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Two Leashes: Narcissism and or Humility by FLY 2018
Proviso. Most of the ideas in this essay come from ancient sages from different traditions. I function much like the moon, I reflect the Light in these teachings as the Moon reflects the Light of the Sun. Fashi Lao Yue
Why is the Sea Called the King of a Hundred Streams?
The reason is, the sea lies below and is seen as the nature of virtue. In Confucian thought humility is compared to the sea and is the king of virtue; considered the virtue of “not striving ” as it runs beneath and between. Making lies below and flowing out two characteristics of humility.
Imagine entering every moment, every encounter with what comes into your life with a realization of not only not striving,not knowing but with the attitude of being ready and flowing out below the radar. The image of the sea, the King of a hundred streams in the ancient Chinese question might help us in not striving and not knowing. The sea lies below. “Lie low!” An excellent caution, a burly mantra, a robust admonition. It streams out below meeting what it comes in contact with going on actualizing.
But say, what keeps us from practicing “Lie Low!”: a sturdy steady saying? How many of us practice the Keeper of Knowledge and the Mother of Virtue  known as humility? I wonder if it is because we don’t know what humility is — that it conjures up hair shirts and deprivations of all sort. That is no part of humility. For humility can’t be gained by force or pretense of any kind; it comes sudden, unexpected and washes away our interest in the seeking, know-it-all self. All traditions know this at the higher levels of seeking the Divine.
In Buddhism, we are encouraged to study the self to the degree that we forget the self. This practice is a kindred spirit of humility but does not in itself make us to be humble. There is a realization that the self, our tendencies of self-import are flushed away; swoosh out of the picture. Leaving us actualized right in the middle of the realization of impermanence. In other words, when we forget the self we stop taking things personally and know the true nature of a thing as we meet it. 
Sister Wendy Beckett, a modern mystic, offers us a similar teaching. She writes humility has nothing to do with having a low opinion of yourself, rather it has to do with not being interested in your opinions, not gazing long….at yourself. This brilliant simple, brief explanation accords with the definition of emptiness (Love); the forgetting the self.
Most ancient teachers worth their salt suggest a spiritual adept realizes humility putting humility as a realization and not something to be toyed with at the beginning. It comes after much study of the self in the practice of forgetting the self.
Eckhart reflects a similar definition in his elucidating sermon # 87 on the beatitude, poor in spirit. This virtue appears to be the door keeper of not only the other virtues but of the interior kingdom of the Eternal. “Lie low!” appears to be an admonition to be the source of many streams that go unnoticed; streams that lead to the kingdom.
In my search and study on humility I read a simple definition from an unusual source for me these days; a psychoanalytic book on narcissism. The psychoanalytic definition rests on the personality disturbance of grandiosity and narcissism and is stated in terms of lack. When we are grandiose and narcissistic we lack something in our personality structure; so says the psychoanalytic material. More specifically the lack that unleashes grandiose and narcissistic ideation and behaviors is a lack of knowing the ego-limits of the functional self which results in an inability to ask for help. To be clear there are two basic functions of the self that are lacking that negates any hope of being struck by the sudden humble wings mentioned earlier; (1) not knowing our limits which results in the second lack (2) not being able to ask for help. It is a definition with two basic deficits.
If we tie the psychoanalytic definition together with the Confucian and mystical views, the narcissist is very interested in his or her opinions and gazes long at them. This epitomizes the know-it-all stance. These characteristic deficits inhibit the attitude of being poor in spirit. They overshadow possibility of realization by a blazing self-interest making even the earliest effort of “Lie Low!” unthinkable. In other words, “not striving” and “not knowing” are out of the question when we lack the ability to know our limits and ask for help.
What comes to mind is a quote I have framed on my desk from a book by Esther de Waal, Seeking God.
The reason we do not get anywhere is that we do not know our limits and we are not patient in carrying on the work we have done. But without any labour at all we want to gain possession of virtue.
The words getting anywhere must refer to getting anywhere spiritually as she ends by saying this fellow who does not know his limits desires to be seen as virtuous (a pretense) without doing the work. Her words suggest that if we don’t know our limits we lose out on virtue; which I define as excellence in character. Esther de Waal suggests there is a lack associated with not knowing our limits. The same tune shows up yet again.
Marguerite Porete, a historical Christian mystic, expresses the same sentiment but from the side of humility itself. Virtue is lacking. We might conclude that if virtue is lacking that the person is unable to ask for help because he thinketh he does not recognize his limits which might tell him he is off balance.
When we suffer from grandiosity and narcissism we are locked out of the treasures of Knowledge and are very susceptible to fault and failures of a high level. Porete sees humility in terms of a guardian of the treasury of spiritual knowledge and virtue and a force or power of some sort that must overtake you. It’s not something to pretend to be or do. It comes upon us unexpected.
The best we can do is to correct our tendencies of not knowing our limits and ask for help. We practice “Lie Low!” by stopping the tendency to strive and stopping the gazing at our opinions and enter patience. Patience being an ally to all of efforts. We wait to be swept away by the power of humility.
I think another admonition that is helpful is “Be Careful!” By this I mean study your life in such a way that you learn how to create the conditions to practice your spiritual path. In other words, what do you need to avoid and what do you need to encourage for humility to come a knocking on the door of the interior kingdom.
I can only speak for myself which I mention only as an example and not as a directive. Living a contemplative life is my way to “Lie Low!” and “Be Careful!” To pull off from the world is to be a bystander, a small trickle that goes along disentangled.
When we suffer in grandiosity and narcissism we have not yet studied our life in such a way that we know the conditions that might benefit us spiritually. All of these definitions, Buddhism, Beckett, Eckhart, Porete, de Waal, bring to mind an image of a person who heads out in life and disregards the obvious and inevitable cliffs in front of them because they are staring at themselves. The self-gazing disregard caution. “Lookout, Danger Ahead!” goes unheeded.
The analytic definition, from the negative, depicts a reckless tendency that has no bounds. It suffers in ignorance and arrogance. If we turn the definition to the affirmative, we continue to see two failures in the constructed fiction self which lead to major disturbances in function. The individual is self-sufficient to the point that self-sufficiency hinders a capacity to see the dangers ahead. In other words, the person does not see or cannot even imagine that there is an edge to the self. Nothing stands in the way. Counsel is never sought or if it is, it is blown off by a sense of self that thinks it knows better than any counsel given. When others warn of the danger ahead the grandiose structure has no sense of an inner signal of danger; the limitless view overshadows the signal. Help is unwanted and demeaned making the self-gazer incapable of knowing when to pause and ask for help.
The odd trait that accompanies grandiosity and narcissism is the person who suffers so is very willing to admit to being self-involved and self-centered. It is usually said in a rather fixed way, as in “This is who I am.” Or “I know better.” When we set our self in such a way we tend not to be teachable and when we are not open to hearing, listening and taking in teachings we remain in the ignorance of our constructed created shell.
Now we might think this particular definition does not apply to us; for we do not fit such a tight definition as a lack of knowing our limits which results in an inability to ask for help. We may even think we know we have limits and that we have asked for help and then feel relief that we are not such a grandiose and narcissistic sufferer. I beg for each of us to take another look.
In my capacity as both a student and a teacher of the Dharma I have seen this definition play out over and over again making me aware of my own deficiency in this area as well as the deficiency in others. I have not met anyone who does not suffer to some degree from this ignorance. We think we know and we think we don’t need help. Dare I say it is the nature of the constructed, creative self?
Here is how this delusion often works. See for yourself.
It begins with a willingness to self-examine but the result of the self-study falls short and a conclusion is drawn. The conclusion being, “This is who I am!” It’s a declarative made up of a series of declarations of what I like and what I don’t like. Those of us who know the Zen Dharma we may in some small way recognize the danger of such a view of self. It leads to all sorts of suffering (dukkha). In this self-exam phase we may come away with a further delusion of our capacity and capability declared in either the negative or affirmative, i.e., “I can’t and/or I can.” Declarations such as these cement the self around these internal mental formations leaving very little space for the King of the sea to flow out and to lie low. This appears to be a limit but in reality it is a fixed position in the self. Here is an example.
One of my teachers was asked by her teacher, who I might add was a power packed teacher, to do something she had never done and did not know how to do. My teacher stated her inability as most of us might. Indignant, she responded to the request by saying, “I don’t know how to do that!” Lucky for her, the teacher saw the response for what it was and said to her, “That doesn’t matter. Do it anyway.” The sudden shift was a poke from humility. Feeling the poke, my teacher did as her teacher requested wobbly and unprepared as she was. The self was blown out of the way.
The second phase that comes after self-examination is an apparent willingness to seek help. It shows up in an admission of sorts such as “I know this is how I am. AND I could use some help.” This request carries a similar risk of falling short. It can and often does come as a request from the self-gazing self that wants verification and validation of all sorts of wily aspects of the ego. “Look at me. See how good I am. Or I am not as bad as I thought, am I? Or give me some credit. Or let me show you how much I understand.” On and on goes the list. The self-exam turns into self polishing. It is not to polish the ego it is to forget the tendencies of our conditioned mind in order to get free of the conditions. When self-examination goes sour it usually is seen in turning away from the Dharma; a giving up which can either be haughty such as slamming the door or giving up with declarations of ‘there is something else, somewhere else.’
The third phase is the most telling and perhaps the most important. This step comes after some help is offered. The response to the help offered is some form of brush off of the offering. Such as, “I already know that.” Or “I don’t believe that.” Or “I know better.” All sorts of “I” declarations against the teachings start to come up. A long self assured litany of knowing and brushing away or contradicting comes up. What is needed is a willingness to be taught.
Two words open the flow and require some tiny trickle of humility. The two words are:“Teach me.” Give this a try. Adults and perhaps especially American adults find it difficult to make a sincere request, “Teach Me.” I can give you an example from my work with my teacher.
I struggled, especially at first, with her insistent approach to the Dharma especially when she entered into the psychological realm. My stupidity and ignorance and narcissism raised hackles since I have a doctorate in psychology and she had nothing of the sort. “Who was she to speak to me like that when I am a doctor and she is not.” UGH! How ignorant I was. It didn’t last long, thank God. I stopped myself from thinking I knew more than she did. She continued on offering the Dharma in all sorts of ways and what I learned to do was to say, “Yes.” To actualize meeting what came into my life with “Yes. Teach Me.” After all I sought her out because I knew she knew something I did not know. I asked her to teach me. This turn to her with a sincere request to teach me made it possible to be actualized by the myriad things; made it possible for the distinctions of body/mind to drop away.
Now you might misconstrue this to think I said “Yes” to a person, but that would be wrong. I said “YES” to the Truth; to the Dharma which included a person wiser than my small stupid self. Believe me she suggested some pretty wild things….but I was devoted to the teachings, to being open, to listen, to learn all I could from her. Was it easy? No. It wasn’t. But I hit the jackpot.
Consider these three steps for yourself and see where you land. Do you “Lie Low!” Are you free of striving? Do you sit in “not knowing?”
The proof is in the eating; eating the teachings in such a way as to be overtaken by the power of humility.
Just to wrap it up. When we suffer from big ideas without limit and are unable to ask for help, we must be able to recognize these traits, know firsthand the suffering they cause us and be open to learning. In other words, we must be overtaken by our willingness to “Lie low!” “Be careful!” Do not strive or think you know what will be if you do, you will be further away from the True Self.
Author: FaShi Lao Yue
ZATMA is not a blog. If for some reason you need elucidation on the teaching, please contact the editor at: email@example.com
At first glance we might mistake this instruction Create the Conditions to represent a makeover of our house, a clean out of things in the closets and dresser drawers or a pledge to fix things up. No. It’s not like that at all. Although it is true, cleanliness is next to godliness, it is not the material conditions we need to focus on to make the spiritual climb. We can give a nod to order, and simplicity and even owning and having less but I assure you those conditions are not what we need to create.
We are encouraged to remember the path of Shakyamuni as the exemplar of what we need to do. Our struggles come to awaken us. Buddha struggled and it was in that struggle he began his search for God, the Dharma. He was a Hindu. A Prince. A father. A man saturated in a spiritual history. But he, himself, struggled. When we are able to see our struggle as a clarion, a loud and clear trumpet sound of something is amiss, we seek something to remedy it. We look within. Even if we don’t know what to do, the desire alleviate our struggle arises. We catch that wave and turn it. This turning is turning the Wheel of life and death. And it is, in fact, a matter of life and death.
Something changed Shakyamuni when he saw the suffering from his palace windows. What was it? He realized he, too, was subject to suffering. It was there he turned. He became a seeker. It is what we, each one of us, need to be. A seeker: a big, open heart seeker.
Once he saw that something was amiss he was willing to give up everything to change to it. He left his wife. His newborn son. His palace. He followed through. Found teachers. Practiced. Awakened.
It was a big makeover. A big emptying out. Each seeker, in his circumstances does a similar thing. It may start small….it may begin with some painful struggle that prompts you to seek, to hear and read the teachings. But even a small beginning of seeking requires an emptying out, a makeover of time, commitments and activities. We have to make room for contemplation much like we make room to learn anything. Something has to give, in order for the help to come.
We choose to create the conditions in our mind. Even before we learn anything, we must decide we want to learn. We must choose to want to hear and listen in order to turn and face the light. This step is a beginner’s step, but woe to those who skip it.
We take to heart the teachings. Test them out in our own way. We seek help. We study ourselves.
Here is an exercise you might try. Study what you find yourself getting involved in during the day. And pay close attention to the responses that show up inside of you as you meet the many things that come your way.
Are your responses an array of attachment; hate and fear? If yes, you know the non-self (ego) is attempting to get hold of things. Stop and ask yourself if it was the non-self (ego) that got involved in the first place.
In other words, were there strings of attachment, hate and fear tied to your involvement from the get-go? If yes, then the effects will be coming accordingly. You may feel edgy, anxious, off kilter from even the tiniest grasp of the non-self.
This cause and effect cycle will continue on and on until enlightenment….in the meantime, turn towards the Light when the effects arrive which is a sure fire way to dissipate the shadowy effects that have come. In a visual sense place your mind above, on the high bird until there is only ONE bird in the tree….which is after all is your True nature. STOP the mind reaching for or pushing away some thing you want or don’t want. All happiness is in the High bird. And the High bird does not get involved with things with strings.
Remember: What did Buddha STOP when he encountered the finger necklace thief? Buddha stopped the pleasures and pains of the non-self leaving only the flow of Light which shines on everything without discrimination.
CAUTION: If you pretend to be the High bird, trouble of all sorts will follow.
Author: FaShi Lao Yue
ZATMA is not a blog. If for some reason you need elucidation on the teaching, please contact the editor at: firstname.lastname@example.org
I guarantee you. You won’t see another of those little devils for at least five years.”
When you call, Arthur Joseph Candicanosi, you call the top guy in town.
I use the strongest chemicals. I get the job done fast. One, Two, Three.
Bing, Bing, Bang.
Beautiful home. Don’t give it another thought about right or wrong. C’mon what are we talking about here? It has to be done. It has to.
My old man worked for a slaughterhouse. He slit throats . . . proficiently. Zip. Zip. It had to be done.
After a few years, his employers told him: when a machine does it . . . it’s almost painless and faster. My dad said the owners decided which choice –- man or machine – based on which was cost-effective.
Cost-effectiveness became top priority . . . an absolute necessity, if a business was to survive. Automation. Robotics. Everything evolves.
No, he didn’t lose his job. He became Director of Operations. When it didn’t go right, he had to Zip. Zip. Again. Machine errors occurred often. Specific procedures had to be followed. He was under the gun.
Yeah, my old man told me he was only allowed to work a limited number of hours a week. (I think he said 17.) Yes, 17 hours. The owners said: killing can have deleterious effects when you kill in excess of 17 hours.
His bosses said: Killing too much can make the slaughterer mean. Even watching killing for extended periods can be extremely harmful.
Harmful? Wait until you hear this: The establishment’s view: Killing can be a sensual experience. They pointed out, studies show, people can enjoy it.
Enjoy killing? Studies show? What a crock!
I kill eight to ten hours a day, five days a week. I’m married, have two sons. On the weekends I coach football. Looking in the mirror, I see an ok guy looking back. Killing has to be done. It has to.”
The woman paid Arthur Joseph Candicanosi with a check and an obligatory smile, hurrying him out the door so he could get started with the work.
She wondered, did his words have a perlocutionary effect? He smelled. It was a dank, soggy, rotting odor, something she could not identify. She speculated perhaps it was from the substances he used or maybe the odor arose as a result of his work. The woman reminded herself of what he said.
‘It has to be done.’
When the job was completed, he came from around the back of the house. He looked tired. The woman watched as he lumbered down the front footpath.
She thought of him touching his wife…having breakfast with his sons. Did a shower eradicate that smell? The stench lingered in the kitchen. When the woman opened the window, winter’s cold morning came rushing in.
Taking a deep breath, she sighed as she watched black smoke pour out of the tailpipe of his green truck as he pulled away.
ZATMA is not a blog. If for some reason you need elucidation on the teaching, please contact the editor at: email@example.com
Some time ago I heard this story….told by a Buddhist teacher.
She with several others went on a trip to Southeast Asia to work with Theravada Buddhist monks. When they arrived they were shown to small broken down huts where loud music blared from the nearby village all night long. The accommodations were sparse, untamed and relatively wild. They were to meet with a teacher who was as they thought in the process of building a temple. They made the trip to help the teacher build the temple. To their surprise they met him sitting in a construction site….the materials were rotting from the moisture and heat, there was no real semblance of a building at all except for one or two walls held up by leaning 2×4’s. No windows. No doors. The materials were moldy, covered with growth and rancid.
In the midst of these decaying and broken things sat the monk on top of a stack of wood surrounded by torn bags of concrete. The contingent of helpers were dazed at first but soon took to thinking they must help him build the temple. On the very first meeting, in their exasperation of the mess they told him they would help clean up, fix up, build up the temple. The monk looked at them as though he didn’t understand what they were saying and in all great composure turned and said to them, this is the temple. As one might imagine the contingent were dismayed even distressed by his indifference to the broken down building site and to his sincere declaration: This is the Temple.
Desire for something more, better, ordered, organized, proper, perfect….an endless list of something more is a distraction from the truth it is broken. The distraction leads us to feel burdened and stressed by wanting something more, something different, something better in the face of It’s broken.
The Mountain by Albert Herbert 1991 Private Collection (Sister Wendy On Prayer, Figure 10)
The image is primitive, childlike and expressive. It is a two-dimensional picture of something big in the physical world. Although it is sharp, angled and appears to be an apparent obstacle it is accessible and invites us to come up. Herbert’s work does not show a clear, well-beaten path; in fact the painting leaves us wondering how did Moses get up as high as he did? How will we make such a climb? Herbert leaves that for us to work out.
What we do see is that mountains are majestic, a royal earth phenomena calling us to look upward, skyward, to come up to the heights of spiritual life. In Herbert’s work there is a clear indication that Moses is accompanied by wildlife, we might even say he enters, no he must enter the wild, untamed world to get nearer to the summit.
In looking at our teaching, It’s broken it is important to keep the mountain in mind otherwise we risk a steep stumble into despair. The world, It’s broken if understood brings peace, if misunderstood brings confusion.
We realize acceptance for what is and continue on towards the sky above the mountain. We begin at the foot and make our way through the wild, untamed world. We calm down. We stop pushing the river and use our powers to climb upward through the rugged terrain. We use our effort to keep going. We are content right in the middle of It’s broken.
On a retreat recently a student gave me a gift of a stamp with my new Chinese name on it. It came in two sizes. During the retreat I had the opportunity to use the stamps and posted up a little board using one of the stamps. When the student saw the stamp mark, she declared, “It’s not beautiful. I want it to be beautiful.” I remarked, “It is good enough.” (It’s broken)
In the light of It’s broken everything is good enough or just enough or enough as it is. It is suffering to want something else. It is a distraction keeping us from seeing the truth, It’s broken. When we know and see It’s broken, we enter the wild, untamed world of the mountain and use our power and efforts to “…. (make) the solitary ascent….to labor along the way….to strip the heart of all that is distraction….to hold on in confidence to the certainty that God (undying, unborn, our True Self) is there, even if—-(even when) we see nothing.” John of the Cross
It is from this mind we meet what comes and act accordingly.
“Nothing, nothing, nothing on the way….and on the mountain, nothing. Nothing but God alone.” John of the Cross
When we do otherwise we are caught in the world of wanting what shows up in our life to be different than what it is; we forget It’s broken and are caught in striving for something else, something different. This is suffering.
To climb the mountain….we go it alone, labor with what we meet along the way and strip away all distractions….confident in nothing….nothing, nothing, nothing which turns out to be something.
Author: FaShi Lao Yue
ZATMA is not a blog. If for some reason you need elucidation on the teaching, please contact the editor at: firstname.lastname@example.org
I am an old woman and have lived most of my life as a catholic nun. My core is Jesus Christ and close to him stands his elder brother, the Buddha. I am training to be a spiritual monk and one of the tasks given is to write my spiritual biography. A glimpse is what I can give.
It amazes me to say that my parents were born over one hundred years ago. My father came to America from Sweden at age four. His father was absent and his mother was emotionally distant. His rock was his grandmother, a wise and practical woman who taught him well. He loved her dearly. My father had a quiet sense of humor that showed in the twinkle of his eyes. He was musically gifted and played the trumpet. There was a deep anger in him that he tried to control but didn’t always succeed. At forty two he had a heart attack and stroke which cost him his job, his independence and his ability to play his trumpet. He died when he was fifty eight years old.
My mother was of French descent, a farmer’s daughter and the oldest of eleven living children. She was educated through grade eight, danced ballet and became a nurse. She was musical and played the piano, often at night when we children were in bed. She could get lost reading a book. When she was thirty four she discovered she had cancer. She birthed a son. She died of cancer when she was forty one. My two sisters were eleven and ten. I was seven and my brother was four.
After mother died her youngest sister stepped in to care for us four children and when I was in fifth grade she and my father married. She gave birth to a daughter. I was delighted with the marriage. She had always been in our lives so we kept the same aunts, uncles and cousins we always had and didn’t have to get to know another family. She gave every thing she was capable of giving. It was a long time before I began to really appreciate how much she gave of herself. I loved my ‘other/mother’ but my intense loyalty to my own mother kept me from letting get too close. I think that if we had spoken openly of our mother it might have been different but we didn’t speak of her. I sensed this new mother would be hurt if we seemed to put our mother first.
I learned early on to keep my thoughts and feelings to myself. To hide. I was not as successful as I thought and to my chagrin my stepmother knew me better than I realized. She told me one day that there was to be a surprise party for my grandmother’s birthday. “Now don’t say anything. It’s a surprise”, she told me. With pride I declared that I could keep a secret! “I know you can,’ she quietly replied. “Too well.” I think also that a part of my staying quiet may have been that I simply did not know how to speak of myself or my feelings.
Because my father was partially paralyzed from a stroke our stepmother had to become the bread winner and it was tough making it financially. Living on the edge made for stress and anxiety and I carried it in my body and spirit. I had tension stomachaches that doubled me up in pain but I said nothing. It didn’t occur to me to complain.
I had a temper. One time when I was six my parents were away for a short time in the evening and my older sisters were in charge. I wouldn’t come in when they called me so they locked the door on me. I got mad and banged on the front window and smashed it with my fist. To avoid the consequence an elaborate story was made up to tell our parents about a boy who threw a rock through the window. Years later the real story came out. I’ve been angry more times than I care to admit, often because of stuffed emotions. Sometimes a burning anger, sometime cold. A hell realm of anger. I’ve hurt those I loved most with my anger. I cannot recall anyone who has turned away from me.
I knew when I was young that I wanted to be a nun. Whether it was because I loved and admired my two nun aunts or liked my teachers, I don’t know. But I loved Jesus. I believed he was with me and I wanted to be with him. I grew up with this conviction.
In September of my eighteenth year I entered a religious community. My family drove me to the novitiate and I exchanged my blue and white flowered dress for a black skirt and blouse and little veil. I stood behind the window drapes and watched my family drive away without me. I would see them once a month on visiting Sunday and not go home to visit for five years. I didn’t cry until Christmas.
Novitiate life was full; up at five, meditate at five thirty, mass at six, breakfast and then the rest of the day. Studies and work and play. We studied logic, scripture, art, calligraphy, theology, learned to sing Gregorian chant, played foot ball and basket ball, cleaned toilets, scrubbed floors, worked in the kitchen and yard, learned to serve table properly, ate enormous amounts of food (speaking for myself) put on plays and some snuck behind the garages to smoke. I took everything seriously and once when I was reprimanded for something or other I worried for two weeks that I would be sent home. I carried a lot of anxiety. I kept hidden the itchy rash it caused on the palms of my hands. Another girl had the same kind of rash and left. I feared the same would happen to me. Eventually the spots cleared up.
After novitiate my first ministry was teaching in our schools for twenty years. Needs kept changing and we went where we were needed.
The frequent changes were unsettling to me and I longed to be in one place permanently. I didn’t know that impermanence is the name of the game. I was a creative teacher, worked hard and loved my students but I wasn’t really getting much interior nourishment although we had our daily rituals and prayer. I felt a yearning for something. Once I told one of my teachers that I had ‘this kind of yearning inside’. She said that that was prayer. It was comforting to believe that prayer was going on inside me even without words.
One thing that did nourish me was art making. I would clear out a space in an attic or basement or bedroom to paint and draw. It was through art that I could say what was inside me and work things out. I was not an activist although I tried to be. It simply did not fit. My way of addressing the world’s suffering was through visual art. An example is when the Twin Towers came down. I was horror struck. The world seemed totally dark until one sister quietly spoke the words ‘a great migration of souls’ referring to all those who were plunged to their death. She saw them as spirits rising. Her words had a deep effect on me. I collected pictures of the burning towers and with those pictures and a figure I had drawn, made a collage showing the spirits of the dead ascending back into the womb of a Divine Mother. I had to believe that there was something more than hate and destruction.
The sixties saw great changes in the church and in community. Pope John XXlll threw open the windows to let in fresh air and at the same time much went out the window. There was a new sense of freedom and many of my sister friends left. It was like a river flowing away. Many changes occurred in community. One visual change was trading our seventeenth century robes for modern day dress. I looked forward to this for I wished to be a woman among women, not someone stuck on the hierarchical ladder, a step below clergy and a step above lay people. Without robes we would be as other woman and not receive preferential treatment.
A lot of stress came with all the changes in church and community as we struggled to find a new footing. The old dropped away and the new had not yet taken hold. At that same time I accepted a position in community that simply did not fit. I did not have the talent for it and it did not use the talents I had. I said yes to it without discerning well, proud that I was thought to have something to offer. Working in the core of the community I became aware of the tensions and disagreements I saw and wondered (I don’t know who I thought I was!) how I could remain with such a messed up group of women religious. I was depressed and totally disillusioned and began to look at other options. But nothing seemed to fit. I learned of a day of retreat that was being held somewhere and I went, thinking that I might hear one word that spoke to me. Just one word was all I asked. There was a healing ceremony that day and though healthy in body I was sick at heart and asked to receive the sacrament of the sick. After I was anointed and felt the hands of others pressing deep upon my shoulders in prayer, I took my seat. Something happened; the great depressive weight I carried traveled up through my feet, my legs, my whole body and passed out the top of my head. It was gone. The weight and depression did not return. My vision cleared and I began to see that I am a wounded woman living in a community of wounded women. I was in the right place.
There have been other moments of consolation when the Divine shown through the thin veil of separation. One such moment was when my father died when I was twenty five. I felt an urgent need to pray for him and sat up into the night repeating a psalm we prayed for the dead, ‘Out of the depths I cry to you, O Lord. Hear my voice. ‘ (Psalm 130) The prayer prayed itself in me for a long time. Then abruptly I could no longer utter a word on his behalf. A deep peace filled me and I knew my father’s wandering had ceased and he had entered into his Rest.
My stepmother lived into her nineties. She wanted to stay in her own home and with help was able to do so until the last short while of her life. One of my sisters and I were closest in distance so we were the ones to care for her needs. During the last twelve years we made sure that at least one of us was near to respond to any need or crises. We became familiar with the inside of hospitals. We cared well for her but sometimes I also resented the frequent demands made on me. Again and again the memory of my selfishness nudges me toward generosity.
During that time I had a heart episode. The ER doctor asked me if I wanted to be resuscitated. That caused me to pause. Death is real. Even though I had written in my living will that I do not wish to be resuscitated I decided I wanted to live. The doctor also thought that I should. I felt that I have work to do. They finally got things working right and I stay quite healthy. As I lay in the hospital bed I recalled a seventeenth century teaching by Man-An that I had memorized. One phrase of it is, ‘Do not say …that the poor and sick do not have the power to work on the Way.’ Those words were my constant companion. My illness was my practice.
About sixteen years ago a spiritual companion introduced me to Zen. I read Zen Mind Beginners Mind, my first book of Buddhist teachings. I couldn’t stop reading and while I didn’t understand very much I was nourished. I made a Zen retreat in New York and heard a Buddhist priest give a teaching. She touched something in me. Even though I lived many miles away I asked her if she would be my teacher. The answer was yes. She is my still my teacher. I became a member of the sangha and traveled there when I could but distance made it infrequent and irregular. I missed not being consistently present for the teachings and rituals. My connection with my teacher was uplifting and encouraging and challenging and painful. I have felt disappointed and angry. It’s been a rocky road I have wanted to quit but I trust her. Too often I take things personally. My pride is challenged. My poisons are held up to me again and again. When I write something and send it by email it might come back chopped liver. But then there might come a Yes! when I finally get something! It’s like the sun coming out.
Now I am in the last phase of my life and am training to be a Spiritual Monk. I wasn’t sure about becoming a monk even though I said yes quite quickly. Nothing in particular happened to convince me that this is the way for me to go. I had to just wait until it took root and it has quietly grown and feels right. I want to know more deeply the One for whom I have always yearned even when I didn’t know it. May this journey I am on bring me closer to that desire.
It’s never too late!
Author: Ho Getsu Sen Gen
A Single Thread is not a blog. If for some reason you need elucidation on the teaching, please contact the editor at: email@example.com
This draft attempts to describe some of my strongest tendencies and activities primarily during my adult life. This initial effort may includeassertions and observations that are fanciful, incomplete, or perhaps untrue. I have found that when I write things down and continue to work on them, it helps me to discover what is not true and occasionally what is true.
First, let me say something about my childhood and family before I write about my adult years. I have two brothers, one is five years older and the other a year and a half younger. I am quite close to my younger brother, not so much to the older one. My parents each worked full time or more while I was growing up. My dad drove a gasoline tank truck and also a school bus and my mother worked in a plastic factory and later for the telephone company. Neither of my parents were particularly religious. I don’t believe either of them ever went to church. They did think, however, that their children should go. So, we occasionally attended the United Methodist church in our small town in western Pennsylvania. I say occasionally because both of my parents worked hard and long hours and were very tired by Sunday. As observant children, we noticed this and would be especially quiet on Sunday morning, hoping they would sleep until it was too late for them to drive us to Sunday school. Very often this worked.
Both of my parents were loving and quite dedicated to raising their children. As a young boy, I viewed my mother as a tower of strength and quite fierce if she felt she or her family had been wronged by someone. In adulthood, my views of her changed. By then, she had destroyed her health with amphetamines, valium and cigarettes. I observed up close her overwhelming unhappiness and suffering, her brittleness…. she continued to be angry and fierce. But I no longer regarded these traits as strengths. My father was calm, steady, affirming and compassionate throughout my life…. a good man who loved without demanding a return on his love.
Near the end of college, I wholeheartedly embraced the belief that individually or by joining with others, I could exercise great control over what unfolds in life. If one was smart, hardworking and resolute, one could shape a better life for oneself and others…make changes that would be fundamental and long lasting. The causes of social justice, socialism, feminism, gay rights seemed right to me, so I jumped in with both feet.
I also believed strongly that anger, if channeled wisely, was a good source of energy for doing this work.
I held the belief that in doing work like this that my defeats would many, the victories few and positive change slow going. But we would win eventually because right was on our side.
So, in my early twenties, I began a life’s work that was centered on the pursuit of social justice, mostly working in the labor movement for the next forty years.
At first blush, it might sound like I was a selfless warrior for justice. Not true…. certainly not the selfless part.
However, it helped me to do the work because I believed that I was selfless and I projected that persona in order to get the many things I wanted for me in my intense and constant search for adoration, control, and pleasure……I then used these things to help me further solidify my persona…. I was on a merry go round that I showed little interest in getting off for many years. My immediate rewards just kept coming…yes, they were temporary, but they were renewable and intoxicating. And I did not bother to look at many other aspects of what I was doing nor the effects it had on others.
I seldom, if ever, searched for any deeper truth than what the fight for justice and equality seemed to offer. And that truth fit nicely into my constant pursuit of my underlying desires. I don’t mean to say that I did not believe in what I was doing… I did.
Looking back, I think that my serious defeats in life just piled up for a long time without prompting me to reflect more deeply.
Seeking pleasure played a key role in this regard, it distracted and deadened me…. drugs, alcohol, sex and adultery were my “off ramps” from the angry, intense, combative work in which I engaged. Unfortunately, these pleasurable activities “worked” mostly and helped to prolong my immersion in an angry, warrior work life. This, in turn, led me to seek even more pleasure…me jumping onto yet another merry go round.
Recently, I penned the following statement which I think is accurate regarding my created persona vs. the deeper truth of me. “I never offered a thing without a string…. even if the string was solely to validate to myself that I was a good person.”
Defeats and Letting Go
Defeats can reveal the truth if we desire it and are able to look upon those defeats with Buddha eyes. Looking back, at least three defeats in my life gave an indication that I had some buried desire to get off my merry go rounds.
The first defeat and letting go, was in my thirties, when my mother suffered with and eventually died from emphysema caused by cigarette smoking. I played a significant role in her initial diagnosis and ongoing treatment and care during her final dozen years of life. I vividly remember taking my turn trying to persuade her to quit smoking. I thought my effort was quite good. I was armed with accepted facts and argued a measured hope for a quality remaining life for her if she quit smoking. I also was honest, but compassionate, about her prospects should she continue to smoke. She neither heard me nor anything I said…. she simply could not. In overwhelming denial, she insisted that she would be fine, saying it as though she were trying to reassure and protect her young child. Without thought, my instant reaction was to let go of trying to “save” her. I don’t know why. Instead, I surrendered and tried to give my best care….to both her and my father…. without badgering, or ever raising the issue again. No control was possible…. get on with loving them.
The second impactful defeat and letting go occurred when I was 48 years old. My wife fell in love with another man. She informed me by telephone one day when I was at the State Capitol for my job. She was quite calm and supportive, and did not say that she was leaving our relationship. But she was clear as well that she was in love with someone else. I remember getting off the phone and crying. I then got a pen and paper out and began to write. The first thing I wrote was that this was an opportunity for me to look at myself, to become a better person. I did not possess the desire or instinct to ask or demand anything from her or tell her what to do. I was clear immediately that I had no control over what she was going through. I knew deeply that I could focus only on myself. For the next many months, she stayed in relationship with this man and me. I turned to writing poetry to try to deal with all that arose in me. I had never previously even read poetry. We began to talk with honesty and great respect for each other…. each of us trying to stay in what was rather than fleeing. I lost weight to the point that my clothes no longer fit. Jealousy ruled me, but I kept writing. I looked for the lies in my words, would find and discard them, and try to find what was true and of value. Long story short, as they say, we are still together.
Because of this crisis, my desire to control, my belief that I could control, was dealt a fierce blow. And my wife’s demonstrated ability to pursue her heart’s desire in the midst of great risk and heartache for both of us was a powerful teacher for me. I believe that this stretch of my life increased my capacity to endure and taught me to look within rather than seek to manipulate or control.
The third learning experience regarding defeat and letting go came within my role as a parent. Raising two children was a powerful, daily reminder both that people change constantly and that one’s control over matters is tenuous at best and quite possibly delusional. I understood this on a superficial level and tried to be mindful of it as I parented. But, I repeatedly failed. My desire to control often asserted itself. I tried but I could not keep up with the need of my kids to have more autonomy and independence. This ongoing struggle to let go and affirm rather than try to try to control was a teacher most days ….it still can be.
Everything is Dissolving
I chant this daily now, “Everything arises and ceases Everything is dissolving.” But for most of my life I could nether see nor believe such a thing. I regarded losing and defeats in my work life as
temporary. I (We) could overcome them with maximum effort and the right strategy. I believed that someday I (we) would win…would get to a better place…either incrementally or in a “revolution.” And that better place would be a solid platform on which to stand while working for even better things. Life, if lived well or correctly, was linear and my belief in my (our) ability to control and shape things seemed unshakeable. I believed it to be true because I (we) had intellectual arguments, theories and history that supported that belief…I failed to notice that it was still a belief based on a myriad of my thoughts and desires, not simply objective facts fashioned into persuasive arguments…. I rode that merry-go-round until I was nearly 60 years old.
Thank God for more failure and massive defeats.
As I neared my retirement from the labor movement, nearly all the considerable number of improvements I had been a part of winning while working for the union were under attack. Many of them would be lost by the time I retired. These included major improvements we had won in wages, healthcare, and working conditions for ordinary people and their families. Even the right of a union to exist on behalf of working people was being seriously challenged across the country…. that right to form and belong to a union has now been lost for millions of workers. Reversals and defeats of all kinds continue.
During this period, it seemed to me that we worked as hard and as intelligently as we ever had. But we had little to show for our efforts other than defeat and a declining ability to influence much of anything. What I had come to believe about control, change, and social justice work was shaken with tremendous force. For the first time, I stopped trying to figure out what we needed to do better and how to get back on track. That no longer made much sense to me personally……and I was worn out and nearing retirement. Allow me to be clear, though…. I did not lament that I was somehow wrong to have chosen to do this work. Nor was I inclined to make judgements about others who worked alongside me. We did the best we could…. that’s all. For me at that moment, to judge and try to fix things in yet another way did not lead in a direction I wished to go. Instead, I became interested in looking at my foundational beliefs that held all of this up. Many of my previously held views about the nature of change and control and anger no longer seemed right to me. Slowly, I opened to wanting to reflect on the nature such things and my own life differently.
In the midst of all this, my wife sought out and found a Buddhist teacher and sangha. As she talked about her experiences, I gradually became interested. After months of firing questions at her upon her returns from sangha, I finally I began attending. In the early going, I resisted many of the teachings, but I was captivated and buoyed by many others. Fits and starts, intellectual objections, laziness, enthusiasm, acceptance, relief and a slow surrendering swirled together for a very long time. Eventually, I managed to grab onto what my teacher offered as the only rule in this practice…. begin and continue. Even after I finished sewing my Rakasu as part of my lay ordination, I resisted the call of things that I knew deeply. I remember saying to my teacher at one point, “I am grateful for the sangha and get so much from your talks and practice, but I do not want to be a monk.” It makes me laugh to look back on that particular “but.” I resisted the undertow and swimming in deep water until last summer when two things occurred. The first was meeting Ayya MedhanandiBhikkhuni at a retreat…. her teachings were wonderful, but I was thunderstruck by her manner and presence. In that place, at that moment, shepersonified devotion. Around the same time, I read a beautiful piece written about my teacher’s transmission to Master in which she is quoted, “I feel being a master is sinking further into the mud so the lotus may rise higher.” Both moments helped me to understand that at its core becoming a monk represents a deepening commitment to my practice. Nothing could be more joyous. I am grateful to all who have helped bring me to where I am.
Author: Zhong Fen li Bao yu Di, A monk in training.
Image credit: yao xiang shakya & Getsu San Ku Shin
A Single Thread is not a blog. If for some reason you need elucidation on the teaching, please contact the editor at: firstname.lastname@example.org
To contact the author: Please use the editor’s email; all e-mail will be forwarded.
Time to give up our souls, to set fire to structures and run out in the street.
Time to ferment. How else can we leave the world vat and go to the lip?
We must die to become true human beings.
We must turn completely upside down like a comb in the top of a beautiful woman’s hair.”
Rumi, A Story They Know, A Bridge to the Soul, Journeys into the Music and Silence of the Heart, Barks, Arberry & Ergin
MY FIRST DECADE: I grew up in a Lutheran household, attending church regularly. My grandmother and I bonded over a heart-full love of the Christian God. I was passionate about Jesus, and found great comfort and joy in knowing of his love for me.
TEENS: I came of age in a large extended Norwegian family. My uncles and great uncles, my father, grandfather and great grandfather were all medical doctors. They were all invested in the family business, a medical clinic begun by my great grandfather in the 1920’s, when medicine based in scientific thought competed with folk medicine and “quackery” for dominance. Many of the women were powerhouses too. My great grandmother raised 7 sons and a daughter, held Ibsen Club in Norwegian in her dining room, and kept the generations of her family steeped in Norwegian culture, language and holiday traditions. My mother was a member of the elected school board while I was in high school. An aunt was an elected member of the county board. My grandmother led a campaign to raise $5 million for the national League of Women Voters for its 50th anniversary in 1970, and sat on the Board of Wellesley College for many years. There were between 2 and 7 of my cousins in every grade level of my schools growing up. It was a rich, nourishing, inspiring holding environment for a young girl. I was imprinted with notions of striving, social responsibility, conspicuous success. I also yearned for anonymity.
Another important influence from my Scandinavian roots is love of the natural world. Churches are small and poorly attended in Norway, as most Norwegians would rather be hiking or skiing. Together with my family, I skied, skated, sailed, canoed, biked, hiked and swam. My grandparents bought a small farm 20 miles outside of town where we all gathered to enjoy the seasons, play in the woods, sled down the hills, fish for trout in the pond, work in the gardens. I learned the names of the trees, the birds, the wildflowers.
After years of sitting through dull Sunday morning worship services, I rebelled against the institutional church, sparked largely by deep questioning of the tenants of the faith which I studied in confirmation class. I came to the conclusion that I did not believe in God, nor did I believe in the hell to which the church warned I would be eternally condemned for this rejection of their Maker.
My earlier spiritual passion found purchase in a new arena, befitting of the late ‘60’s and early ‘70’s, that of fervent political belief. It seemed to me that heaven, and hell, were here on earth, in the form of the suffering I saw all around me. I became an activist against the war in Vietnam, for environmental causes. I volunteered for George McGovern’s presidential campaign, organized a Walk for Mankind.
TWENTIES: In college I majored in political philosophy. I saw life through a Marxist, feminist lens. Religion was the opiate of the masses. A critical analysis of capitalism, and organizing on behalf of those oppressed by its paradigm would eventually lead to revolution from the bottom-up. I rejected the class system, and my own and my family’s upper-middle-class values and lifestyle. I lived on the far edges of the culture I had until then been a part of, choosing jobs and living situations that reflected my counter-cultural, revolutionary outlook.
In quieter moments, I nurtured a very private fascination with monasticism. There was something so compelling to me about people who chose to live outside of the cultural mainstream, much as I was, but from a very different motivation of finding God in the quiet and stillness. I read the novels and saw the movies about monastic life, and in college, visited a monastery with a friend who was doing research for a class. But, mostly I was devoted to a life of struggle against the suffering I saw everywhere I looked. I met, fell in love with, and married my husband, who shared my lifestyle and my conviction that people would eventually rise up against the system I believed was the cause of all injustice.
THIRTIES: Having children, and the Reagan years, began to shift my energy away from my single-minded focus on building a revolution. Giving birth to and nurturing two infants opened my eyes and my heart to the potent and very physical, instinctual world of mothering. As my children grew, I felt a conflict between my devotion to the movement and my devotion to them. But, in the end, I could not sustain my political fervor. I was worn out by what I saw as the frustrating tendencies of humans to mess up any and every compelling social movement. All the institutions I worked for were plagued with political divisions, financial woes, waning memberships.
The light of my awareness was turning around to shine within. I completed two courses of individual psychotherapy as I grappled with being a wife, mother, daughter and friend without political work to define me. Therapy helped me to feel my emotions, to relax more, to confront the pain of my parent’s divorce.
We bought a home, got a puppy. I left my last movement job and went to massage school, and though it felt like I was cutting off my right arm, I was deeply relieved to find work that demanded I slow down, breathe, and take care of myself, a few clients and my family, rather than the whole world. Being drawn to an alternative healing modality also fueled my continuing rebellion against my family as the embodiment of the medical model. I alternated between feeling self-righteous and sinfully disloyal to my tribe of origin and the world of power and prestige that being doctors conferred upon them.
I read Marsha Sinetar’s ORDINARY PEOPLE AS MONKS AND MYSTICS, and some deep bell rang with a resonance that continues to this day. Sinetar interviewed dozens of people who had chosen lives of quiet, individual prayer, ritual and worship outside the church, outside any established order. These were people who had found their own way by searching deeply inside themselves. Their truth was self-actualized. I still have this book, and have returned to find inspiration in it many times over the ensuing years.
FORTIES: Providing massage therapy to survivors of torture and war helped me to reconcile my continued commitment to political activism with my job as a provider of individual care and comfort. I grappled with how to reconcile the immensity of the evil of political torture, the effects of which stared back at me through the haunted eyes of my survivor clients. I went into the work determined that torture must end. I left the work, 12 years later, knowing that the darkness and suffering I had witnessed were both out of my control and beyond my ability to comprehend. My friends in the bodywork community who were Buddhists were particularly helpful in my coming to terms with these issues. As they pointed out to me, who am I to judge? How can I know where such horrific experiences come from, or will lead? I can offer care from moment to moment. That is all. This stance brought me through a period of great anger and anguish, to a place of relative peace and acceptance, despite the pain of this work.
My best friend during this time was Jewish, and part of an alternative minion, a group of young families who met on Saturdays to worship together in a way that both honored the Jewish spiritual traditions and rejected many of the institutional forms that Judaism had taken. I felt a yearning to have what I saw there. A spiritual home. But seeing nothing around me, I created some spiritual content on my own. My work with my clients increasingly took on various forms of ritual. I created rituals for my children’s 13th birthdays. We also had family rituals for the Day of the Dead and the winter solstice. The truth of life outside of the rational, linguistic, western ways of knowing became more important to me. I also struggled with anxiety, heart palpitations, fear of death, workaholism and a consuming drive to excel, which created concentric circles of suffering in my kids, my partner, friends and family.
My professional identity evolved toward a focus on the integration of body and mind with trauma survivors. I completed numerous trainings in therapies that used mindfulness as a vehicle for clients to study their own lived experience in real time. I was very moved by the experience of learning to be fully present with a client. The language and the mindset of mindful presence was both profound and intimidating in its intimacy and immediacy.
I began to meditate in order to strengthen this new set of professional skills. The integration of body and mind increasingly became a personal practice as well. Beginning to meditate was painful physically and psychically, way outside my comfort zone of high octane performance. But I kept going. So many books on Buddhist thought helped inspire me to try to sit still, to have faith that pure presence was the key to Nirvana, the end of suffering.
FIFTIES: One of my teachers in mindfulness-based therapeutic methods became ill with cancer and died soon after. He was my age, 51. Both before and during his dying process, Dan was committed to the practice of Buddhism. I had many conversations with him during which my unexamined assumptions about life, death and suffering were completely blown away. He was learning so much, he was willing to share his journey, his insights, and I was ready to hear them. He was walking through the dying process while his heart opened up. He was not consumed with fear, but determined to utilize this time to find deeper truth, deeper safety, deeper love. He encouraged me to get serious about my spiritual practice. His experience of awakening through the dying process was just the encouragement I needed.
I had also become ambivalent about psychotherapy as a means of addressing my own unhappiness. After a horrible break up with a business partner, I felt at sea. Psychotherapy was unable to reach the pain I felt. This, despite the fact that I was now practicing psychotherapy with my clients, as well as beginning a master’s program in counseling. I began to look for a spiritual teacher. The yearning for a spiritual home went deep. But nothing I tried, no group I sat with, no teacher whose dharma talks I heard could touch that yearning.
It is so uncanny that during our first meeting in the zendo at A Single Thread, I was given the choice of seeing the resident priest as a psychotherapist or as a spiritual teacher. Both were not an option. I did not hesitate. This woman sitting across from me, with her shaved head, the altar behind her, her deeply grounded energy was my spiritual teacher. Is my teacher. I had come home. I was 53.
My early experiences of sitting at A Single Thread were simultaneously excruciating and very, very comforting. I had found not only a teacher but also a community, and a centuries-old wisdom tradition. I felt deeply held. I also hated the painful, long periods of sitting, and was intimidated by all the form I stumbled through for weeks until it began to make sense to my body. I particularly remember my early experience with chanting. The chants were long, and the form was to chant quickly, without pause. My intellect was quickly overwhelmed, I could not comprehend the meaning of what I was chanting except in small bites, randomly, over many Sundays of repetition. It was like no other experience I had had before. I felt the meaning of the chants wash over me, without comprehension. I let them happen to me, my intellect having been defeated. Slowly, over months and years, the meanings of these ancient teachings have been revealed…or continue to lie waiting for the right moment when I am ready to receive their wisdom.
I became a regular participant in the activities of the sangha. The teachings were like water for my thirsty soul. I drank and drank. I also fought constantly with the practice and the teachings. My pride and fear and anger, my drive and my resistance to letting go of my ego were ever-present, especially when I sat on the cushion. It has taken me many years to settle down those persistent, aroused energies. Suzuki Roshi said, “Eventually, clear mind will come.” He was right. It did. It comes and goes. Nothing stays the same.
At home, my husband wanted to hear in detail about what was taught each Sunday. It would always spark a deep conversation between us. I so wished he would come with me to sit, his own pain was tearing him up. But he stayed separate for a long time. When he did begin to come to sangha, I was overjoyed, both for him and for me. With the help of the practice, and our teacher, I have watched as my husband’s hurt and anger have transformed. And, I cannot imagine a luckier person than I, having both a spiritual teacher and a partner who is now fully committed to this path. The intimacy we have worked so hard to achieve in our marriage has found its pinnacle in this spiritual intimacy, where both our closeness and our boundaries with each other are serving us to learn, grow, struggle, be supported and have our own autonomous experiences. I am so very grateful for what we have separately and together been given. In the beginning of “37 Practices of a Bodhisattva” (http://unfetteredmind.org/37-practices-of-a-bodhisattva/, accessed 11/18/2017) it is written, “Right now, you have a good boat, fully equipped and available — hard to find. To free others and you from the sea of samsara, day and night, fully alert and present, study, reflect, and meditate — this is the practice of a bodhisattva.” YES, I have a very good boat.
During one period in the life of the sangha, sangha members were invited to give the Sunday dharma talk. One Sunday it became my task to give the talk, for which I prepared a detailed outline of my remarks. When I finished, my teacher gave me a further assignment: to come back the next week and speak without any preparation. I was completely terrified. I had often taught in other contexts, but never without hours of preparation and copious notes. That dharma talk, where I had almost nothing to say, and had to sit while my fellow sangha members waited patiently in the silence, was a profound teaching for me. I learned how much I work to take care of everyone’s experience, to make sure others are entertained and impressed at the expense of the truth as it comes through me in the moment. For how authentic can one be when all the preparation took place in the past? I learned the absolute power of what can happen when an audience and a teacher and a subject come together uniquely in the moment, and an experience is created out of that moment. Since then, I have found this way of teaching to be a compelling alternative. To show up NOW, to teach what one knows NOW, to invite the wisdom of this moment to come through one NOW, not from one’s storehouse of dusty ideas.
That is one example of how the delusion of striving for excellence has stunted my spirit and shaped my ego. Here is another: For 4 years now, I have been working to create my personal artistic expression of the Wheel of Suffering, an ancient Buddhist mandala, packed with teachings if one is willing to put in the work so that the ancient images come to life in the present. Working with each individual image, I have learned first-hand about the spiritual unfolding of something from nothing that we call the creative process. I have learned to wait, with faith, knowing that an idea or an image, truth, will emerge. Tolerating the void and staying in awareness allows the channels of my being open to an idea arising out of emptiness, into consciousness. Through applying this process to the Wheel mandala, I have learned so much about my own habits of mind. Now, the images I have created are like mile markers, reminding me when I am suffering of how I create this conditioned pain, how I choose to go down those old paths once again.
As I deepened into my Wheel project, I noticed that each time I worked with the images, I would leave feeling giddy with excitement about what I had created, and thrilled to present the project to my sangha. I raced to complete enough of the images that it could be ready for a “showing.” My teacher caught on. She forbade me to present my Wheel project. I was furious and hurt. All my drive toward having my excellence finally seen…dashed on the rocks of continued obscurity. It was a painful period, but eventually, I saw clearly the wisdom in her instruction. I admitted defeat. It became a time of concentrated investigation into my addiction to fame and glory, and continued through the process of eventually presenting my Wheel to the sangha. My teacher was with me every step of the way, guiding me through my own addictive process, protecting me from too much, assisting me to investigate the deep, deep fear and hate and greed that drives the striving.
Another arena of spiritual struggle and learning for me has been my tendency to approach challenges from a psychological perspective. I continued to work professionally with survivors of trauma, offering them the skills of recognizing, accepting, investigating and disidentifying from their own habits, conditioned as they were by overwhelming and traumatic life experiences. It has taken me a long time to see in myself, and I can still be blindsided by, my habit of investigating some painful emotional knot inside me using a psychological paradigm, which originates from the agenda of making the egoic self happy and functional in the material world. This is not a bad thing; however, it is not spiritual work. I had to unlearn (I am still unlearning) my tendency to fix, to clean up my “act.” I am still learning how NOT to make my spiritual work into a self-improvement project.
In Zen as it has been taught to me, little direct instruction is given by the teacher to the student. Each of us is called to find her/his own way to practice. The teacher can point out when one is off the mark. The rest is up to the student. What is more, the spiritual teacher-student relationship is not based in a need for the student to feel loved by the teacher, as is usually the case in psychotherapy. There is not a dependence on either one of the partners to the relationship being kind or gentle or protective. Just the truth matters. This truth, and the devotion of both parties to the truth, does create a relationship of deep devotion for each person to the other, teacher and student. But the devotion is not based in needing the other person to like you or pay you.
As a student of Zen, I was experiencing all of these differences between my professional world and my spiritual world. I found it very difficult to see the differences, to accept them, and to let go of my identification as a psychotherapist. And, at the same time, I found I had less interest in the work of psychotherapy every year. I began to work fewer hours and see fewer clients. I stopped taking notes on each client session, something I had enthusiastically and faithfully done always. My favorite clients were the ones who identified as spiritual seekers, to whom I could offer counsel that was a hybrid of psychotherapy and spiritual guidance. I yearned to have more time for spiritual practice, to remove the psychological threads from the spiritual fabric I wove.
My teacher announced to the sangha that she had been given permission from the Chan hierarchy to create a contemplative order, and was authorized to ordain monks in this new order. My heart leapt. THIS is what I wanted for my life. This is what was important. My Wheel card depiction of the Human Realm kept coming back to me—the girl with the seeking eyes, the girl who KNOWS, buried under layers and layers of the stuff that distracts me and diverts my best energies away from that which truly matters.
My partner was approaching age 65, and was moving toward retirement. We knew there was a way we could financially swing it so that I could retire also. My ego fought this possibility with great determination. The fear of being a nobody in the eyes of my family, my colleagues, the fear of leaving my clients to pursue a spiritual life was so intense. I struggled and contemplated and struggled more and spoke often with my teacher. I wrestled with it. And, eventually I saw very clearly that what I truly wanted, underneath all the identification with being a therapist was to be done with it, to move with trust and faith toward a greater commitment to a spiritual practice path. I wanted to be an ordinary person who was also a monk. The clarity I felt was fleeting but stark. It was followed by long periods of anxiety and doubt, but the clarity remained as a vivid memory to guide me through the long painful process of shutting down my practice.
SIXTIES: On the weekend of my sixtieth birthday, we downsized into a studio apartment. I had closed my therapy practice two months prior. We were free.
That next winter, holed up in the warm studio apartment we call “the cave,” I knit a sweater and made a red felt Yama for my Wheel mandala in between bouts of acute neck pain and headaches. There were weeks when I spent most days on the couch, unable to move much. Finally, it occurred to me that this pain could be part of my spiritual work. I made flash cards from an excellent article my teacher gave me on how meditators can work with illness. I proceeded to practice with building an internal holding environment that could remain grounded and present to all the fear and hurt. The more I could do this, the more the painful, constricted energy began to move. When I could meet the pain from a stance that was calm and accepting, that constricted energy could let go. I felt many emotions come pouring out of my body, old held emotions that I did not know were in me. Over several months, I let go of many old holdings. And, I learned at a deeper level what it means to be empty. No wanting, no knowing, no meaning, no labels. No matter how painful. It was the power of something greater than myself, living within me.
For two years after I retired, I grappled with fear and doubt about the decision. I meditated more, I participated more in the life of the sangha, my spiritual life deepened but I could not shake a persistent feeling of anxious dread at being without the professional identity with which my personal sense of power and prestige was linked. It took a long time to calm this down. And in the meantime, despite my initial enthusiasm for being a monk, I hesitated to take it on. It was enough to have ended my professional life. I needed time to lick the wounds and regroup.
During this time, the Single Thread sangha died a slow, gentle, natural death. I felt great sorrow, and for a while, resisted the death with my own frantic attempts to keep things going. But, the maxim is true: Loss is a much better spiritual teacher than gain. I am very grateful for all I learned as the sangha went away. It lives on in my heart, as great love for a series of fleeting experiences that, at the time, seemed like something solid and dependable. For a moment in time, this wonderful space for practice flourished in the material world. “All that I serve will die, all my delights” (Wendell Berry, “The Wish to be Generous” http://www.rjgeib.com/biography/places/mgeib/generous.html, accessed 11/18/2017). I also learned that when I take refuge in Sangha, it is not a physical space in which I take refuge. It CAN’T be, the physical realm is transient. The sangha in which I take refuge lives with Buddha and dharma in the realm of the truths we hold as true for all time: that beings can, and are, awakening. We take refuge in Sangha as an expression of that awakening potential of all beings.
We had purchased a tiny home on wheels in Wisconsin soon after our retirement. Towed it to a ridge-top meadow on the farm owned by dear friends who had been our neighbors in Chicago. Their farm is a 15-minute drive from my grandfather’s farm, where I had played as a child, and learned to love the natural world. After 30 years of living in the city, now we had 6 bird feeders outside our windows, views of the sunrise and the sunset every day, meadow grasses, wildflowers and oak trees both ancient and sapling-stage to watch as they made their rounds of the life cycle through the seasons. Not having a physical sangha to tend to and attend, we began to spend weeks, months at a time at the tiny house with the natural world around us as our teacher and friend.
At Easter last spring, I found myself alone in my house for 5 days, and proceeded to organize the time into a solitary spiritual retreat. For the preceding year I had been pursuing an understanding of Buddhist concepts of death, karma and rebirth. My teacher had been increasingly focused on the idea of eternity, of the Absolute, of God as motivating her own spiritual work. It was news to me that God could be part of a Buddhist spiritual paradigm, but over time I had opened to the possibility that an Absolute presence was part of the Buddhist bargain. Yet, since my ‘break-up” with God at age 13, I had held to the belief that there was no heaven, no hell, no afterlife. I was investigating where the truth lay between these discordant assertions.
I first learned that the Buddha described the truth beyond impermanence as “unborn, undying and uncreated” from Kennett Roshi. I saw that a series of her talks, entitled “The Delusion of Illness and Death,” were available online, so I decided to make this part of my Easter retreat. The first of these talks hit me right between the eyes. In it, Kennett Roshi states with great clarity and confidence, “YOU WILL CONTINUE.” (“The Delusion of Illness and Death,” Rev. Master Jiyu Kennett, Talk 1, Part 1, https://shastaabbey.org/houn-jiyu-kennett/, accessed 11/18/2017). She describes her own near-death experience, and also the works of others who have studied near-death experiences. Over the next two days, I came to the full realization that We Sit in Eternity. Eternity, of which we are all part, is merciful, grace-filled. I felt fully the truth of this, I KNEW it to be true. So much fear fell away. I felt waves of relief and joy, waves of letting go as I surrendered to being cared for…eternally. It was a safety I had never known could exist.
A 4-day Vipassana retreat in Madison, one month later, featured Ayya Mehanandi as guest teacher. She is……radiant, funny, incredibly strong, vulnerable, human, and a great teacher of the dharma. Being in her presence, I knew I was ready to turn toward the work of becoming a monk.
Author: Getsu San Ku Shin, A monk in training.
Image credit: yao xiang shakya
If for some reason you need elucidation on the teaching, please contact the editor at: email@example.com
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.
The Zen Buddhist Order of Hsu Yun: Zen and The Martial Arts isn’t a blog. A problem that could use some Zen elucidation will get the needed attention. Contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Remember, the Path’s two important rules: Begin and Continue. Print This Page
In a traditional Chinese monastery, a ChanQi (retreat) is a very big event that is known long in advance and may attract many practitioners from all over, relative to the reputation of the monastery and its leading master. The rules may vary and adapt to a special practice or another.
You see, a week of Chan practice isn’t exactly prepared as a week of Buddha Name chanting or Sutra Recitation. But what the priest or master leading the retreat is waiting from every single participant is
a total dedication to the practice for the time of the practice. A Retreat is not something you do to attend as social meeting or like we would do at a nice workshop… a retreat is a personal vow. A vow of utmost sincerity and dedication.
We are a reformed Chan/Zen Order, a sino-american Chan/Zen Order founded by Chan Master JydIn Shakya and Zen Teacher MingZhen Shakya. We adapt our practice to our own contexts. But at the root of our practice lies that same spirit of utmost sincerity and dedication to the practice. At the center of the practice is a vow.
A retreat is meeting a personal vow. it is a time for strong dedication to unveil our True Nature. A time to only cultivate a Chan/Zen Mind and act with utmost sincerity… a totality. A time of no separation.
Traditionally, a ChanQi is lead by three priests at least: a teaching priest, a JiaoYuan/Shusso (responsible for the monks attending the retreat) and a ritual/ceremony priest. Needless to say that in most of our Western retreats these roles are reduced to what is most needed functions. it is also done for seven days in a row. Nowadays, the name ChanQi or Sesshin or retreat is given at all most any length of intensive practice even half days of practice.
What is important is just that ‘intensive’ side of the practice. Make the vow to give your total body and Mind to the practice and to unveil your Buddha Nature. It is the place and time for it. It is a time and place to be intense.
You see, the base of our practice is the daily practice of establishing a solid foundation through daily liturgy and meditation, through discipline and studying. It could be called the Calm side of the practice. A practice of harmonising with our reality of householders.
But we also may need at certain times in our spiritual life, a chance to experience a time and place to develop more intensity, more dedication. That is what a retreat is good for. Again, it is something you vow to give yourself to, because you need it in your spiritual journey. A good thing would be to ask your Zen teacher or Zen Priest before thinking about engaging in one.
Bear also in mind that this intense practice can be practiced anywhere, in a formal Buddhist setting or in Nature, alone or in a large group. What allows you to accomplish the great vow is what is needed. This is also an essential part of our Linji/Rinzai Zen Heritage: recognizing what is need and then working towards it with utmost dedication and humility! Then, just do it!
See the time of the retreat, in a big Zen monastery, a room in your family summer house, a shed or a tent in any nearby forest park, as the time of the great fire. The time of the great burning of all the small impurities that resist to the daily practice you established. It is the great burning of the self. The Great Burning of the Huatou (jp.Wato). Huatou/Wato means before the word, before even thinking, before form… before difference… it is our True Root, our True Nature.
It is the existential question: Who? In every act, Who? Such a true question doesn’t need our small answers full of words. Our Zen Path is a Path of True Questions… not a Path of giving answers. A single question, taken seriously, intimately could change our entire life and turn our world view upside down. Who?
Some words of general advice for the time of Intensive practice
Be simple, harmonise with what is
Be Humble, know your limits and those of others
Be Sincere, only use what is needed.
Every act is the Way! From the first bell to the last of the day vow to realise your True Nature
Give equal importance to Zen sitting and walking meditation.
Balance indoor and outdoor practice.
Eat little, sleep little.
Allow Yezuo/Yazo (night sitting meditation outdoor or indoor) at will.
Listen/see the teacher once a day ( or read the Master’s teachings).
Constantly, give your Body and Mind to KuanYin (jp.Kannon) Bodhisattva and receive her grace.
A retreat is a time for attention. Sometimes the Linji/Rinzai masters are caricaturized with their sticks, shouting Katsu and give stick blows to their students. The roots of these practices was a calling for attention, here and now, Who? Who is reading this paper?
The Katsu shouting still exists in China today, our late Ming Zhen Shakya used to talk about the few time where she saw and heard master WeiYin Shakya shout a loud KAT! As she used to say, the literal sense of ‘kat’ was ‘attention’ in English. But the master seemed to use it in a way she understood as ‘cut all things’. That is what she heard when the master shouted: CUT!
So, remember that the retreat is precisely this, a time and place to manifest Who?
A time and place to manifest, in our actions, our existential VOW to CUT all roots of suffering!
Karma Yoga: The Active Practice of ZenBy Ming Zhen Shakya
Revised, Remixed, Edited by Lao Di Zhi Shakya, 2017
Our Zen program is not separate from our work. We do not have to postpone or forfeit an activity to go and sit on a cushion or whirl in dance or pore over scriptures in order to practice Zen.
Karma Yoga is the discipline that will deliver the practitioner in the midst of the activities of living.
A very strong promise, but let’s be clear about this at the outset: of all the Yoga forms, Karma Yoga is the most difficult to attain. To some of us, it comes as talent comes… we acquire the ability without any effort at all and without being sure of exactly how we came to do what we do. We are Zen’s “idiot savants.” (I happily include myself in this group). When people ask us how many hours a day we spend practicing Zen, we get a glazed look in our eyes and stand there wondering what the correct answer is. As we stare into dusky space waiting for a light bulb to go on, the question may be clarified: “How many hours a day do you put on your cushion meditating?” Then we are relieved and joyfully answer, “None!” Who has time to sit on a cushion? And where did anybody get the idea that sitting on a cushion was a Zen prerequisite? Zen means meditation and meditation does not require a cushion. But let’s leave this subject for another essay.
The Orient has given us eleven unique methods for apprehending the divine. These eleven yoga forms may be divided into two groups: those which emphasize using the mind and those which emphasize using the body. Naturally, there is always a degree of technique-blending and so the operative word here is emphasis.
With dangerous brevity, I’ll get ready to duck and list these eleven schools: The six “body” schools are: The Islamic Persian Sufi (dance); The Hatha Yoga (asanas); The Bhakti School of Devotional Practice (ritualized worship); The Laya School of Kundalini Yoga (chakra control); The Mantra School (chanting); The Mahayana Daoist/Buddhist Northern Zen School (rigid posture zazen). The five “mind” schools are Raja Yoga (ethics/meditation); Jnana Yoga (scripture study); Karma Yoga (non-attachment); the Theravadin Buddhist School (renunciation); and the Mahayana Daoist/Buddhist Southern School Zen (engaged meditation).
All of these schools have common elements, such as breath control and certain control exercises for mind and body. All of these schools require knowledge of at least a few scriptures and commentaries. None of these yogas is superior to any other, and each has its own perils.
Considering how much time we spend working and doing, it becomes proportionately valuable to possess the great contentment that Karma Yoga provides; but we must be careful not to make a less than comprehensive attempt. Not only is Karma Yoga the most difficult to attain, but the penalty for back-sliding is, of all the yogas, the most painful to bear.
If we back-slide in our Sufi practice, we risk getting dizzy when we resume whirling. If we neglect our Hatha Yoga routine, we may be a little stiff when we start stretching again. But if we interrupt our Karma Yoga practice, we may find that even in a brief space of neglect, we can create conflicts that will follow us into the Bardo. Resuming a Karma Yoga practice after a single day’s interruption is usually not so easy as resuming a chanting practice after years of silence.
A Closer Look
One day Majnun, whose love for Laila inspired many a Persian poet, was playing in a little sand heap, when a friend came to him and said: “Why are you wasting your time in an occupation so childish?”
‘I am seeking Laila in these sands,’ replied Majnun.
His friend in amazement cried: ‘Why? Laila is an angel, so what is the use of seeking her in the common earth?’ ‘I seek her everywhere,’ said Majnun, bowing his head, ‘that I may find her somewhere.’ – CXXXVIII, The Wisdom of the Sufis, compiled by Kenneth Cragg
Karma Yoga is unlike any other yoga because it is not done separately from any other activity; and it is not done, as is japa ( repetition of a mantra), as a background for any other activity. It is the activity, itself.
In Karma Yoga, we do some bit of work… wash the floor… type a page… fill in forms…wash the dishes….grocery shop….. with an ulterior motive. We are seeking something that has nothing to do with what we are doing, yet is the reason for everything we do. Majnun was not playing with sand to amuse himself or handling it in order to build something. He was seeking Laila. He was trying to find the divine in the material.
In the Karma Yoga view, a problem arises when we think that we can categorize our activities as being sacred or profane, that we can then, after separating them, apply different standards to our performance, that we can say, “This is what we are working for, the end result” and “This is the means by which we can attain that end.” It is as if someone says that he believes that God is omnipresent and omniscient yet is slovenly and greedy in his workplace but attends his church spotlessly attired and purposefully generous. In fact, he has no creed at all. When we believe in the One, the Indivisible, we cannot conveniently cut out sections, exempting these parts from consideration of the Whole.
Our Buddha Self is omniscient because, being inside us it is privy to our every thought and deed; and it is omnipresent, because where we are it is.
Zen is a religion. It has a supreme being, a whole spiritual matrix from which methodologies merely arise or associate themselves. Zen may seem to be only a ‘way of life’ because, as in any religious system, it prescribes an ethical regimen which is designed to help us get along in the world. But beneath the ethics is a belief-system. A very natural superstructure of deportment rises from the supernatural substructure, the foundation of Divinity. When we speak of our Holy Bodhisattvas, our Lordly Buddhas, our splendid, young Maitreya we speak of such divinity, and we see all our activity as service to those who reveal themselves in the mystical adventure, the divine drama that is enacted in Zen’s Trinitarian Ground.
Karma Zen is difficult to begin because we not only have to unlearn old, ingrained or automatic ways of doing the most ordinary things, but we require a fundamental and immediate change in attitude, one that is predicated on faith. Any kind of yoga can cause a change in attitude, a revalorization of the people, places and things of our environment, the period of change slowly proceeding from isolated Zen exercises to the gradual infiltration of Zen’s ‘way of life’ into our personality. We become Zen men. But Karma Zen begins with its finished product in evidence. It has to be practiced without any reassuring progression of trial and proof.
In the beginning, it is as if we are two people, a drowning man and an observer who wants to save him. If the helper is not a strong swimmer possessed with life-saving skills, they will both likely drown. This is no yoga for the weak-willed or emotional soul.
Before attempting to secure union with the divine, we need to believe (have confidence from a glimpse) in the existence of the divine. Then, we conform practice to belief. There are not many rules, but the few are hard to follow.
It should go without saying that anyone who attempts Karma Yoga is already familiar with the Eightfold Path and the Seven Deadly Sins. Saint Gregory outlined the Seven Sins back in A.D. 600, and they are still a valuable checklist for gauging our daily activities. Every form of yoga requires that we adhere to a code of behavior that avoids pride, anger, lust, sloth, gluttony, jealousy, and greed.
What, then, is the method for attaining union? Union is Samadhi; but the progression is Concentration, Meditation and then Samadhi. So we begin with concentration. First there is focus: attention. Yes, it’s the old mondo. The novice asks, “How can I achieve Zen?” “Attention,” says the master. “What do you mean, ‘Attention’?” replies the novice. “Attention! Attention!,” shouts the master, “Attention means attention!”
Before we can attain the concentrated state, we need to be constantly aware, that is to say, on guard, against anything that might interfere with our ability to concentrate.
Emotion is the greatest obstacle to concentration. When we are excited or angry, i.e., when we are projecting archetypes, our responses are “gut-level” – not rational, and this translates as distraction. It is for this reason that surgeons don’t operate on their own children: their emotional involvement might compromise their scientific judgment. Since the best way to deal with a problem is to avoid it, we don’t fall into emotional traps.
Right Speech is the step on the Path in which we most easily falter. (For more details about Right Speech violations, consult Chapter 13 of The Seventh World of Chan Buddhism on this website.)
To the beginner of a Karma Yoga regimen, no opinions (except for those that are directly job-related) may be requested or given.
What is the real reason we offer opinions or seek them?
When we initiate the subject, it’s easy to trace our motives. Perhaps we are on a little egotistical foray, introducing a topic in which we feel particularly competent so as to demonstrate our superiority; or we’re filling air-space with static drivel; or , less nobly, we’re trying to expose someone else’s ignorance. Especially when we’re in Karma Yoga training, the moment we feel the impulse to state or to ask for an opinion, we quash it.
When we’re asked for our opinion, a bit more in the way of discipline is required.
People often act as if each of us is obliged to have an opinion on every subject known to man. We are so pressured to produce an opinion that if we don’t already have one in our philosophical storehouse, we immediately manufacture one. In Karma Yoga ‘to opine’ is to invite disaster.
Yes, as we would invite a krait into our sleeping bag, we should welcome opinions into our realm of consciousness. Since none of us wants to share a bed with a venomous snake – present company excepted, all of us should avoid giving or asking for opinions.
Often, the request for an opinion masquerades as a request for information. But seldom does the quest for knowledge occasion the request. An example may help to clarify this. Recently I was asked if I thought that my state should enact legislation that would permit Gay and Lesbian marriages. The woman who asked me had cloaked her question in the innocuousness of inquiry, as if she were seeking information, but it was hardly a secret that she had already taken a stand on the issue. What she was really trying to determine was whether my views (assuming I had any) agreed with hers. If they were consonant, she would put her imprimatur on me and my ministry; and if they were dissonant, she’d make me regret the day I learned to talk. Such was the value she placed upon the power of opinion, hers in particular.
What she was interested in, then, was not my view about Gay and Lesbian marriages as such, but rather whether she could identify me as an ally or an enemy. But I was not obliged to enter the conflict, and I declined to comment. Immediately she attacked my competence as a minister, asking, “How can you be an effective religious leader if you don’t offer guidance to your flock?” I said that I did not consider myself a religious leader and that the people who belonged to our Sangha had not yet expressed a fear of being stampeded over the cliff-edge of the Gay and Lesbian Marriage issue. They did not require a shepherd.
This assertion did not endear me to her and she immediately accused me of not caring what people thought about me. I overlooked the instantaneous multiplication, that this single woman had become society, itself, and tried to explain to her that my religious service requires that I not care what people think about me. I do not do what I do in order to gain love or fame or anything else. My duty is to serve the Dharma, to write about it and to teach it in the way I understand it. Period.
She persisted. She, knowing that I performed marriage ceremonies, vehemently insisted upon knowing whether I would marry a homosexual couple or not[i]. I reminded her of her original question which explicitly acknowledged that it was not legal for homosexuals to marry in our state. In her emotionalism she saw herself as an irresistible force. It remained for me to remain an immovable object. I don’t know how she spent the rest of her day, but I returned to my duty.
Am I qualified to give expert testimony on the subject? No. Am I obliged to abandon my other areas of service to study this issue and to oppose or support someone to whom the question is important? No.
Sometimes the request for an opinion appears to be casual and convivial, but in actuality is not. One person will ask another for his opinion about a movie, a book, or a restaurant and, particularly if the opinion is favorable, will then see the movie, read the book, or eat in the restaurant and be unconsciously prepared to dislike it. All he wants is a recommendation that he can oppose, definitively, as evidence of someone’s incompetence or inferior taste. Some people are so contrary that a certain way to ensure that they will dislike something is to recommend it to them or vice versa.
After abstaining from offering opinions, the Karma Yogi In Training (KYIT) should give some thought to the deeper question of the validity of any samsaric judgment.
It is not enough merely for us to keep our mouth shut and withhold opinions. We have to consider the Karmic aspect of Karma Yoga. Any event is always the result of many factors. An infinity of causes form the karmic net of any moment’s circumstance; and we cannot remove a single knot from that net without affecting the lines that lead to it and from it.
Upon what criteria are opinions based? If we eat at a restaurant and are later asked our opinion of the food, what subjective criteria are involved here? In terms of karmic consideration, not only does the food change from moment to moment, or day to day, but the consumer changes, too. Ultimately, the consumer is describing how he thinks he felt at the time he ate one meal as it was presented at that one, specific time. Perhaps when he entered the restaurant he was not really hungry or perhaps he already had indigestion. Perhaps he was starved and would have eaten tripe and gizzards with gusto. What mood was the reader in when he read the book? What previous books contributed to his appreciation or dislike of it? And movies? A critic may deride a film as being “derivative” – but to someone who is unfamiliar with those productions from which it is derived, it will surely seem original. What value is his opinion? Even restaurant, book and movie critics, whose business it is to render judgments, who may testify in a courtroom as experts, do not always agree on the quality of the object they are reviewing.
It is the ego that sets itself up as the arbiter of taste. As KYIT we cannot allow ourselves to give such free rein to our ego. If we trust the judgment of a certain professional critic, we should consult that expert if we desire advice. We should then see the movie, read the book, taste the food. If it is agreeable, we ought to be grateful. But in any event we ought to try to “accentuate the positive,” to focus on those parts that were enjoyable. Deriding or denigrating anything is usually an exercise in egotism. When someone says, “I don’t know anything about art, I only know what I like,” the subject is then “I” not art.
There is no way to calibrate the sense of freedom that adherence to this Right Speech/No Opinion rule provides. It is exhilarating. Zero opinion means zero misunderstanding and manipulation. Without having to defend ourselves against those very charges that we helped to create, we avoid anger, resentment and embarrassment – all those emotional states that impair our ability to concentrate.
If, then, as Karma-Yogis-In-Training we are asked to give an opinion, we say, “I’m sorry, but I have none to give.” If necessary we explain that we’re involved in a spiritual regimen which prohibits us from rendering opinions. We are nice about it, but we are immovable.
At a work place, when opinions are part of the job, we need to respond responsibly. If asked, for example, “Which story board best conveys the concept?” we formulate a criticism based soundly on knowledge, insight and experience and purge our comments of emotional, personal elements. “This sucks,” is not a critical analysis of a work. “You’re incompetent,” is not an appraisal of a product. We are firm but respectful and confine our opinion to the specific criteria that apply to a work, foregoing the pleasure of psychoanalyzing the other or antagonizing him until he is forced to plot revenge against us.
We are so often tempted to assert ourselves, to rise to the occasion of leadership. We want to emulate our heroes and in this desire we make ourselves vulnerable to the brainless whims of emotion. Catchy pronouncements grab us and toss us into precipitous action. We consider Plato’s sage pronouncement, “The penalty that the wise must pay for failing to lead is that they must be led by inferiors,” and without asking, “Who is wise and who is inferior?” we decide that our course is clear. We see ourselves as leaders, as a Gandhi or a Martin Luther King, and step forward into the limn light. But Gandhi and King were not spiritual trainees. They were not wise because they took a stand; because they were wise they took a stand. Despite the seeming rectitude of a cause, we need to amass some wisdom, not to mention self-discipline, before we consider ourselves wise enough to lead others.
The Karma-Yogi-in-Training also needs to rid himself of the notion that any work can be evaluated according to some scale of importance. In Karma Yoga we cannot assign value to what we do, appreciating it because we consider it significant or noble and disparaging it because we consider it beneath our station, disgraceful, or foolish. If any worker, such as a gardener, lifeguard or CEO is seeking Laila, it does not matter what he appears to be doing. A sales clerk is a sales clerk and it does not matter whether the clerk sells Cadillacs or Hondas. Further, the person who sells cars is no more nor less noble than the person who sells bicycles. The sales clerk (and this is the attitudinal discipline of Karma Yoga) is no more nor less noble than the customer. It takes a firm mind to appreciate that the CEO of a major corporation is no more nor less noble than a janitor in the building over which the CEO presides.
It does not matter how others regard us. They are not involved in a Karma Yoga regimen. What matters is that we discipline ourselves to regard with equal respect all others, that we make no distinctions whatsoever between people. There is a practical aspect to this occupational egalitarianism. By offending no one we eliminate resentment against ourselves; and without having to respond to resentment, we are free to concentrate on what is right before us.
We turn away from worldly pursuits – none of which can deliver spiritual satisfaction, and concentrate on spiritual improvement, spiritual renovation. All of the Seven Deadly Sins[ii] need to be reviewed each day for signs of stress fatigue; all of the steps on the Eightfold Path need to be swept free of debris. But the step that needs most of our labor is the one that is most befouled: Right Speech.
When we remember that in all work we are seeking Laila (the Divine), this is Karma Yoga
To Begin the Karma Yoga Practice
“The true beginning of the spiritual life is the desire to know Sophia (Wisdom, Prajna).
A desire to know Her brings one to love her;
Loving Her enables one to follow Her will;
Following Her will is the sure path to immortality;
And immortality is oneness with God.”
— Solomon, from Two Suns Rising, edited by Jonathan Star
It’s impossible to read an account of any religion’s Karma or action yoga without encountering the most sober and profound tributes to a wisdom goddess. Especially when we consider traditionally masculine religions such as Buddhism, we’re always astonished by the depth of devotion we find in tributes to deified feminine wisdom. We expect scriptures written by men in celebration of manly gods to be virile expressions – strong, aggressive, and self-reliant. But curiously we find that when poetic lines are dedicated to male divinities they are often fluffy stuff, grandiosely written in praise of creation, or maudlin in complaint of affliction, or petulant in a foot-stamping insistence that God should smite some poor souls that the male poets couldn’t quite handle on their own.
But if the literature dedicated to paternal gods seems always to remind the gods of what they could and should do for mankind, the literature dedicated to maternal divinities is quite different. The goddess is seldom asked to act except to impart wisdom or to enable the individual to do for himself those actions which “could and should” be done. Tributes to goddesses are offerings of self.
Always we find that strange and intimate connection between the goddess, the worker, and the work (all work), a sacred collaboration. Homer, preparing to recite the demanding lines of the Iliad, begins his labor, “Sing, Goddess, of the wrath of Achilles, Peleus’s son.” And then he lets the Goddess sing through him during the course of his long and arduous recitation.
Goethe, in the terminal lines of Faust, cries out, “Virgin, Mother, Queen! Goddess on thy throne! …the Eternal Feminine lures to perfection.” Goethe’s perfection.
What is it then that these men see and grasp that so eludes the average man?
ParamaShiva – Great Shiva who is the totality, the One…divides himself into Shiva, pure consciousness, and into Shakti, universal energy; and Shakti is the Great Mother. It is her head’s curly ‘strings’ that radiate through time, itself. She is the power and he, the law that power obeys.
“The man through whom the Dao flows freely…” says the scripture and we instinctively know that this is the complete man, one whose pure yang consciousness has been infused by the radiant Yin. And this complete man is, indeed, an extraordinary individual. Lao Tzu reiterates in verse XX of the Dao de Jing (The Way and its Power),
“The multitude all have a purpose… I alone am different from the others and value being fed by the Mother.” (D.C. Lau’s translation/Penguin Classics.)
Something or someone needs to inspire us, to urge us to take control of our lives, to believe in us and to support us as we struggle to believe in ourselves. We must tap into that latent power if we are to reverse the spiral of discontent.
“Ah,” says the Buddha, “One man may conquer ten thousand men in battle; and another man conquer only himself… but this man is the greater victor.” True, we say. So very true. But how do we accomplish this singular victory?
The Eightfold Path’s way is well known to us. We understand the rules. But from where does the power come to effect the change?
The answer lies in a shift from a passive obedience to external dictates to an active reliance upon this interior force.
Shadrack, cast into the fiery furnace, relies upon God’s saving power to deliver him … or not. An earthly king commands Shadrack to come out of the fire, and he obeys. But from the Lotus Sutra we find a different solution: an acknowledgment of an inherent feminine or androgynous power:
“Were you with murderous intent thrust into a fiery furnace, One thought of Guan Yin’s saving power would turn those flames to water!”
Jonah, caught in the belly of the whale, cries out for help; and an exterior Paternal God considers the appeal and renders a decision: “And the Lord spake unto the fish, and it vomited out Jonah upon the dry land.” (Jonah 2:10) But, again, from the Lotus, we find a different approach:
“Were you adrift upon the sea with dragon-fish and fiends around you, One thought of Guan Yin’s saving power would spare you from the hungry waves.”
Perhaps we relate so readily to a feminine divinity because the model of mercy has been fashioned by our own mothers. We so often see our mother as the intermediary between us and an intransigent father; or perhaps we feel that if we try and fail, no awful Paternal Wrath will come down upon our heads. Men are inclined to fear being judged as harshly as they have judged. A female overseer is bound to be more forgiving.
The word. The name. The visual identification of the archetype. The concentration that invokes the image and the transcendental power. This is what is necessary.
And so we find that Mahayana followers, not content with the mere lines of the Prajna Paramita Canon, that body of scriptures that virtually defines the Mahayana, flesh out those literary bones with the beautiful form of the goddess herself. Buddhists do not merely recite the lines in dusty libraries. They go to Prajnaparamita’s altar, put flowers there, and kneel. As Athena sprang full grown from the brow of Zeus, so Prajnaparamita and the Bodhisattva of Compassion, too, spring into existence as the utterance of sound from the Godhead, Amitabha/Amitayus – Infinite Light, Infinite Time. The divine word has taken on divine and lovely form.
It all seems so very strange. And yet it is there….the artwork that is not merely decorative but functional, those temple sculptures that bear witness to the presence of that divinity which exists within ourselves. Piously we say, “When we bow, we bow to the Buddha within.” Yes, and to the Bodhisattva, too.
What do we do when we have to do something we detest but are compelled by circumstance to continue in it? Providing we can accept the fact of this interior divinity, we apply the techniques of Karma yoga. Naturally, the changes in our attitude and deportment are always beneficial, but if they are only mechanically enacted, cosmetic, they will not be sufficient. They need to be organic. We have to be able to concentrate so thoroughly that we can hold an inner dialog with this personified force, and we have to possess enough faith and trust to obey the wisdom that is imparted to us. This is no place for superficial Zen men. This is a place for believers, for devotees.
Majnun sought Laila as a devotee of Laila. His labor was of no particular consequence except as it provided him with the means to realize her. This realization and the indescribable peace, joy, truth and freedom it brings, this transcendental experience of sheer bliss and liberation was what he sought. For this, he sacrificed his labor.
Karma or action union requires the adoration of the Eternal or Mysterious Feminine: as Shakti, or the Holy Mother, or the merciful Guan Yin; as Tara, Sophia, or Prajnaparamita. The devotee dedicates his labor to the divinity of Mater, the uterine material. The Shakti within Shiva.
First we have to accept responsibility for our problems and start with what we have and where we are. We may not cast blame upon others, for this prolongs the distress by focussing our attention outwards. Just as the source of correction lies within ourselves, so the responsibility for that which requires correction must be seen to lie within ourselves. Pride and Anger guard the gates of heaven against us; and for so long as we suppose that others are to blame for our troubles, and not we or our reactions to the problems caused by others, we will get nowhere.
It is not always boredom or discontent that moves us to action. Often it is disgust, creeping or sudden, that impels us to change:
After years of working, a man achieves success in his career and an enviable domestic life: wife, kids, house, cars, dog. Success confers a lordly status upon his ego and lets him believe that he has earned the right to be free of conventional restraints. “…where there are no bonds, where there is the madness of license, the soul ceases to be free,” says Tagore. “There is its hurt; there is its separation from the infinite, its agony of sin.”
And so the man, indulging himself in worthless pleasures or in the illusions of his own importance, neglects what he should have guarded. He loses his family and cries, “Another man now sleeps with my woman, plays with my kids, mows my lawn, and tosses a Frisbee to my dog. My lifetime of sweat has given this man the good life while I have nothing to show but a leased car, an efficiency apartment, and a bunch of canceled support checks.” Sniff. Sniff. He no longer sees the point of working at all.
An educated young career woman stifles future growth by an obsession with gross materiality – the wardrobe, the hairdo, the vehicle, the residence. She works to pay the expenses of working, competing with associates for such spurious sigils of achievement. The process of decadence sets in: more and more is required to achieve less and less. And as that “more” consumes her energy, that “less” is evident in her failure to keep informed, qualified and competitive in her career. She, too, is trapped by her own self-indulgent priorities.
But if there comes to these two people a moment of clarity, a single moment in which they see their error and decide to revalorize the people, places and things of their lives, they are in an ascendant mode and have begun to reverse the spiral.
The first rule of karma yoga requires us to simplify our lives and to understand that our material existence is always of secondary consideration.
Laila, for example, as did Layman Pang and his daughter and so many other saints and holy persons, showed complete humility, a poverty of material goods. Laila would have told the young career woman to remove the warpaint and fashionable dress and to array herself in less ostentatious attire, using the time and energy thus saved to pursue things of real value. (Laila, in fact, used the metaphor of nakedness. “I cover myself with only one long plain shawl which goes up the left side of me, around my neck, and down the right side, equally;” she said, “and every day when someone complains about my dress, I put a knot in the right panel, and when someone compliments me about my dress, I put a knot in the left panel. Then, at the end of the day, I weigh both sides. They always weigh the same.”)
It might be helpful to appreciate that often the changes we seek to effect in our lives are so drastic that we inhibit our ability to perform them because we fail to identify ourselves as trainees. People, baffled by our new attitude, tend to react negatively towards us until they become aware that we’re seeking spiritual goals. We encourage their acceptance of our unaccustomed behavior by wearing quasi-clerical garb: subdued garments and a bracelet of wooden beads usually suffice.
As to the necessary internal image of divinity, curiously, once a sincere commitment is made to follow the Karma Yoga path, an initial dream or vision of a wisdom goddess is often experienced. This peculiar initial dream often occurs when people begin psychoanalysis or other emotional therapy. In the absence of a visionary encounter, we can browse the shops for statues or medallions, remaining passive in our gaze and never… never letting our ego tell us that something is too cheap or too gaudy or anything else. No judgment may be rendered as regards the effect the item will have on those around us. This must be a purely personal selection, one that cannot be accomplished if we even begin to consider public appreciation of it.
Once we have an image, and again it does not matter whether the image is of Guan Yin, Parvati, Mary, Sophia, the White Buffalo Spirit, or even of ancient Egyptian and Grecian goddesses, we concentrate fiercely on it. This can be done in bed or during a break between tasks or even sitting on a meditation cushion. The important aspect of this is the decision to concentrate on this interior image and not to let our attention indulge itself in frivolous, ‘time-filling’ distractions. (The depth of concentration required is such, however, that we should not attempt it while driving.)
We scan our mind, probing this inner resource of strength until we touch the font, the stream, the current of force. It is a strange but compelling feeling, one that will seem uncomfortable at first; but when the novelty wears off, it becomes delightful. In fact, we run a danger of enjoying it so much that we become smugly independent and hold ourselves aloof from ordinary men. A few days worth of euphoria is quite enough.
The desired result is to relax and let the Dao flow freely; and if the morning freeway traffic does not flow so well, we will not much care about cars or clocks. And there, clasping the wheel, we might chant the Bodhisattva’s name, recite her Dharani, and greet the day joyfully while others around us snarl into their cell-phones and suck on their cigarettes, breathing so much sound and fury.
But if we begin at our daily activity placid and self-assured, in disposition gentle, how do we respond to the aggression we encounter by others that comes our way: the unreasonable request; the contemptuous remark; the venomous sneer; the hurtful snub; the unjust accusation; the theft of our ideas or parking space?
We freeze our reaction.
This does not say that we count to ten and stall our anger. Such an insignificant pause is too often a prelude to submission, a planting of contempt down into our psyche’s earth, that Muladhrara chakra, the bowels of earthly reaction. The anger will grow there and if we don’t know that by now, we’re beyond those numerical “count to ten” nostrums.
Neither do we allow ourselves to vent our anger and denounce the person who has troubled us. Instead we hold our anger “in our throat,” in accordance with the dictates of our interior Bodhisattva. Her voice will speak to us in firm but gentle tone, reasoning, and urging us to reason: “The more importance you give an insult, the greater must your response be. Weigh this insult, and consider its source, its cause and its effect, and then consider the source, the cause and the effects of your own response.” Uh, oh. Now we have to think.
Always, we are confronted with this choice: Swallow our venomous anger; spit it out; or hold it in our throat. If we engage our mind and consider the various aspects of action and reaction to the anger, the anger will simply descend to the throat. This kind of holding confers immunity to the venom; and every religion accounts for this harmless consequence. In Eastern religions it is either Shiva or Avalokitesvara who is addressed as “Nilakantha” (the Blue Necked One), blue-necked because in loving defense of us, he or she takes the poisons of the world into himself and holds them there harmlessly in the Vishuddha region, the region of speech. It is for this reason that the Vishuddha chakra is violet in color.
Likewise every Mahayana Buddhist sings the great Dharani to Guan Yin .. the more famous Japanese version, Dai Hi Shin Dharani, begins “Namu kara tan no tora ya ya:” the original Sanskrit of which is, “Namo Ratna Trayaya” (Hail to the Triple Treasure.) The third sentence in that Dharani says, “Having adored him, may I enter into the heart of the blue-necked one known as the noble, adorable Avalokitesvara!”- who is more famous in his androgynous, feminine form, Guan Yin.
Says the Lotus Sutra, “Had you imbibed some fatal draught and lay now at the point of death, One thought of Guan Yin’s saving power would nullify its poison.”
We decide then to postpone making a decision, to set a statute of limitations on the process, to check our watch and note the time and then to give ourselves, depending on the severity of the insult or injury, twenty-four or forty-eight hours to let the yin and yang forces rebalance themselves, and to allow ourselves the time to give the miscreant back his humanity. And then, when we are in full command of our resources… calm, and cool, and with our brain in gear, we move to address the injustice or the action that inspired it. (Cold blood is ever so much more efficient than the hot variety. When inflated and heated by indignation, brainless, air-headed anger, vented verbally or in some precipitiously written letter, has a way of making us step off our own self-constructed cliffs without benefit of parachute.)
We elevate and channel the indignation until it is tempered by thought. Lower energy centers (the Svadhisthana and Muladhara) are unconscious centers. Assuming we don’t bark angrily – the usually disastrous fire response, whenever we allow our responses to environmental situations to remain down in these areas, we unconsciously resort to schadenfreude or passive-aggressive tactics – secret feelings of satisfaction at the distress of others or subtle sabotage and “unintentional” errors. The emotion must be raised. In the rear of the brain is the moon center, the light which tempers yin feelings. In the front of the brain is the sun center, the light which tempers yang determinations. Physical kriyas, chakra or Microcosmic Orbit meditations, help to accomplish the raising of these gut-level responses to the light of conscious consideration. (A complete regimen will soon be offered by Yin Zhao Shakya on our ZBOHY website.)
We remember Hsu Yun’s favorite expression, “Let it be…” and like the woman who attained the Holy Fruit by keeping this thought firmly in her mind, we hold the venom in our throat – neither swallowing it nor spitting it out – but storing it temporarily, giving ourselves the time to react constructively and to convert the venom to medicinal purpose. We say only, “Let it be. Let it be…” The effect is stunning.
The voice inside us steadies us. “Don’t go down that road again. You know every stone in it. You’ve stumbled over them all. Stay here with me. Hold your ground. Neither advance nor retreat. Wait. Be patient. Let it be.”
As we become more entrained to the goddess’ voice, establishing a dialogue, it is as if we automatically hear her cautioning us to remain humble and not to let our piety carry us into haughty realms. The advice may sometimes sound a bit cynical, but it is usually ennobling and always practical. If we are singled out for praise, the voice says, “Refuse to accept the credit for yourself for in doing so you cause anger and resentment to rise in the hearts of others. Do not be the occasion of such injury to them.”
Then the voice continues, “Be the occasion of good feelings. Demonstrate that in my name you have cultivated a generous spirit.”
And so, as reluctant as we are to accept praise, that quickly do we advance to accept responsibility for anything that goes wrong. That little voice inside us will tell us to apologize immediately for error, and when we do, we’re often astonished to see how quickly we ennoble others.
The idea of conducting a dialogue with an interior, archetypal presence is fundamental to the spiritual experience. We tend not to take this possibility seriously, however, because we so often hear accounts of conversations with deities in which the mortal speaker is instructed to make money or board a comet trailing spaceship. At other times we regard it as a fictional device, as Virgil to Dante. But Carl Jung, who in his fruitful correspondence with D.T.Suzuki helped to formulate the structure and dynamics of Zen psychology, writes eloquently of his own interior dialogues with an archetype he named Philemon. “Psychologically,” writes Jung in his autobiography, Memories, Dreams and Reflections, “Philemon represented superior insight. He was a mysterious figure to me. At times he seemed to me quite real, as if he were a living personality. I went walking up and down the garden with him, and to me he was what the Indians call a guru.” Jung relates a conversation he had with a “highly cultivated” friend of Gandhi’s who spoke reverently of his own guru with whom he had a gratifying teacher/student relationship. The guru was revealed to be none other than Shankaracharya, the 9th Century commentator of the Vedas who is credited with founding the Vedanta movement. Jung, remembering his own dialogues with his own wise, interior guru found the information both illuminating and, especially since Shankara had been dead for centuries, quite “reassuring.”
We should not doubt the possibility of generating an abiding relationship with a wisdom Goddess; but we should also not suppose that this is something that is easy to accomplish. It requires a clear, unemotional mind and an intense ability to concentrate and, of course, an intense desire to achieve it.
Karma Yoga does not encourage positional stagnation. We should be ambitious and desire to advance in our lives. Ambition is not the problem, it is how we implement desire, the ethical or unethical, the selfless or selfish means by which we strive to advance.
Finally, if we consult with our interior Guide, we’ll hear the sobering words, “Do not desire money and power in order to make yourself desirable, for then, to your horror, you will discover that you are desired only for your money and power. Succeed, but retain your humility by surrendering the fruits of your labor to me while regarding the success of your labor as praise of the Lord.”
This, of course, is the essence of Karma Yoga: striving for excellence but detaching ourselves from the results. It is as if we work as anonymous volunteers. If the project succeeds, we’re glad to have helped. If it fails, we know we’ve done our best. If we eliminate ourselves from consideration of the results, from gain or loss, we then eliminate our ego, and no value attaches to praise or blame. We are free and need not grovel for compliments or cower from criticism. And when we speak to the divinity within ourselves, saying, “This is all that I have to give, it is not much, but I will do it as best I can and I will do it for you,” we are set free from the bitterness and pain of Samsara and get at least a foot in Nirvana’s door.
In Karma Yoga, ALL work is a form of prayer. As such it is important that we understand the kind of attention that is required. Just as prayer said by rote – the mind absent because the thought is elsewhere – is meaningless recitation and not prayer at all, so work or activity done while the attention is focused on music or in daydreams or in some hypnotic blur is not Karma Yoga.
Attention means complete awareness, absorption in the task, but not becoming entranced by it.
Non-hypnotic absorption, full and alert concentration, elevates consciousness into exalted spiritual realms. There is intense, total focus upon the work, the sustained elation of worthy purpose; and, as if we fully intended anonymously to donate the work to some charitable enterprise, i.e.., to detach ourselves from the results of it, we proceed, immersed in the work. When the task is finished, we release it. No longer part of us, it is gone; and no pride or shame attaches us to it. We have put it into a Goddess’ hands, and we pray only that it is worthy to be there.
Baba Ram Dass who in his secular life was Richard Alpert, a former Harvard professor, used to tell the story about a lecture on spiritual transcendence he once gave to an audience of mostly academic types – learned men and women from such disciplines as psychology, theology, and philosophy. Encouraged by this array of intellectuals, Ram Dass, in clear but sophisticated language, began his exposition.
Sitting conspicuously in the front row was a grandmotherly lady; and whenever Ram Dass made a point that should have provoked an affirmative response from his audience, this lady and only this lady immediately nodded. When he resorted to sly, “insider’s’ wit, this lady and only this lady laughed. Clearly, she was the only one in the audience who understood what he was talking about. At the end of the lecture he came down from the podium and questioned her.
“Are you a teacher?” he asked.
“No. No,” she replied.
“How is that you understand this subject so thoroughly,” he asked. “What do you do?”
“Oh,” she said simply, “I knit.”
And on that Karma pearl we’ll quit.
Remixed, Revised by Lao Di Zhi Shakya, 2017
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