A Good Day in “Church”

My father considered a walk among the mountains as the equivalent of church-going. ~ Aldous Huxley

This morning I left the house with my rakusu, but also with my backpack, my iPad, hiking boots and socks, a copy of Emerson’s Nature and a volume of Whitman’s poems. Which was silly, because when I awoke this morning, I knew I was going out to the woods instead of the zendo.

I’m not sure why a walk in the woods was preferable to going to the zendo. I know I’ve always been rather solitary (even my kids have now picked up on this and will chastise me about needing to be more social). So I don’t know if it’s that or my growing sense that the Japanese cultural aspects of Zen — meaning the rituals, chanting and sutras — do not resonate with me as much as the ideas of Buddhism. I absolutely find value in zazen, the Four Noble Truths, the Eightfold Path, and the precepts, but everything beyond that seems to me to be beyond the point. And then I will check myself with “Well, are you just being lazy? Or being a fair-weather Buddhist?”

Now I see that it’s not laziness. I have plunged headlong into my studies of Emerson, Thoreau and Whitman, precisely because their lives and work resonate with me. I danced around with them (superficially) for years, and now I feel like I’m finally “getting it,” finally feeling immersed in it. And I think it’s because it’s American.

This isn’t racist or jingoistic: Buddhism as flourished precisely because it has always adapted itself to the culture of its new hosts. I’ve felt for sometime that there were common themes in Zen and New England Transcendentalism. Now I find that, while Emerson and Thoreau were, to varying degrees, influenced by Hinduism and Buddhism, a lot of what I took to be their Zen-like thought was actually rooted in Greek and Roman stoicism. So now I’m getting acquainted with the Stoics, and sure enough, there are striking parallels with Zen.

So these ideas have arisen at all times and in all places (which happens to be one of Emerson’s themes). The writings of the Transcendentalists resonate with me because I recognize the ideas from my own thinking as well as from my Taoist and Buddhist reading, and because it is writing grounded in my own culture.

Between this and my continuing doubts regarding rebirth and karma across lifetimes, I’m just not sure I can still call myself a Buddhist. Based on my beliefs and outlook, it still makes sense to me. It just may not make sense to other Buddhists. But then, a true Buddhist would never refer to himself or herself as such.

I wrote the above while sitting in my car at the boat launch on the north side of the Monksville Reservoir. When I finished, I took a brief stroll down to the water, exchanged pleasantries with some fishermen, and went back to the car to head over to Long Pond Ironworks for a short hike.

When I exited the parking lot onto the winding, fairly desolate road leading back to the main road, I had what I can only describe as a “Twin Peaks Moment.”

There, pacing slowly up and down the road, was a Japanese man (certainly east Asian, but struck me as decidedly Japanese) playing bagpipes. This was wonderful on many levels.

One, we were in the area of New Jersey known as The Highlands. Two, after reading some of Nature and writing the above about Zen and western culture, what are the odds of being met with a Japanese man playing bagpipes? Three, he seemed to be improvising (and doing it beautifully), occasionally throwing in almost jazz-like quotes from “Amazing Grace” (granted, a staple of bagpipers everywhere, but it also happens to be my favorite piece of music ever). I lowered my windows and slowed down. When I was along side him, I gave him a thumbs up and he gently nodded while continuing his performance. I kept driving slowly, listening to the pipes fade with the distance, then happened upon a young woman in the middle of the road, standing still on rollerblades and holding a cellphone to her ear but not talking. When I looked toward her to offer a greeting nod, her face was expressionless, and her left eye was eerily cold and dead.

When I pulled out onto the main road, I couldn’t stop laughing. Whatever choice bit of synchronicity this was, I took it to be an omen that I’m on the right track. It was exhilarating.

The short hike at Long Pond was beautiful and peaceful. I stopped at one of the lookout platforms and read a little bit of Whitman:

Now I will do nothing but listen,
To accrue what I hear into this song, to let sounds contribute toward it.

I hear bravuras of birds, bustle of growing wheat, gossip of flames,
clack of sticks cooking my meals,
I hear the sound I love, the sound of the human voice,
I hear all sounds running together, combined, fused or following,
Sounds of the city and sounds out of the city, sounds of the day and night,
Talkative young ones to those that like them, the loud laugh of
work-people at their meals,
The angry base of disjointed friendship, the faint tones of the sick,
The judge with hands tight to the desk, his pallid lips pronouncing
a death-sentence,
The heave’e’yo of stevedores unlading ships by the wharves, the
refrain of the anchor-lifters,
The ring of alarm-bells, the cry of fire, the whirr of swift-streaking
engines and hose-carts with premonitory tinkles and color’d lights,
The steam-whistle, the solid roll of the train of approaching cars,
The slow march play’d at the head of the association marching two and two,
(They go to guard some corpse, the flag-tops are draped with black muslin.)

I hear the violoncello, (’tis the young man’s heart’s complaint,)
I hear the key’d cornet, it glides quickly in through my ears,
It shakes mad-sweet pangs through my belly and breast.

I hear the chorus, it is a grand opera,
Ah this indeed is music—this suits me.

A tenor large and fresh as the creation fills me,
The orbic flex of his mouth is pouring and filling me full.

I hear the train’d soprano (what work with hers is this?)
The orchestra whirls me wider than Uranus flies,
It wrenches such ardors from me I did not know I possess’d them,
It sails me, I dab with bare feet, they are lick’d by the indolent waves,
I am cut by bitter and angry hail, I lose my breath,
Steep’d amid honey’d morphine, my windpipe throttled in fakes of death,
At length let up again to feel the puzzle of puzzles,
And that we call Being.

[2011]

Breathing Life Into the Printed Word

I read to our kids every night when they were very young, and listened to them read aloud as they were learning their words. But as they became more accomplished in their reading, we all became more private readers.

Sometimes my teenage daughter would get nostalgic for bedtime stories, and she’d ask me to read a favorite, like Goodnight Moon or a dramatic presentation of Green Eggs and Ham.

As a variation on this one night, I read her the short story Harrison Bergeron by Kurt Vonnegut. She loved it, and it prompted questions and discussion for a good week.

Lately, though, we’ve all gone back to being private readers.

As part of my daily Zen and Taoist reading, I decided to read aloud to myself. As a result, I’ve rediscovered how much more power the printed word has when it is given a voice.

I can be moved by something I read silently, but it’s another experience altogether when I get a catch in my throat reading something aloud that has really hit home, when the words resonate through my body and not just my mind.

With this reawakened appreciation for the spoken word, I asked my son if he’d like to make some time before bed so I could read to him. He really liked the idea, and we decided to read The Tao of Pooh. (I told him if he liked it, we could also read The Te of Piglet. He then asked if there was a Ching of Eeyore.)

I forgot that The Tao of Pooh — despite being based on the classic A.A. Milne children’s books — is really written more for adults. But my son has really taken to it, suggesting he read the actual Milne excerpts and I read the rest. To my endless delight, he’s grasping the Taoist ideas, too.

I’m going to suggest something similar to my daughter. Since the Vonnegut piece was a hit, I’ll stick with the short stories. And if her very hectic teen schedule seems to leave little time for a bedtime story, I’ve got several volumes of Sudden Fiction and Flash Fiction.

[2011]

Mindfulness Hike in the Mountains

The kids and I were supposed to visit Zen Mountain Monastery this month for their youth program. But my daughter had some school projects due, so we opted to stay home.

I love taking them to ZMM, because for a few hours they are immersed in a broader Zen culture than Dad’s altar, incense and cushions, and they really enjoy it.

I still wanted to have some kind of Zen practice with them, and I spontaneously hit on the idea of going on a mindfulness hike.

Where we live, there are many great hiking trails in and around the Ramapo Mountains. I decided to take them to a favorite trail at the historic Long Pond Ironworks; wide trails, flowing water, old buildings, and some nice wooden observation platforms that I thought might be good places for some outdoors zazen.

The day was perfect for a hike with the crisp autumn air and the sunlight playing through the clouds. I decided we would just hike, pay attention to whatever was around us, and talk about whatever came up. Anything resembling formal Zen discussion would only happen at the platform.

I brought along my copy of Eight Mindful Steps to Happiness by Bhante Henepola Gunaratana. I wanted to talk to my kids about “Right Speech” — what Bhante G calls “Skillful Speech.” Of all the aspects of the Eightfold Path, this seemed to be the one that needed the most attention.

I didn’t want this to be a pedantic exercise, and Bhante G’s book was perfect for the task. Each chapter has a wonderful, bullet-point summation at the end, and this was the only part I read aloud once we arrived at the platform. It was short and sweet, and left space for questions and discussion. These are the Key Points for Mindfulness of Skillful Speech:

  • Skillful Speech requires that you abstain from lying, malicious words, harsh language and useless talk.
  • Lying by omission is still lying.
  • Malicious talk is speech that destroys other people’s friendships or damages their reputations.
  • Verbal abuse, profanity, sarcasm, hypocrisy, and excessively blunt or belittling criticism are all examples of harsh language.
  • Harsh language hurts others and debases you.
  • Gossip and idle talk lead to quarrels and misunderstandings, waste your time, and create a confused state of mind.
  • All unnecessary speech not motivated by generosity, loving friendliness, and compassion is harmful.
  • The test of Skillful Speech is to stop and ask yourself before you speak: “Is it true? Is it kind? Is it beneficial? Does it harm anyone? Is this the right time to say something?”
  • Using mindfulness to strengthen your resolution to say nothing hurtful and to use only soft, well-chosen words can bring harmony to any difficult situation.

And I added one last item: Skillful speech includes the words you use in e-mail, while texting, and on Facebook.

It was a relatively quick talk. The kids had some good questions, and then we sat zazen for about five minutes out there in the woods. They commented on how vibrant the sounds of the wind and leaves and water were when just sitting still.

Make no mistake, skillful speech is still in short supply at our house. My children are, after all, 11 and 14, and we parents still have a way to go in carefully choosing our words and tone in the heat of the moment. But perhaps the most skillful speech that day was just talking about it.

[2010]

A Lifetime in Bergenfield Belies Author’s Version

I JUST FINISHED reading “Teenage Wasteland,” a recently published book that attempts to examine the circumstances behind teen suicides like the ones in Bergenfield in 1987.

While the author, Donna Gaines, made some valid points concerning alienated youth and the skewed priorities of American culture, I disagreed with her less-than-flattering portrayal of Bergenfield, particularly the high school.

The author is a sociologist. I am not. She spent a month in Bergenfield researching a book. I have spent my life here.

As a student, I did not fit into any of the author’s pigeonholes of high school society. I was not a “burnout,” nor was I scholarship or honor society material. I was just an average student who graduated in the middle of his class.

The two copies of “Teenage Wasteland” at the Bergenfield Public Library seem to be on perpetual reserve. If you want to get in line, you can read the author’s version of Bergenfield High School.

This is my version.

Kurt Vonnegut once said that the noblest of all professions are nursing and teaching. Sad to say, many of us only come to realize this under unfortunate, and sometimes tragic, circumstances.

In the days following the Bergenfield fire that killed William McClain’s family this past spring, I witnessed the struggle of Bergenfield High’s students and faculty to cope with the loss of 16-year-old Bill McClain, a struggle compounded by the tragic death of another 16-year-old student less than a month before, Nakia Wright.

The day before the fire, Bergenfield’s renowned marching band had participated in New York’s welcome-home parade for the Persian Gulf troops. Billy played the French horn in the band. My sister, a senior, was in the color guard.

Sixteen years ago, I played trombone in the band.

So in covering the aftermath of the fire for a local weekly newspaper, I found myself conversing with teachers I had known when I was in school. What came through in these conversations was the love these teachers have for their students. A recurring theme in the conversations was family.

On the day of the fire, several Bergenfield alumni, people who had never met Billy McClain, came to the school to offer assistance, much in the same way relatives gather after the death of a family member.

I spent a good part of thai evening talking on the phone with Gloria Pennell. She is married to Kent Pennell, the marching band’s director. She, too, had been in the Bergenfield High School marching band. She now spends a great deal of her time with the band, particularly the color guard.

Gloria Pennell and I reflected on our experiences, which we had taken for granted as students, and how people tend to take what she says about teachers’ sacrifices with a grain of salt because her husband is a teacher.

She spoke about the commitment of the faculty, about the countless extra hours spent by the art department to put on shows; by the athletic department during summer, weeknight, and weekend training; by the music department in extra rehearsals; by the clubs and organizations during their after-school activities; and by the teachers who make the effort for no reason other than they want to do it.

The Pennells consider the band their adopted children. The Saturday before the fire, they had attended the local Eagle Scout presentation, where Billy McClain was recognized for his achievements.

The Pennells have no children of their own, and, like many young couples, are sometimes questioned about it by well-meaning friends and relatives.

Gloria Pennell said that on such occasions, she just smiles and thinks to herself, “You couldn’t buy what we have.”

Claire Quirke, a senior in the band, agreed about the relationship.

“She is band mother,” Claire said. “And we are her children. All 90 of us.”

Frank Levy, the high school’s music director, had known Billy McClain for eight years. He concurred:

“I know these kids from Grade 4 on. Maybe we’re not all father and child, but at least we’re cousins.”

He said the support the faculty had given the students was reciprocal; he had found comfort in being able to talk about his feelings with his students.

Two days after the fire, the high school had its senior awards night. Principal Ross Medlar believed that it was important to resume a normal routine. Each department, as well as civic organizations, presented awards and scholarships to seniors. The auditorium stage was filled with teachers sweating beneath the klieg lights. I recognized every one of them.

An almost reverent lull fell over the audience as the math department teachers came to the podium. Billy McClain had been a math prodigy. Joyce DeSantis, the head of the department, announced the establishment of a scholarship in Billy’s name. The auditorium erupted with sustained, resounding applause.

Some time later, choir director Michael Benard presented a vocal music award to a student he affectionately referred to as “his son.” Faculty and students alike roared with knowing, appreciative laughter. Such are the relationships at Bergenfield High School.
I thought about the things these teachers had given me, lessons that were not in the texts, lessons that did not come out of their plan books but from their example.

I had learned tolerance. I had learned the value of an individual’s contribution to a group effort. I had learned commitment. I had learned compassion.

It was easy to take those things for granted as a student. It is also very easy to take them for granted as a voting member of the community.

I grew up with one of the so-called “burnouts” mentioned in “Teenage Wasteland.” To this day, I do not fully understand the reasons for his death in 1986, or for the suicides of the four teenagers in that Foster Village garage nine months later.

What I do understand is that children are a community’s greatest treasure.

And teachers are the children’s treasure.

[1991]

Originally published in the August 19, 1991 edition of The Record.