The same principle is true for the four main practices we share in our Sangha. To sum it up these are: 1. Recitation, 2. Huatou/Wato, 3. GuanYin Chan/Kannon Zen, 4. MoChao Chan/Mokusho Zen.

Our usual set of mind is a mind of delusion , always trapped in a view, a craving or dissatisfaction. It is like a man walking around a mountain in a fog. He is unable to see the mountain, let alone a path leading up the mountain.

When we see the mountain and the path up the mountain, we have a chance to escape our suffering. With attention we begin to climb the difficult path of concentration. We set our mind on the summit; the Spiritual Everest of most traditions. In our Zen Linji/Rinzai school, we call this Kensho or JianXin, seeing mind. What all zen ancestors urged for.

It has many names: paradise, knowing God, entering the bride’s room, meeting sky father, Oneness, death of the self and the brilliant presence of a true Self. A Buddha Nature of non difference, an emptiness made form or form made emptiness.

In our Chinese tradition, it is Amituofo which means the Buddha of Pure Light beyond Space and Time. It is the summit for a devotee. We call it “Unified/Union Mind” or a a Mind in Samadhi/Zen. This experiences is beautiful and very inspiring, but it is not the end of the path.

To the contrary it is the very beginning of the path! Every practice towards Samadhi’s Egoless state before kensho isn’t called Zen. Before samadhi the work of these practices is to bring you to the door of Zen, our most natural state.

We acknowledge these experiences knowing that the heart of our practice is to give. We don’t dwell in Samadhi, apart from society in a dreamlike state. It’s a trap easy to fall into a path of the Buddhahood for ourselves. Shakyamuni himself doubted his capacities to share what he knew. The story goes that Brahma begged him to teach those with little dust in their eyes.

So, the specificity of Zen is to be a Traceless Path. The fourth Mind is the traceless mind or No mind, Wu/Mu Xin. Big word you might say, what does it mean.

It means a path of traceless manifested of our true self.

Once we understand Union/Samadhi/kensho is not the end of the path we we offer what we have to offer to others. We let the sacred manifest and we let ourselves manifest the Union in our daily lives. If there is kensho wonderful, if it’s a day of no kensho wonderful too. Our way is Farming Chan/Zen as Fo Yuan Shakya, our grandfather in the Yunmen/Ummon lineage used to say.

When we try to force the union with the Godhead through acts such as trying to follow the 3 pure precepts (do no harm, cultivate goodness, purify the mind) we end up manifesting the little self. This deliberate attempt is a mind of manifestation with traces of our little self wanting to do good. It’s not a bad thing per se but it is not the manifestation of union. When we are harmonious and we follow the three pure precepts without effort. It is traceless.

In our Order, Zen priests practice in small households. Our Zen practice is house cleaning and baths for the kids, as well as Zen liturgy, zazen or sewing. Every action can be a field where we manifest the path.

Our Order is a grounded expression of the four noble truths and the Eightfold Path. We summarize it as Right View-Right Action. Ming Zhen, my Old Sun hated spending time on nonsense talk of karma and rebirth. She would be more likely to say,

Zen is Action, Action is Karma! Wake Up!”



Fǎshī yáo xìng Shakya

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The Basics of the Hua T’ou Method



This is an ancient method used in Chan practice. It is a question asked over and over again and in all circumstances, such as “Who am I?” The question, if done with sincerity, generates doubt and shifts the mind away from selfish mind content. Let us say, as an example, we are in a sticky situation, where the stress is on the rise and confusion is mounting. This type of scenario tends to cultivate self-protective and self-interest strategies making the mind vulnerable to various sorts of harmful errors. To move the mind to the hua t’ou provides a method of letting go of the dusky content in the mind that is gathering (making) the stress and confusion into a storm.

The method takes the mind on the path with words in the form of a question towards the Source of the situation at hand. It is a move backward towards the head of the river (the Source) and inhibits the mind from taking a leap into the rush of defilements and tendencies in the mind. In plain language, it interrupts reactions and habits leaving the mind uncertain.

It is used to generate doubt, an uncertainty of the nature of what is rising. In meditation the mind often travels along a path of self-interest and gathers steam around the particulars of self-interest where the hua t’ou acts as a detour and a return towards the Source. The doubt creates a gap which allows for the possibility of seeing beyond and through the dust of selfishness. The gap allows for a glimpse into what is the true nature of mind by clearing off the clouds of dust allowing a reflection of things as they are to rise even if it is for just a moment. This glimpse is wisdom that runs through all things which lifts up the mind heavenward.

A hua t’ou has the capacity to break up delusive thoughts and ideas about the value and tenacity of selfishness, in whatever form and by whatever name it may appear. It stops the grasping, reaching and clinging of the confusion in the mind as though the confusion is real and inhibits the tendency to make things permanent and fixed.

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Detachment and McCormack’s “Selling Heaven” by Ming Zhen Shakya

Credit: Fa Ming Shakya

Perhaps because so few can bring themselves to swap sentimental attachment to their well-mapped landscape for the terra incognita of Detachment – or as it is more commonly called, Holy Indifference, or Ego Death, it will be interesting to see how McCormack uses his Zen acquired insights to cross that border.

Detachment first requires Humility. Pride goeth before a fall, we’re reliably told; and indeed, we find the landscape on the earth side of Nirvana littered with those who take pride in their achievements – their vaunted piety and superior knowledge, and the credentials that evidence such excellence. It surprises no one that they can spit out the muck to speak with absolute authority on the subject of Enlightenment.

Those who make it to the frontier survey the smoking ruins of their lives and have the decency to drop to their knees and say, with tears and agony, Mea culpa. It’s not a particularly notable admission. Usually, as their personal histories reveal, they’re the only ones left standing.

At the border, McCormack presents his passport. He doesn’t know whether or not it will be stamped. He knows only that he has at least earned the right to present it. He extends the precious book with Dublin wit as in his The Portrait.

I’d like to paint you.
Go ahead, I said.
Having a woman paint me
Would be a rare treat.

When she was finished
She showed me a painting
Of a dog licking his balls

And he had eyes that
Reminded me of someone.

There are other essentials. Detachment requires us to get our emotional teeth and claws out of the people and things of the material world and to get their teeth and claws out of us. For so long as we derive our sense of self, our identity, in terms of our relationships to other persons or things, we bind ourselves to the future and to the past. We attach our ego, like an umbilical cord, to whatever is “other”‘ and we reduce ourselves to fetal creatures who are dependent on those “others” for our sustenance. Attachment, therefore, is to possess or be possessed by someone or something outside ourselves.

“My” establishes that dependency. We forfeit our right to appreciate anything for what it is, and bestow upon the “other” the right to determine when we shall be happy and when we shall be miserable.

We enjoy baseball. Fine. But when it is “my” team that is playing, we surrender our enjoyment to the prejudices of winner and loser. It isn’t baseball any more. It is self-esteem, self-satisfaction, or else it is the whipping boy upon whom we hurl our anger and contempt.

Attachment says, “My team is better than your team.” This isn’t love of the game. It’s jingoistic nonsense, a vicarious participation. I have given “my” team the power to make me happy when it wins and to make me miserable when it loses. In this way we are bound to hope and reverie, future and past. The second hand sweep of our wristwatch tells us that time is inexorably moving, future-past, future-past. For those who are attached, there is no “now.”

Only when we are not prejudiced, when we have not prefixed a person or a thing with “my”, when we can observe with eyes that are not veiled by ego, can we observe clearly in that state of Holy Indifference. One does not have to be a balletomane to appreciate the beauty of any well executed double play. It is only when we attach ourselves to a specific team that the beauty of, say, a 4 to 3 to 5 play becomes dependent on whether “my” team is on base or whether “my” team is playing defense. And it is the same with everything we believe that we possess. It is always future gain and loss, or past gain and loss; and we oscillate between the poles of future and past until we’re stricken with an existential motion sickness, a “Sickness Unto Death.”

What do we attach to? Some things admit no other description. McCormack uses the word “my” exactly 10 times in his book of poems. Ten times and only once per use: “my mother”; “my father”; “my girls” (daughters); “my brother”; “my mind”‘; “my hand”; “my finger”; “my back yard”; “my window”; and “my pages.” Already we see him removing those tentacles of inane prejudice that suck our souls into monstrous oblivion. We find no “my friends:” or “my country” or “my religion.” Sentiment is leeching out of him. He wants to love for what it is and not for what it does for him.

Of course, Holy Indifference has its own Mount Everest. The moment we luxuriate in the Now we hear Kunti’s voice in the Mahabharata. “When one prefers one’s children to the children of another, war is near.” There is a reason Zen is a cauldron of boiling oil over a roaring fire, and achieving its goal, Detachment, is that reason.

What is true is Real. The Real World is defined as that which is unconditional, universal, immutable, and eternal. Eternal is to be outside of time; and this can occur only in the “ego-absent” immediate moment.

How do we arrest the flow of time and enter the Eternal Moment? What is the Wall that we must surmount? Why did Bodhidharma come from the West? Where is the Light that leads us out of darkness.

McCormack brushes aside facile explanations. Why did Bodhidharma come from the West? Sure, just as we assign directions – heaven is above and hell is below, the ancient mind sees hope in the east and fulfillment in the west. Student at dawn, master at sunset. He came to teach us The Way to surmount the Wall that lies on the other side of sunrise, to awaken us. The answers come from that “spiritual West.” But such explanations do not help us gain the goal.

It cannot be mere coincidence that someone who Quests finds himself in West Berlin during the 1980s. There is East and West and Wall and Ego Death and, though he did not know it when he arrived, there is Light in a museum.

As he first enters the Western sector he encounters the bombed out Kaiser Wilhelm Church which has been left as it was in 1943 to be a war memorial. In West Berlin, 1988, The bus takes him to:

The center of the half-bitten city
Where a headless Church
Prayed with its wound open
To the sky and history,
Unlike our own entombed vaults.

He grapples with the enigma of Time. We’ve all been there. The boring dead-end job versus the need to earn a living. Sometimes we find ourselves so desperate to get free of the painful monotony that we become an animal who’s foot is caught in the jaws of a steel trap. Freedom requires us to gnaw off our foot.

McCormack does just this, In Pizza, West Berlin, 1988, he gets yet another dreary assembly line job:

I worked in a pizza factory
Where no Italians could be found.
His challenge? To put olives on the rolling belt of three-at-a-time pizzas.

I went mad for eight hours a day,
Until they moved me…
And like the trapped prey,

…I put my finger into a machine, That slices cheese, and me.”

Time, Light, and the Wall. The Berlin Wall would be demolished in 1989, but in 1988 McCormack is still trapped in samsaric illusion, searching for the Way to spiritual liberation. And then, in an awesome conjunction, he discovers the spiritual fulfillment of West, the Eternal Moment, Ego Death, and a golden Light.

In Rothko, Orange his own ego death merges with the artist’s, imagined then and there. For, as he prowls the exhibitions of an art museum –

“Seeking, – something

After finishing another eight hour shift
In a West Berlin factory
Filling cardboard boxes with
Empty shampoo bottles.

In front of me
The orange space

Squeezing sorrow from me.

In a West Berlin Museum,
Near to the Wall,
Rothko killed himself.
I don’t know if the painting killed him
Or he killed himself
While the painting watched.

I didn’t know.
Outside, the towers watched,
Men in grey watched
1988 became 1989.” Rothko’s Orange and Yellow

Ask a Master: What is the Most Important Daily Practice for a Zen Monk?



Daily Practice is the Core”

Earlier this week, a student asked me “What is the most important
thing in the daily formal Zen practice for a Zen monk?”

I answered, laughing: “To keep cultivating one!”.


Many people are driven on the romantic image of Zen, imagining the spiritual practice of Zen as something for costumed monks living in far away monasteries. They believe only those people apart from the world and its noise could of course practice truly enough to solve the question of life and death….or so they think.

The truth is formal practice is a balance between liturgy and meditation practices rooted in sitting and walking. But it, even for monks in a monastery, is balanced between many household tasks to keep the monastery running.

“A day without work is a day without food.”

This is a known Zen saying which all Zen monasteries put it into practice.

Fundamentally, Western Zen practitioners and in particular the members of our Zen Order should get used to the fact that our Zen Way is the householder Zen way. We are householders who have taken vows as priests and contemplative monks (yunsui contemplative priests).

Our main practice doesn’t take place behind walls, but in the midst of this moving and challenging world of householders. Our dear Ming Zhen Shakya often said,


it is the most arduous path of practice, especially
for a Westerner.


We have to work to accept that our formal practice is an essnetial part of the householder life. Meditation practice and the liturgy varies, but meditation and liturgy are the common ground of every practitioner on the Zen Way. But it is not the whole enchilada.

The formal practice is best a few hours per day right where you are. What the Zen priest and yunsui monk need to understand, is that one’s whole life is the monastery. It is there, in the midst of living, one takes action. We are encouraged to act upon it!

Ming Zhen Shakya used to say “Zen is Action!” and action is not limited to some holy place or situation. It is everything you do.

Of course, from time to time a more intensive retreat may be needed. We may dedicate ourselves to it and do the personal vow to totally
engage our Body and Mind in a retreat (ChanQi, Sesshin). This comes out of a personal vow, and not out of a need for a social club or social meeting. In our tradition going to a retreat is both very serious and intimate.

Furthermore, having an external eye on our practice is always a good thing. Meeting from time to time with a senior Zen priest or
master is a good habit to cultivate even for the most solitary practitioners. Most Zen practitioners need and benefit from the external eye of another who is a little further on the path. It is a wonderful help, especially when one is close to having an ego-trip or over thinking, over idealizing, or close to the becoming nihilistic.

Zen is a path for dedicated and serious practitioners.

One has to understand that Great Confidence in the path, its techniques, its masters is only but a necessary preliminary.  Zen is the direct path of the Chinese Mahayana school of Buddhism. And those essential preliminaries won’t be of any help if you try to walk the arduous path of practicing Zen as a lay adept (or priest, no fundamental difference here with layman) without a Great Faith in your very own Buddha

And Faith doesn’t exempt one from great doubt. Our Linji/Rinzai school includes everything  in our Zen practice, nothing is left out. Our practice is not limited to form of any specific posture or pretty costume. As the saying goes, “Great Doubt, Great Enlightenment. Small doubt, small enlightenment. No Doubt, no enlightenment”. So please doubt, ponderthings, take the existential paradox of Zen seriously and practice it to the limits of your ego.

But remember that our practice is very simple and on that common ground everyone manifests his own karmic seeds.

As a layman, a priest, a monk or a beginner on the Zen way is to be sincere practitioners….to practice fully and with utmost sincerity at the heart of our life, the heart of our homes, our communities. We share the common ground of liturgy and meditation the small liturgy and Zen meditation and use our daily life as an opportunity to let go of ourselves and manifest and be manifested by all things in every place and time.

May every being humbly realize his true nature!


NOTE: If you’d like to comment or ask a question to Master Fa Shi Yao Xin Shakya you may contact him by email:

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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. 


A guided meditation on death


Yao Xin of Knoxville
Yao Xin of Knoxville


Heidegger once described apprehension of death as the realization of the possibility of impossibility—since we no longer obtain as subjects, we can’t predicate states: can’t feel, see, think, become angry, eat cake, get bored, or mow the lawn. (See Being and Time; page: too lazy to look up; not that you were going to, anyway.) The mind recoils at the idea, we become anxious and fearful; we grasp about trying to distract ourselves with something frivolous. It soon works. We’d rather think about anything—anything—than death: abstractly thinking “about” death (as a phenomenon occurring in nature) has little to do with dwelling on the certainty of our own; it’s the latter that causes convulsions of the soul; the former is just another disinterested fact among disinterested facts: like a pound of fat’s being 3,500 calories, or the boiling point of water’s being 212 degrees Fahrenheit. Not so with the apprehension of our own death.

            Another wise Westerner, Epicurus, felt confident in our having nothing to fear of death. For as long as we are, death is not; and when death is, we are no more. I agree with Epicurus, in principle, and abstractly; but when I have a close call on the interstate, there fear is again, like an old and malicious friend, waiting in the bushes (and helpfully keeping me alive); he means well, he just spooks you (in this case, out of concern); but there are times when the fear of death comes unannounced and is persistent, at times when we’re in no real present danger, and it shakes us to our bones. In times like these, meditation can be helpful. In fact, it’s my pretension that I’ve invented one of my own (a meditative technique, that is), though it may be the case that others have had the idea in the past; but if this is so, I’m not aware of it.

            Meditation consists of keeping to a theme—unbroken attention; or, if it breaks, bringing it back again—and again, and again, and again—like a child that has a tendency to go astray. There’s no mandate from heaven stating that meditation must be done seated. It can be done anywhere; and the number of objects that can be concentrated upon too might be limitless. But in this case, we’re thinking of death. But from a different angle than you’ve likely ever done before. The effect isn’t fearful: it’s just the opposite, and if anything, it’s quizzical, and tends to evoke a feeling of, “Why did I never think of that before?”

            To effect it, it’s necessary to engage in a train of thinking, which begins with a simple thought; two, in fact: bring to bear in mind the sensations of having a limb asleep, and also the sensation of fainting. Consider your experiences over the years of these events: maybe you crossed your legs too long sitting at work the other day, and when you went to stand, your leg was completely numb underneath you. You might also remember your last dental appointment and the numbing shot you received. Or a surgery you had where the anesthesiologist put you to sleep before the procedure. Or a time when you just stood too quickly from a seated position, felt light-headed, as though you were suddenly falling asleep, and had to brace yourself against a wall. You might think of the sensation of falling asleep, generally: especially those times when you catch yourself falling asleep and suddenly awaken and enliven yourself. Keep these thoughts and similar thoughts in mind. Refresh your memories of them.

            After a suitable period, then, sit down in a quiet place. Before you begin the meditation on death, meditate on your breath for a bit—five or ten minutes will do: just enough to calm the mind and temporarily shelve the day’s concerns. A simple method is to pick a spot of the body—e.g., the tip of the nose, the palate, or the abdomen—where you feel the body’s machinations of breathing palpably. Focus your attention on this spot. If your thoughts are distracting, you can use a two-syllable meditation word to block out the distracting thoughts. A traditional one in Theravada Buddhism is “Bud-dho”: “Bud-” on the in-breath, “-dho” on the out, kept to the length of the breath, so that the ending of the one syllable directly feeds into the beginning of the next, just as the ending of our out-breaths feed into the beginnings of our in-breaths.

            When the mind feels calm and the body comfortable, change the theme of your meditation to the sensation of no-sensation in one of your limbs: pick your left leg, for instance (because, if you’re in a half-lotus, and not used to the position, it may be going numb anyway); and, recollecting your previous experiences of senselessness in a limb, it being asleep, numb, picture it this way: and after settling into the experience, ask yourself if it’s bad, if it’s painful, if it’s something to feel resentful over; ask if it’s something to charge Nature or God against (i.e., it isn’t an instance of the “problem of evil” that sometimes we have a numb limb; we aren’t resentful of it; it just is as it is; and we’re largely indifferent to it; sometimes, even, amused). Are we suffering terribly just because we can’t feel our leg? No. In fact we aren’t even really concerned.

            Now spread the awareness of this non-awareness of your leg to other parts of your body: imagine your whole right arm being without sensation; imagine your back being without sensation; if you’ve had your eyes closed, it’s easy to imagine the eyes without sensation. Imagine also an absence of sound, an absence of taste, an absence of smells. Imagine no replacement to any of these sensations; imagine only their mere absence.

            There is nothing horrifying or fearful to any of this.

            Now extend your imaginings to include remembrances of fainting, of feeling light-headed, of falling asleep. Were any of these involved with any fear? Probably not in the preponderance of cases: especially those involving cessation of consciousness; but, when having the sensation of fainting, sometimes it’s accompanied by a certain feeling of being perturbed, but even this is extinguished, because the capacity of feeling anything at all, too, is suddenly diminishing. What’s left is mere absence of anything—which, strictly speaking, can’t be accompanied by any feeling at all; but, when there’s still a modicum of sensation left in the body and consciousness left in the mind, the phenomenological experience of it is so diminished that fear, anguish, and terror, are beyond its capacity. It hasn’t the “energy” for it; it’s too great a load for its atrophied muscles.

            The train of thinking when developed—the meditative theme—culminates in the awareness of our having nothing we can pinpoint, specifically, to fear in losing ourselves: our phenomenological experience of body and mind.

            I think this is what Epicurus had in mind with his statement that we have nothing to fear with death. While we are, it isn’t; when it is, we aren’t. The two can’t occupy the same seat. It’s a bit like the threat of being hanged when you’re already dead: there’s nothing to fear; you’re dead. But you’ll also be dead when death arrives, too, in the first instance; so no matter how ugly his face, you’ll never see it; for your eyes have already been extinguished.

            This may be a good time, too, to consider the etymology of Nirvana: a burning out, an extinguishing.—Of what?—Our meditative theme has given us the answer: We’ve practiced at dying, so when the time comes, we’ll be more “skillful” at it;—at least it’s possible we’ll have fewer pre-game jitters, to use a sports analogy.  Practice makes perfect.

Van Gogh Skull
Skull by Vincent Van Gogh –  Date: 1887/1888 (Image is in the public domain)

The Squatters (#1)

Ming Zhen Shakya
Ming Zhen Shakya
 To see more literature about Zen and the Art of Investigation:

The Squatters

by Anthony Wolff (Ming Zhen Shakya)

To see all available chapters of “The Squatters” click here


Part 1:  Rick becomes a vigilante


At the time of Rick Dubrovksy’s semi-castration, he weighed two hundred forty pounds, fifty of which he was not tall enough to carry gracefully. Long having passed the “pleasingly plump” stage, he had been flirting dangerously with “sloppy fat.” That he lost nearly twenty pounds in the three weeks that followed his forced removal from his home was not due to the excision of part of his anatomy.  His missing testicle contributed little to the loss of weight.  His missing Jaguar along with fear for his life were greater factors in his noticeable slimming.

Money was not a problem. He had cash in the bank and a respectable portfolio of stocks and bonds, and he owned a couple of houses from which he was supposed to derive an income.  As Rick searched for a new place to live he considered these two residences. One house had been leased to the United States Postal Service that served a rural community in Kentucky. This one, he wisely decided, could not be considered a replacement dwelling.  The other, a once desirable ranch-style house located at #124 Lafayette Street in a small but prosperous enclave called Frenchman’s Park, that lay somewhere between Holbrook and the Petrified Forest in Arizona, was occupied by squatters who had caused so much trouble for the real estate agency hired by Rick to manage the property, that the agency had refused to renew its contract with him.  His homeowner insurance company followed suit and also declined to renew his policy.

It was this latter issue – squatters –  that assumed unnatural proportions in Rick’s cogitations. It was especially humiliating that it was low-life thugs who had collected a debt from him, a debt incurred by a mere acquaintance for whom he had incautiously vouched or otherwise assisted, and who had quite literally forced him to sign over the deed to his home and the title to his car, and, as a Shylockian souvenir, had removed somewhat less than a pound of flesh.  He had loved his Las Vegas house – with its palm trees and sculptured flower beds – and he had loved his Jaguar – with its cats, a single chromium Leaper on the bonnet and a half-dozen Growlers in the cabin, and while he had never made any overt signs of affection for his missing testicle, he surely loved that too.  He had done nothing and yet he had been callously dispossessed of his property; and it was the same there, near Holbrook, Arizona, where he owned a house that strangers had simply stolen from him by moving into it when no one was home. There were ten or more of them, hillbillies from Appalachia the Agency said, who lived like those Irish Travelers except they had stopped moving and were sending down roots, destroying the neighborhood with their broken down cars all over the lawn and street and their jury-rigged installation of old stolen air conditioning units, and their theft of water and electricity from the neighbors.

How was this possible?  Where was the law?  He refused to consider buying another house… no, not while he owned a perfectly good one in Arizona.  All that stood between him and his house were a bunch of redneck thieves.  He was on a mission… a mission for the Right, for Justice… and if he couldn’t defeat them, he deserved to be homeless and alone.  Well, he thought, not exactly homeless since he’d probably buy one of those Winnebago RVs… and he did have his little dog Bruno with him.   He was a knight errant.  He’d buy a mobile home and if he failed in Arizona, he’d drive on or kill himself.

He put most of his furniture in storage.  Fortunately, the new owner’s taste did not run with Wassily or Barcelona chairs… with Eames… or Rietveld….Starck, or van der Rohe… and he was asked to remove his ugly stuff.  The new owner – a thug’s daughter –  liked blue and cream French Provincial and wall to wall shag carpeting and lava bowls and candelabra mounted on the walls.  It was insult after injury.  On the morning of his last day the carpet layers came and covered the floors with purple loops and a discount furniture store unloaded blue and cream versions of Louis Quinze in a bucolic seraglio… brocade… everything was brocade. Rick wept as the salesman from the Winnebago dealership picked him up, for at that moment delivery men were lugging a cream and gold baby grand piano that had fur trim… white fur trim… rabbit possibly?  ermine?  His tear-brimmed eyes wouldn’t let him get a close enough look.

He needed a new householder’s persona.  Carrying his shelter with him sounded like a crab or a snail.  But wasn’t that what a Winnebago was?  He’d be inside his home, steering it… and if that didn’t sound like a crab, what did?  But it made him uncomfortable.  Crabs and lost testicles just didn’t go together.  No.  And then the salesmen showed him a Sunstar model and talked of horsepower.  A horse!  “I like the horse concept,” Rick said to the salesman who did not have the slightest idea of what a horse concept had to do with anything.

“Horses are good,” the salesman replied.

“Yes, there are many famous steeds,” Rick offered.

The salesman tried to be helpful.  “Ya gotcher Trigger, and Silver, and Fury.  As a courtesy, we have a professional painter write on both sides of your vehicle, whatever name you want to call it. It’s sort of like WWII with the bombers.”

“I was thinking of a horse’s name that would convey more of my persona.”

“Well, what’s yer persona tryin’ to accomplish by drivin’ around?”

“Trying to dislodge squatters from a house I own.  I’m told that it’s impossible to get them out.”

The name came to him instantaneously. “Rocinante.  Have your painter put that name on both sides.  If I am not Don Quixote, tilting at windmills, with my little loyal sidekick, Bruno, my Sancho Panza, who am I?  I truly must be mad yet I defend the Right.  I am a knight errant.”

The salesman had him write the name out in clear letters and thought to himself that as long as Rick’s money was good, the name suited him fine.

And so there he was on a fine morning late in September, driving south in his new Winnebago Sunstar, newly named Rocinante, with his dog Bruno sitting in the seat beside him.  He was, at forty years of age, shocked to think that he could have blundered so egregiously in the prime of his powers.  He now doubted, with good reason, the principles by which he lived.  He had been born with a very high I.Q. and had regarded himself as being more superior to the average man than the average man is to the ape.  He did not associate with persons who resorted to brute force, preferring instead to profit from the more intellectual type of mischief.  By keeping unsavory persons at arm’s length he assumed that he had rendered himself safe from their antics. Well… that was wrong.   For spending money – and because he liked an intellectual challenge – he’d help to further someone else’s schemes, and then he’d charge a portion of the profits as his fee. Aside from such tainted sources of income, and, of course, his legitimate investment income, he would write theological articles under one of several pseudonyms.  Rick was a seminary school graduate and possessed the rare ability to recognize as drivel much of what passed for religious commentary.

As he climbed the highway that led out of Las Vegas, he grew restive.

Why, he wondered, was he on a mission instead of on his patio sipping Tanqueray and Schweppes?  Why suddenly was he becoming a victim of stupid people?  Thugs and Hillbillies.  Had he misread his opponents?  Or was it possible that he had misread himself?  He had often quoted Heraclitis, “All things are in flux.”  Good Grief! Rick thought.  Was it possible that he was one of those things?

Change.  He felt like Moses leaving Egypt and then told himself that if only he believed that crap in the Bible maybe he’d discover something useful from Exodus.  He needed a sign.

He came to Railroad Pass and decided to take a right and head south towards Blythe, California.  He passed the turnoff to Laughlin, Nevada… but he didn’t care to gamble.  On he went until he encountered Blythe which he found to be completely uninspiring and he wondered why he had decided to turn right back at the Pass. And then he saw signs that indicated he was on the way to Glamis.  Macbeth was the Thane of Glamis.  Well, if that wasn’t a sign, what the hell was a sign?  Wasn’t he aristocratic in the true sense of the word?  Aris.. as in Erin… as in Iran… as in Aryan… cognates all of “noble.”  True, it was not on his way to the interstate 40 route that would take him to Holbrook; but he had no schedule to keep. He’d stop there.  For all he knew he’d meet someone glamorous in Glamis who would restore his sense of self that seemed to be disintegrating.  What was the feminine for Thane?

He saw Glamis… nothing but sand dunes.  He read a road sign that said that quite a few scenes from the movie Dune were filmed there. When Rick saw Glamis a competition was being held and suddenly dozens of three-wheeled ATVs scattered over it like so many cockroaches when the light was turned on.  Rick decided to reverse direction and go back through Phoenix up to U.S. 40.   It was just another disappointment.

His urologist had told him he could still have children.  He’d make a good father if only he could find an acceptable woman to be his mate. He’d have to lower his expectations, of course. Any man who had his property taken from him by thugs and hillbillies – as easily as candy could be taken from a baby – and who had only one testicle, could hardly require perfection.

As he drove, he called his former real estate agent to tell him that he, himself, was going to 124 Lafayette Street… that he, himself, would do battle with the squatters… a one-man army… a knight errant.  “I know you’re not contractually obliged to give me any information,” he said, “but if you feel generous, I’d certainly appreciate a few tips if you have any.”

“Here’s one,” said the agent.  “If the squatters are able to prolong their occupancy of the house for another ten months, they will meet the first requirement of Arizona’s Adverse Possession laws: the two years of continuous occupancy. So don’t dally. I wish you good luck,” the agent said, “although I am certain that no amount of good luck will be enough for you to succeed.  Those sons of bitches,” he added, “know every goddamned angle in the book.  Everybody in the neighborhood wants them out; but they are the stuff of Pacific Heights.  You will not win. Be careful.  They will get more than your house from you.”  He took a deep breath. “But I’ll give you “E” for effort anyway.”

According to the agency’s now-expired contract with Rick, they had paid all utilities and taxes on the property and then collected the money from the tenant; and if the tenant (or squatters) failed to pay, they’d bill Rick and he would reimburse the agency. On Rick’s behalf they would immediately proceed to use every available legal remedy to recoup the monies due, but their efforts to secure payment from the squatters had not only failed, but they had been warned by a court that if they persisted in harassing these individuals they might very well be held to account.  At that point, the Agency surrendered.

Rick had been given “blow-by-blow” accounts of the Agency’s efforts, but for some reason – he didn’t know why – he had not given the problems any attention. It all seemed so far away… not in mileage, perhaps.  But in some other more important category.


He stopped for dinner at a fast food joint and pulled into a rest stop to get a good night’s sleep.As he lay there, unaccustomed to the bed, home, setting, and noise, he made some decisions. It was time that he turned over a new leaf.   He’d adapt to his new semi-castrate state. No more bi-sexual nonsense for him.  No, he wouldn’t waste his swimmers on dead-end receptacles.  He would clean up his act, settle down, be a good man instead of just a smart one.  This appealed to him.  Good instead of smart and what always seemed to be its corollary, bad.  He wouldn’t make Macbeth’s mistakes.  He would be content to occupy his own home – once he got the squatters out.  He would be kind and reasonable with these homeless “wretched refuse from some teeming shore” folks.  He’d show compassion. He wouldn’t refer to them as “stupid hillbillies” anymore.  They couldn’t be all that stupid if they defeated the agency with such regularity.  “Every man has two sides.  I’ve shown only my smart, superior and occasionally naughty side. I can show my normal, average and accessible good side.

Rick Dubrovsky did not know to a certainty that he possessed a good side, but if he did, he formed an almost religious determination to show it when he reached his destination -124 Lafayette Street –  just on the other side of Holbrook.


He awakened early and stopped at an all night diner to eat breakfast. Physically refreshed, he continued to think about his principles as he headed for Holbrook.

He arrived too late in the day to do anything constructive about the squatters, but he did drive past his property and was stunned to see the condition of a building he owned.  He, who personally coiffed his hedges and flower beds and had been the acknowledged owner of the finest landscaped house on the block, saw a scattering of weeds, assorted junk, broken windows, torn screens, dead trees, and a vehicle perched on cinderblocks instead of wheels. Both garage doors, one for the large two car garage and the other for a single car were scratched, dented and filled with graffiti.  He had also noticed that the disassembled parts of a Harley were strewn around the driveway.  This was heresy to him and he muttered, “Swine!” as he passed.

He pulled into the driveway of the house next door that belonged, according to the mail box’s legend, to Ms. Helena Clark Maxwell.  Leaving Bruno in Rocinante, he walked up the driveway, climbed the portico steps, and rang the bell.  Ms. Maxwell, opened the door only as far as the security chain would allowed.  “What is it?” she asked.

“Ms. Maxwell, My name is Richard Dubrovsky.  I happen to be the legal owner of the monstrosity next door.  I’d like to begin eviction proceedings against those squatters and I’d appreciate it if you’d talk to me and tell me what’s been going on.  My real estate property managers have refused to renew their contract with me.  I’m a bit on my own and I truly need a friend.”

Helena Maxwell shut the door, unlatched the chain, and opened the door again to allow him to enter her house.  “I take it that that’s your mobile home parked in my driveway.  I’d appreciate it if you’d get it off my property since it’s likely that it will be damaged there.  I’ll wait here while you move it… preferably across the street.”

Rick could not take his gaze away from the scars on Helena’s face and neck.  He said, “I understand.  I’ll move my vehicle immediately.”


When he returned to her house, she had put the tea kettle on and was setting the kitchen table for tea, bread, and a plate of cheese and cold cuts.  “Have you eaten lunch?” she asked.

“No, as a matter of fact I’m starving, although how I can eat anything after having seen the mess next door, is a mystery. Thank you for your kindness. Would you be averse to my bringing my little dog in here.  He’s a good old dog and I guarantee he will make no mess.”

“You can bring him in.  But when you take him out to do his business, you have to accompany him. They have thrown many different kinds of poison pellets into the grass back there.”  He agreed to the terms.

They ate sandwiches and drank several pots of tea. Helena had cans of dog food left over from her “late schnauzer, Greta.”  Bruno ate the dog food and Rick took him outside and scooped up his poop, putting it in a special bag that closed so completely that no odor could escape.  He put the bag in the trash can and returned to Helena’s kitchen to wash his hands.  She was now satisfied that he was an educated gentleman and began to tell him her experiences with the squatters.

She wiped a tear from her cheek and began, “They lived in there for almost a year and aside from the drunken fights and loud music, they at least didn’t cost me anything. They had come in a rental truck and carried in furniture and dishes. I didn’t know that they were illegally occupying the premises.  I thought they were simply new tenants.  Then in May of this year, the utility trucks came and shut off their water and electricity. The house was quiet for a few days.  I thought they had gone. And then on one Friday at the end of May a new woman from over there came to my door.  She was pregnant and holding a toddler in her arms.  She said she was a new tenant and asked me if she could use my water until her husband could get the utilities turned on the following Tuesday… when the Memorial Day holiday was over.  I said, of course.  I was happy to think that the old bunch had gone. Her husband was polite when he screwed onto the faucet a bi-valve device that allowed for my hose and his to be used simultaneously.  I actually thought that having the ability to connect two hoses was a good thing.

“Almost immediately, my dog Greta got sick. The vet said that possibly she had been poisoned.  He had tests run but couldn’t identify the poison. She died in my arms.  I had her interred in a pet cemetery.” Helena began to cry and excused herself to go into another room to blow her nose and splash cold water on her face.  For a reason Rick did not understand, he felt sympathy for this scarred woman who cried not for herself but for her dog.  He knew how much Bruno meant to him.  Yes, he could sympathize.

She returned to her chair in the kitchen and continued.  “Next thing they had strung a three prong electrical extension cord under the fence and into one of my exterior outlets. I have a bush – since removed – that sat in front of the outlet and their cord was sort of camouflaged brown and green.  It snaked up to the outlet around some flag stones and I honestly didn’t notice it. I was still grieving about my dog.  I didn’t become aware of the electricity problem until I got my bill late in June.  I brought my last year of electric bills to them and showed them how much electricity I normally used and asked them to make up the difference. They said they would, but it was one stall after another.  They found a bunch of old air conditioning units and installed them in all the windows.  The old squatters hadn’t moved out at all.  This woman – she said her name was Babs Bristal – had just moved in with them.  There were about fourteen people living in the house.  The squatters also rented out rooms.  You have big bedroom closets.  They qualified as rooms.

“Mostly they were quiet during the day, but not at night when they were all home with their cars and trucks and using my electricity that they had connected when I went to bed.  My attorney gave me a reason to hope. The agency had just won their case against them, and the constable was ordered to assist in their removal; but then at the last minute, they produced a disabled veteran who lived with them, and the judge reversed the order.  That’s when the Management Agency refused to renew your contract with them.

“You have to appreciate the ancillary damage they did.  I was not only faced with vet bills and cemetery plots and being desperately unhappy by the death of my dog, but I had these exorbitant utility bills. My life was all expenses and no income. At dinner time and weekends they’d play horrible music, and my nerves were beginning to suffer. I wasn’t sleeping well because of the constant fear.  I’m a portrait painter and I just couldn’t leave my house during the day to drive off to a client’s house and do even acceptable work.  The whole time I was away, I was worried about what the squatters were doing.

“My attorney told me to install a security camera to get proof of their thefts and then to file a complaint, but I was engaged and planned to move out in September when I got married.  I had thought I’d simply sell the house here for whatever I could get for it and move down to Phoenix where my fiancé’s work had taken him  Since he’d be including me under his medical benefits as of September 1, I let my hospitalization policy lapse because I had so little money.”

She poured another cup of tea.  “I always go to bed early and since I rise early to do the Suryanamaskar – the sun salute – I do yoga – I heard a noise one morning and that’s when I discovered that they were cleaning out their…  your… swimming pool.  My fiancé was spending the 4th of July holiday with his kids and parents in Tennessee so I called him and asked what I should do.  He said, ‘Disconnect it!’ as if I had asked a stupid question.  But I was afraid of them! They poisoned my dog! But he was adamant so I disconnected the hose as he said I should.

“That afternoon I was having tea in my tea house.  I’ve been involved with Zen Buddhism for many years, but a couple of years ago I visited Kyoto and my practice just blossomed.  I truly wanted to live a Zen life.  So I built my own tea house… even used the green powdered tea. Wabi Sabi was so appealing to me.   I had the fire pit for boiling the kettle of water…a window that let the morning sun in.  I planted morning glories. My house was wood frame with bamboo slats for the sides and door.  For the sake of authenticity I put a shake shingle roof on it.  It was so pretty…

“While I was inside having tea and meditating, a firework of some kind… it seemed more like an incendiary grenade… went off at the side of the tea house and, as you can see, I was cut from shattered window glass and burned.  I screamed and screamed and finally the people who live behind me heard me and called 911. I was holding a heavy brass candlestick at the moment of the explosion and it struck my face, damaging some facial bones.  Cut, burned, broken and bandaged, I naturally couldn’t talk and was barely conscious.  My parents came down from Idaho and got me.  The police notified them and since I had no medical insurance, they paid the bill and took me back to Idaho. They refuse to tell me what it cost. I healed well enough to have the bandages removed, but the scars and the deformity was awful – part of my cheek bone had chipped off – it should have been corrected immediately, but it was July 4th and the E.R. was swamped. My fiancé took one look at me and his vision of a beautiful bride vanished.  I repulsed him.  I saw it in his eyes.  He lied and said he was reconciling with his ex-wife and told me to keep the ring.  It was a two carat diamond solitaire.  I gave it to my parents to cover the cost of my medical expenses.

“My home owner’s insurance policy did not cover anything because the tea house was an illegal structure. I hadn’t given them the required notice of my intention to erect a building on my property.  I also didn’t get a building permit.  And then, while I was away recuperating, they filled your pool and ran those old air conditioning units day and night.  A neighbor told me that an old apartment house was scheduled to be razed in Holbrook and one night they went there and tore out a dozen units and installed them in your windows.  You had a perfectly economical evaporative cooler and didn’t need air-conditioning.  But they didn’t maintain the unit and what with all that free electricity they got from me… well, when I got home I found my water bill was $3000 for July and my electric bill was $3800.”  She put a small step ladder by the kitchen window.  “Here,” she said, motioning to Rick to come and look down into his property, “you can see your pool.”

Rick saw children playing in a slime green swimming pool that was covered with leaves. As he stared into his once lovely back yard, goodness began to leech out of him… rapidly.  But Helena was no Lady Macbeth spurring him to dreadful action. He was the property owner of that mess and was technically responsible for her tragic circumstance and still she did not blame him.

“What a nightmare,” he said.  “I cannot tell you how sorry I am about this.  It is a terrible thing to be someone’s victim.  Some day I’ll tell you my sad story.  Be assured, however, that my agents did all they could to dislodge these squatters. For a reason I cannot understand, the law is always on the side of the tenants and squatters. Landlords and owners don’t seem to have any rights.  I begin to think I shall have to play a dirty game with them.”

“No game is dirty enough to suit me,” Helena replied as she cleared off the table.  “Do you have a place to sleep tonight?”

“In my mobile.”

“Nonsense.  I have four empty bedrooms and you’re certainly welcome to use one.”

Rick was genuinely moved. She was a complaisant follower, not a nagging bitch. And she was even offering her hospitality to him. “I will happily accept your kind offer,” he said. “I pray that my presence here will not cause you more misery.”

“What more can they do?”

“Evil people find a way.  You and I, together, may have to learn a few evil tricks.  And I begin to think we will have to learn them quickly.”  He began to walk towards the front door to return to Rocinante for an overnight bag. He stopped to ask, “Did you ever get  security cameras for your property?”

“No.  I can’t afford them.”

“I can.  While I go to get my things, look up a security expert who will work at night and install the least noticeable cameras around your property.  I have a considerable amount of traveler’s checks on me.  I can pay him immediately.  Tell him we want a top-of-the-line installation.”

Hagakure #4

Ming Zhen Shakya
Ming Zhen Shakya


Part 4: The Twilight of the Samurai
by Ming Zhen Shakya


In Medieval Japan there was no Geneva Convention. No Hague Court considered war crimes. War crimes were warfare’s status quo.

Bushido, the Japanese version of the Chinese wu shi dao (way of the warrior) is entirely reasonable – particularly when it is looked at from the point of view of those who followed it – and not inspected with lenses crafted nearly a thousand years later.

Necessity created the code of the samurai. They brought to their vocation their education, courtly manners, Buddhist instruction and practice, pride in family lineage, and a thorough respect for their relatives’ vicious intrigues and perfidy.

Intermarriage constituted so much of statecraft that a family quarrel had national consequences – which only contributed to more inter-family strife. Tradition, which inculcated family loyalty, had to be neutralized – opposed by an even greater force. A warrior had to depend on his comrades in battle. He had to trust them… and not just some of the time or casually. He had to believe that his objectives were their objectives; that his loyalties were their loyalties – and the only way this could be accomplished was for all of them to pledge their respective loyalties to an independent leader. Since blood ties could only drag a warrior into compromise and betrayal, it had to be understood that a warrior could not be persuaded to spy or plot or to be intimidated in any way into betraying his fellows. All had to be loyal to the same principal and principles.

If a samurai were killed in battle, other samurai would provide for his family – and not as poor relatives, but as equal members of their households. A samurai’s biological siblings were not so reliable.

The Code, therefore, served to protect warriors from the attacks of sentiment and social ambition. When a samurai vowed, “I have no parents; I make heaven and earth my parents,” or, “I have no friends; I make my Buddha-mind my friend,” or even, “I have no enemy; I make incautiousness my enemy,” he and every other samurai who took such vows, meant it.

In terms of gaining victory, such assurances worked in tandem with anxieties about capture. Fear is always a great motivator; and history records many events that would have inspired the requisite fear. Two events during the Taira and Minamoto conflicts stand out as examples because they have so often been the themes of contemporary films:

After one battle in which the Taira prevailed, the Minamoto chieftain was condemned to death; but the Taira insisted that his own son perform the execution. The son could not behead his father; and another Minamoto samurai stepped forward, seized the sword and executed his own chief; and then he killed himself.

On another occasion, the Minamoto set fire to the palace buildings of a Taira ally. As the men, women and children tried to flee the burning buildings, they were cut down. Those who survived the flames and slaughter were cast into a well to drown or to be crushed to death by the bodies falling on top of them.

There had been at least as much warfare in Japan during the fifteenth century as there was in the rest of the civilized world. And there had been prosperity, too. Foreign trade fostered the growth of great port cities.

The Ashikaga presided over a cultural efflorescence seldom seen in world history. Trade with China, which had been discontinued because of Japanese pirates, resumed in full when the Shogun demonstrated his good faith in the mutual benefits of unimpeded foreign trade. When China captured a few Japanese pirates, the Shogun obliged by publicly boiling them alive. It had a chilling effect on Jolly Rogers everywhere.

But prosperity contained the formula for its own destruction. Families tended to have large, healthy families – with sons who inherited their father’s property. But while population increased, land did not; and Malthusian theory applied. War, pestilence, and famine kept the population in check, but usually challenged the meaning of prosperity. A new cycle had to begin.

Several factors contributed to the disintegration of prosperity. Ashikaga governmental self-absorption had fostered an independent spirit among the various daimyo; and then a new esthetic flared, inspired by nationalistic fervor. The ornate decor of Chinese origin was supplanted by the elegant simplicity of Japanese Zen esthetics. Rugs were replaced by straw mats; heavily embroidered brocades, with delicate weavings; gilded, carved, and lacquered furnishings disappeared; floral profusions became gardens that were sculpted as carefully as renaissance statuary. Everything – music, art, theater, architecture, and literature – was stripped of embellishment. The outer surfaces of style, regarded as so much tarnish, had to be polished away to reveal nothing less than core purity.

But purity did not come cheap and neither did the incessant warfare. The barons continued to fight each other as usual until the peasants were taxed into revolt. For eleven years, during the so-called Onin wars, civil order spun out of control in retrograde revolution. It was always back to the bad old days.

Buildings in Kyoto were burned to the ground; looters moved in to rob the dead of armor and weapons and to salvage what they could from ruined structures. Most of the aristocratic citizens of Kyoto – all members of the samurai class – again fled for their lives, often seeking the protection of those unsophisticated country bumpkins with whom they once would not have condescended to dine.

Like sovereign states, the fiefs each had its own laws; and none of the daimyos paid any attention to the mostly ruined capital city. There was no central government. There was not even a pretense of one. The Ashikaga Shogun, bound to Kyoto, was politically impotent. The Emperor scraped by in dignified poverty.

And then on one otherwise ordinary day in 1543, three Portuguese mariners landed on the southern island of Tanegashima. They carried firearms which they sold to the Daimyo of Tanegashima who promptly gave them to his metalworkers for them to duplicate. The Daimyo had seen a demonstration of the ease with which a musket ball could penetrate armor at a safe and considerable distance; and he did not lack foresight.

New styles of battle came quickly into vogue. Combat between horse mounted samurai now changed to infantrymen led by a few mounted officers. And then these rank and file footmen who bore shields and lances and proceeded in a Spartan kind of phalanx, were in turn replaced by musketeers.

A series of civil wars saw the rise of three extraordinary men who were superb military and political strategists and who quickly adopted the new weaponry into their arsenals. Nobunaga, Hideyoshi, and Ieyasu stepped into the limelight of Japanese history.

Nobunaga, Hideyoshi, and Ieyasu

The Japanese tell a story that illustrates the difference in the three men’s dispositions: the three of them come upon a song bird that is silent. Nobunaga says, “Bird, sing or I’ll kill you.” Hideyoshi says, “Bird, sing or I will force you to sing.” And Ieyasu says, “Bird, I will wait until you sing.” The bird watchers did not always act in accordance with their reputations.

By way of guaranteeing peaceful relations, it was customary for a young son of one great daimyo to be sent to the castle of another daimyo, there to be raised as a member of the family. As a samurai he would be taught the arts of culture and combat. Ieyasu, as the scion of the Tokugawa Clan, was such a “hostage guest” in a castle that would fall in battle to Nobunaga of the Odo Clan.

As little fish are eaten by bigger fish that are in turn eaten by bigger fish until the top of the food chain is reached, the lands of the provincial warlords were consumed until only a few big fish remained in Japan. The top daimyo lord was Nobunaga, who had immediately recognized the superiority of muskets over swords, armed his warriors, and proceeded to conquer more than half of Japan – including the lands of young Ieyasu’s host daimyo.

Ieyasu was then free to return to his own fief. During his absence, his father had died, but his father’s retainers were still loyal, waiting upon the commands of their young lord. Ieyasu did not disappoint. He intensified and broadened the scope of their training regimens to include the latest weaponry; and he secured his line: he married at fifteen and by eighteen had two children.

Nobunaga, the most powerful man in Japan, proved not to be immune to the treachery that infected the body politic. He was assassinated by one of his ambitious generals. And then his brilliant general, Hideyoshi, immediately avenged him, killing the traitorous general. Hideyoshi; a commoner who had no aristocratic prerogatives, simply assumed control of all the lands Nobunaga had unified… and all the armies, too.

Ieyasu considered challenging Hideyoshi’s supremacy but he quickly reconsidered, prudence demanding more preparation. Lacking the power to defeat the brilliant general, he instead formed an alliance with him and was rewarded with a huge domain in the distant area of Tokyo Bay. Hideyoshi ordered him to establish his seat of government in a fishing village called Edo – which is now called Tokyo. Ieyasu complied, building his headquarters in Edo and, at a later time, constructing a magnificent castle for himself – which is now Japan’s Imperial Palace. At this stage of his career, however, he was still waiting for the bird to warble.

Hideyoshi built a grand castle in Osaka near Kyoto. Believing himself to be destined for greatness, he aspired to be named Shogun by the Emperor; and to achieve this end, he lavishly entertained the Emperor and the Imperial court. His efforts were in vain. The Emperor refused to sanction the appointment of a commoner to the position of Shogun. The refusal did not sweeten the rejected leader’s disposition. His administrative style degenerated from strict to sadistic.

While Ieyasu was able to marry his granddaughter to one of the Emperor’s sons, Hideyoshi had no such privilege and further, he had no male heir. He therefore adopted a nephew whom he raised to adulthood, training him to be his successor. But then, at the age of sixty, he fathered a son. His delight with the boy exceeded all rational bounds and serves as an example of the family prejudices which the samurai code tried to obviate; for, now that Hideyoshi had a natural son, he no longer had a use for an adopted one. He therefore ordered the young man to commit suicide and, to preclude any interested party’s desire to retaliate, he executed all possible interested parties…. some thirty-five of his adopted son’s relatives.

Hideyoshi, suffering serious health problems, appointed five regents, Ieyasu among them, to look after his infant son in the event of his death. He died, in 1598, when the boy was five, but not before he exacted a solemn promise from Ieyasu to protect the boy’s life “with his own life.” Ieyasu actually considered keeping this promise…. for longer than might be expected.

When the regent most loyal to Hideyoshi died unexpectedly the following year, Ieyasu suddenly heard the bird sing and took control of Osaka Castle. Particularly since he had been forming alliances with daimyos who had been enemies of Hideyoshi, the three other regents regarded Ieyasu’s action as a provocation that had to be addressed. The country was split into two factions: those daimyos who supported Ieyasu of the Tokugawa Clan and those who supported Hideyoshi’s son whom Ieyasu had allowed to continue residing in Osaka Castle – but as a commoner.

There was a geographical and, by extension, a religious distinction to the split. The Portuguese, having sailed around Africa’s Cape of Good Hope, had entered Japanese waters from the south. Once Japan’s wealth became known to the King of Portugal, he naturally desired to annex the islands. Since the quickest way to do this was through religious conversion and trade, he dispatched merchants and Catholic missionaries whose efforts succeeded beyond all expectation. Within fifty years, the missionaries had made some 300,000 converts and the merchants had enriched the daimyos and commercial houses of Japan’s southwest islands. It was mainly those daimyos who prospered from trade with Portugal and additionally Spain – who opposed Ieyasu whose holdings were largely in northeastern areas. But it was more than financial benefit or the acquisition of new products and weaponry that induced them to support the Portuguese presence. The relentless pace of warfare that had driven Japanese politics for generations had been stalled by the unifying efforts of Christianity.

The Japanese tolerance for religious diversion had in essence destroyed the fundamental solidarity of religious fellowship. But in those fifty years of proselytizing, the Catholic missionaries generated a unity of belief that no other religion in Japan had been able to produce. “Catholic” means “universal” and even today, Catholicism is is precisely that…. catholic. Rituals and dogma are virtually identical around the globe. Especially in Japan, with the contentious array of Buddhist sects, the new liturgical conformity tended to create a peaceful cohesion among the catholic converts. The daimyo in these areas appreciated the peace and prosperity. Many of them also converted.

It followed that the daimyo in northeastern areas, who were not blessed with the international trade and the benefits of religious unity, regarded the southwestern fiefs as a clear and present danger to themselves and to Ieyasu’s intention to govern all of Japan.

The Catholics in Japan were led by a small number of Jesuit missionaries. Ieyasu, as had other leaders before him, tried to curb these priests’ increasing power, thinking that if they eliminated the missionaries they would destroy the mission; but as quickly as he had one Jesuit deported, two Franciscans would slip in with the ships that came from Spain’s Philippine colonies. He wanted the trade that came with Spain and Portugal. He did not want the interference to his rule that their new creed presented. He knew that his predecessors’ unification strategies had required the destruction of recalcitrant Buddhist groups and to that end had burned down temples and executed monks. But the Buddhists had had no commercial value! It was a vexing problem.

More was at stake than trade: it was no secret that Spain and Portugal intended religious conversion to be the overture to a military symphony. Catholicism may have been the goal of the missionaries; but their sovereigns’ goal was colonization.

Of the two powers, Spain posed the greatest threat to Japan. The missionaries were circumspect in discussing the aims of empire, but the seamen who manned the trading ships felt no such compunction. They spoke of Spain’s military might and how the few galleons that sailed into Japanese waters were insignificant compared to great gunships that patrolled the oceans.

Trusted Buddhist clerics had warned Ieyasu that there were now so many Catholic converts in Kyushu that if they ever revolted against him they could hold out long enough for Spain’s armies in Manilla to reinforce them. He already knew that the converts were spreading northward at an alarming rate.

To Ieyasu, the normal intrigues and schemes of everyday life were quite enough. He did not welcome interference and the potential subversions the Catholics presented. Before the problem grew too complicated and unmanageable, it was best to solve it. The showdown would come in a massive military confrontation at Sekigahara Castle, on the plains a hundred miles or so east of Kyoto.

Rain and adverse traveling conditions had disrupted the scheduled arrivals of many of the combatant forces, particularly those of the southwest who had longer treks over the mountainous terrain. Although outnumbered, Ieyasu’s 50,000 troops were better rested than many of the castle’s defending 80,000 troops who had endured weeks of exhausting traveling conditions.

The defenders were not of one mind. Several daimyo were unsure of their choice. Ieyasu was a charismatic leader; and they suspected that his forceful personality, clever strategizing, and aristocratic lineage represented Japan’s best hope for unification. As the battle commenced, Ieyasu’s vigorous attack dispelled any doubts that about the side they had chosen: they left defensive positions and joined his forces. Ieyasu’s victory was complete. The victorious samurai slaughtered thousands of defeated samurai and, of course, any of their relatives who had survived the initial battle. The spoils of war were divided among the victorious daimyos and preparations were made for Ieyasu to be named Shogun. Japan’s long medieval warring period had ended.

Because he had given his word to protect Hideyoshi’s son “with his own life” Ieyasu Tokugawa had left the boy in peace. But too many old Hideyoshi supporters agitated for a restoration of the boy’s rightful place, and so, after ten years of such irritation, in 1615, Ieyasu reneged on his pledge of protection and attacked Osaka Castle. He burned it down, killing all the defenders; and when Hideyoshi’s son committed seppuka, all possible future threats to Ieyasu’s shogunate were eliminated. (Only one woman was spared in the slaughter… the wife of the late lamented scion who happened to be one of Ieyasu’s granddaughters.)

The first pledge of the Code of the Samurai is “I have no parents. I make Heaven and Earth my parents.” No one should wonder why this familial detachment is given the primary position in the Code.

It is said that Ieyasu so regretted having to break his word that as penance he wrote the Buddha’s name ten thousand times.


El demonio comprado

Yao Sheng Shakya

Queridos amigos,

El camino del Zen apunta siempre hacia tomar responsabilidad por nuestras acciones y mantener nuestros compromisos. No obstante ¿Cuántas veces nos juramos hacer tal o cual cosa y al cabo de algunos días, nos olvidamos completamente de todo? Friedrich Nietzche dijo una vez que “los hombres viven mintiéndose a sí mismos y, en todo caso, mienten a los demás como caso particular”. Lo mismo puede aplicarse a los compromisos: en general, los compromisos con nosotros mismos son los primeros en caer. Este no es el camino de los practicantes del Zen.

Una clásica historia ilustra lo que quiero decir.

Había una vez un hombre que iba caminando por un gran mercado, de esos mercados con tiendas coloridas de todo tipo, donde se venden vegetales, incienso, pequeñas cajitas de marfil y artículos variados. En uno de los puestos se anunciaba “Se venden demonios”. El hombre estaba muy asombrado claramente (¿quién no lo estaría?) así que consultó al vendedor:

–   Buenos días señor, dígame… ¿Por qué razón alguien iría a comprarle un demonio?

–   ¡Buenas tardes amigo! Oh, estos demonios son muy particulares. Son sumamente obedientes y pueden hacer cualquier tarea del hogar. Usted debe solamente indicarle con precisión que deberes necesita que cumpla cada mañana y cuando vuelva de su trabajo encontrará todo hecho: la cama tendida, la ropa lavada y planchada, la cena lista…

El hombre estaba entusiasmadísimo, ya que era soltero y su casa era prácticamente una pocilga.

–  ¡Bien! Me llevaré el demonio

–  De acuerdo. Pero recuerde, por favor, que debe darle instrucciones al demonio cada día o cosas inesperadas pueden llegar a ocurrirle.

Fue así que nuestro protagonista llevó a su casa a esta criatura con la gran promesa de una vida libre de quehaceres domésticos. Cada día por la mañana, le daba sus órdenes y al volver todo iba de maravillas: su hogar estaba siempre limpio, ordenado y la cena caliente lo esperaba en una mesa impecablemente servida.

Todo fue un sueño hasta que una noche, la noche de su cumpleaños, sus amigos de la oficina dieron una fiesta sorpresa para agasajarlo. Borracho y exaltado por la atención recibida bailó y se divirtió a sus anchas durante toda la noche. Al amanecer, aceptó la gentil invitación de una de sus compañeras de trabajo para “descansar” en su casa.

Finalmente, cuando llegó a su hogar al día siguiente encontró que el demonio estaba cocinando al hijo del vecino. Lo había fijado prolijamente a una estaca, mientras le daba vueltas para que reciba un tostado parejo. Desesperado, corrió al mercado para recriminarle al vendedor su temeridad al venderle el demonio y para implorarle ayuda. El mercader de demonios lo miró resignadamente:

–   Yo le indiqué que jamás dejara al demonio sin ocupación

–   Pero… ¿Qué debía hacer en caso de ausentarme?

–   ¡Ah eso! Muy fácil. Debía decirle al demonio que cuando terminara sus tareas se entretuviera subiendo y bajando de uno de los árboles del jardín.

De esta manera termina nuestra historia. Es un cuento muy antiguo y muy conocido en las áreas donde predomina el Hinduismo y el Budismo. Algunos dicen que la historia ilustra que la mente siempre debe tener una ocupación (incluso hay un refrán que dice “una mente ociosa es el taller del diablo”) para evitar caer en caminos perniciosos. Puede ser. El ocio no siempre es malo, pero el abandono si lo es. Otro significado, más esotérico, dice que la historia hace referencia a las prácticas de meditación: cuando ninguna técnica parece funcionar y la mente está inquieta no queda otra ocupación que observar la respiración haciendo subir y bajar nuestro abdomen y pecho tal como el demonio de la historia con su árbol.

Sea como sea, estimados lectores: ¡mantengan sus compromisos! Busquen los medios para estar siempre motivados, para cumplir con sus objetivos, establézcanse metas concretas y delimitadas a lo largo del día… un día por vez.

Words: As images of God

Yao Xiang Shakya
Yao Xiang Shakya


Liz Drawing
An American Buddha by Yao Xiang Shakya


I remember when I was a child holding a soft red leathered book, one of those onion-skin paper small books that even a child would know to handle carefully. I did. I held the book in my hand for moments before I opened it. I knew so deeply from a place that is dark and breathless within me that words were revelations of what I call God.  All words no matter how they were put together or arranged held something so unthinkable I still cannot put words together to explain it. I knew that all words have the power to open the eye that cannot be seen. I knew all words have the potential to cheer up the soul. So there I sat on the floor with my back against the bed and began to read the Travels of Marco Polo.

I looked for the face of the invisible in every sentence and when I found it I stopped because I knew I had met the presence of something more important than anything else I was able to imagine. It was and still is unimaginable. It is only lately that I realize that this realization is shared by others who are far better at making failed but heroic attempts to explain this power. I might now call it, at least temporarily, an eye-opener. And as quickly as I call it an eye-opener I want to append, amend and apologize because I know it is not an evenhanded, nor an acceptable name for what I saw.  To call it an eye-opener is my way of putting my jacket on a vacant seat as a place marker, a way to save the vacant seat from impatient patois.

My suspicions are that there are countless, restless canticles that might want to claim the saved seat except I know that each one despite the beauty and form is a borrowed imposter. All words fail to be other than play-actors. It is not in the sense of a cheat, but in the sense of what is true. In comparison, all words up against what-is-true are cheats.  It may be hard to swallow especially if we cherish words but in the light of the second commandment it is a relief.

“You shall have no other gods before Me. You shall not make for yourself a graven image, nor any manner of likeness of any thing that is in heaven above, that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. You shall not bow down to them, nor serve them. For I the Lord your God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children of the third and fourth generation of them that hate Me; and showing mercy unto the thousandth generation of them that love Me and keep My commandments.”


Although I wait and at times make an attempt to scribble and bind together an image of what I experienced as a child and what I experience today I know it will be a dim and partial reflection. There is no word, no one word or even a series of words that might claim ownership to an image of God. I might go as far as to say that no artistic expression may claim ownership to an image of God. I know this experientially and my knowledge is both confirmed and relieved by the second commandment.

My experience tells me again and again that everything comes to show me the image of God but everything fails to deliver a graven one; graven meaning indelibly set. In childhood, as today, I see something unimaginable in art even when the tale is fiction. The Travels of Marco Polo is questionable as being a historical and accurate travelogue. In fact, it’s questioned whether or not Marco Polo even existed. It doesn’t matter. The tale delivered the unimaginable reflection of God to a young girl sitting on the floor leaning against a bed.

The best I can do is to do my best to put together words that when they are put together they transcend the contrivances of a material, unfinished form. I am well aware that I am not in charge of any work. I don’t pretend to understand it. But I am aware that with every turn of a phrase a golem, a dumb invention, may be the result.

It is a cultural trend to write, to create an image of God through the creation of a benighted character of such stupidity that the reader is challenged to search for any likeness of goodness in the work. The use of extremes of depravity seems to have no limit along the x and y axis lines of human behavior. I suspect that this trend which seems pervasive arises because it is too difficult to write about godliness in such a way as to capture the reader. It may also be a more sad state of affairs. Writing which underpins every performance in film industry is cavalier. It considers sexual assault, violence and bedeviling corruption as the bread and butter of every institution ever put together by man. Someone recently suggested I watch House of Cards, a hit show as they say about sexual assault, violence and bedeviling corruption in the U.S. government.  Why? Why would I spend what precious time I have watching depravity? Where is the redemption in works where everything is seen through a narrow sexual, violent lens with a corrupted fast shutter speed? The characters are the worst sort of golems, those dumb inventions that insult anything and everyone through vulgar behaviors. They are stupid cartoon-like characters caught in the swamp of the material world with little hope of making it to dry land.

They, however, are an attempt at an expression of God, as broken as they may be they give rise to an impression of God nonetheless. It is the nature of creativity to point to an image of God. The problem for me is that depraved, sexually graphic and violent works suggest an impression of God as unknowable except to those who are already awake. These works, when studied carefully with Buddha eyes, reveal that man is looking for God, but looking for God in all the wrong places.

Readers and viewers cheer the incomprehensible prowess of street-smart characters that lack common sense and little virtue. Competence to get-away with naughty behaviors is looked upon as a humorous dexterity to satisfy the ego-impulses. In reality it shows how mankind at this point in time views virtue between one another as wanton and dissolute.

Photo credit: Wikipedia
Photo credit: Wikipedia


In an interview by Bill Moyers with Sister Wendy Beckett, a cloistered Roman Catholic nun, he asks Sister Wendy what she thinks of the photograph of the Piss Christ. It is a photograph of a small, plastic crucifix submerged in the photographer’s urine. Moyer’s asks Sister Wendy about the freedom in art today, that art now lacks boundaries and is this what has gone wrong with art today? She starts by saying “…one could say that’s what has gone wrong.” But in her awakened mind she reminds Moyer’s of a principle of theology. “An abuse should not take away a use. The fact that someone abuses something does not mean that it wasn’t a good thing to start with.” She goes on to say she likes rules but rules should not constrict. “This freedom is a good thing, but that it has gone to people’s heads and they have become very silly is very sad.” Moyer returns to the question of the Piss Christ and asks her directly if she is offended. “Well no.” she answers. “I thought he was saying in a magazine sort of way what we are doing to Christ. He is not being treated with reverence. His great sacrifice is not used. And we live very vulgar lives. We put Christ in a bottle of urine, in practice. It is a very admonitory work. Not a great work.”

She goes on to say whether it is blasphemous or not depends on what you make of it. For her, she sees it as the sad state of God, in practice. She hopes it passes. I concur, I hope the use of graphic sex, violence and corruption pass as well.  In my small, somewhat illiterate view of history, it appears to be an age old tendency of mankind to be irreverent, in practice.

The Piss Christ photograph is now over 25 years old. “Hope,” I have been told is what Mexicans say, “is the last thing to go.”