Songs Along the Path

It was quite a trip from being raised Roman Catholic to having my jukai ceremony at age 51. (Yes, I was tempted to write “a long, strange trip” or “a long and winding road,” but thankfully I stopped myself.) I had doubts about my given religion even as a child, went through a rebellious atheist phase in my twenties, and eventually found my thoughts and feelings about things spiritual were closest to Taoism and Buddhism.

I can pinpoint the various influences that got me here: the TV show Kung Fu; my roommate’s copy of the Tao Te Ching; listening to Alan Watts on WFMU; sessions with a therapist whose approach was decidedly Buddhist; stumbling across copies of Buddhism Without Beliefs and Zen Mind, Beginners Mind in a favorite book shop; finding Heart Circle Sangha and finally getting up the nerve to step inside.

Perhaps the subtlest and most powerful influence has been the music I’ve listened to since my youth. It has stirred me as few other things can, and its ability to do so has not diminished with time.

The Beatles were my first exposure to Eastern spiritual themes in pop music, as they were for so many others. But in going back through my music collections, I identified so much more. Some of the songs certainly have overt Buddhist references: John Lennon’s Instant Karma, Three Dog Night’s Shambala, Steely Dan’s Bodhisattva, Alex Chilton’s Dalai Lama. Some have spiritual themes that, while not expressly Buddhist, are perfectly at home in Buddhist contemplation. Others contain a feeling, theme, or even just one line of lyric that got me to consider the bigger picture, or seemed to affirm something I was already feeling.

I’ve compiled more than 200 of these songs, and the list continues to grow. Recently I distilled the collection down to what could fit on a CD so I could present some friends with a kind of Zen mix tape (remember mix tapes?). I sequenced the playlist for a bit of narrative structure, and was struck by how many of the tracks reference water imagery and impermanence.

These, then, are some of my songs along the path. Regardless of the artists’ original intentions, this is what I get from them. They’re all available on CDs or iTunes if you’re inclined to try the collection for yourself. Your mileage may vary.

Litany (Life Goes On) by Guadalcanal Diary
We start with a sort of overture or grand statement for the collection. Relentlessly positive, the lyrics spell out how the world looks through clear eyes and with an open heart. The uplifting music takes what might otherwise be the uncomfortable uncertainty of “We move so quickly / Who knows where he time goes? / Where does this road lead? / No one knows” and turns it into a celebration of possibilities. Embrace life and fear not; it has no beginning and no end.

Now by King Missile
Probably the most obscure song on the list (and the shortest), it has the uncanny ability to focus my attention on the only thing we ever really have: the present moment. It contains what is, for me, a very playful depiction of dependent arising: “Once there was nothing but nothingness / Then something happened and now there is somethingness.”

Mind Games by John Lennon
This is the song that truly started me on the path. Where Litany is a celebration of being presented with this marvelous world, Mind Games is a call to action, a resounding chorus of how one can proceed. It made me want to know what the “karmic wheel” was, and it introduced me to the idea of non-attachment: “Yes is the answer / And you know that for sure / Yes is surrender / You gotta let it go.” It never fails to lift my spirits.

Pure and Easy by Pete Townshend
Townshend has been a spiritual seeker most of his life. He became a follower of the Indian mystic Meher Baba in the 60s, and much of his best work has been rooted in this seeking. Pure and Easy is the foundation of his Lifehouse idea, a spiritual song cycle that he struggled for years to bring to fruition. The Who’s best album — Who’s Next — arose from that struggle. When he sings of “the note in us all,” it sounds to me like the Tao or Buddha-nature. This song also came to mind when I first read “The Note” in Zen Flesh, Zen Bones.

Morning Has Broken by Cat Stevens
Hard to believe a traditional Scottish Christian hymn made it into Top 40 radio back in the 70s. The future Yusuf Islam is accompanied here by pianist extraordinaire Rick Wakeman and some beautifully haunting background vocals in a song about constant renewal. Like I tell my kids: Any day you wake up is a good day. Rejoice in it.

Turn! Turn! Turn! by The Byrds
Continues the influence of my Christian upbringing with lyrics taken from the Book of Ecclesiastes, set to music by the incomparable Pete Seeger. It’s probably my earliest exposure to the ideas of necessary opposites and endless cycles.

Blowin’ in the Wind by Bob Dylan
I take this as a call to meditation. Whatever is vexing you, the answers are always at hand. Just be still.

Rain by The Beatles
The first of five water-themed songs, this one made me look at the problems we create for ourselves through our perceptions: “When the rain comes / They run and hide their heads” and “When the sun shines / They slip into the shade.” Nothing is ever good enough. We always want what we don’t have. But then: “Rain — I don’t mind / Shine — the weather’s fine.” It’s just a state of mind. Get out of your own way.

Think About Your Troubles by Harry Nilsson
Nilsson’s album The Point was a favorite when I was a kid, the animated film even more so. This is a playful song about cycles and how everything, including your troubles, is impermanent.

Once in Lifetime by Talking Heads
When I heard David Byrne sing “Water dissolving / And water removing / There is water / At the bottom of the ocean,” I was reminded of how the Tao is said to be like water, seeking the lowest places which men abhor. A major theme of the song is self refection, and being surprised by what one finds. The refrain of “Same as it ever was” is almost a mantra. Rather than being a statement about how nothing changes, I take it to mean what was true then is true now.

All This Time by Sting
Written in response to the death of his father, Sting uses river imagery to evoke the endless stream of time, how we all rise and fall in the flow, and the folly of seemingly permanent monuments and rituals. I have always loved the last line: “They only get better one by one.” We have to awaken on our own.

What’s Good – The Thesis by Lou Reed
One of my early struggles with Buddhism was making room for paradoxes. This track is a meditation on loss from an album that was inspired in part by the death of Reed’s friend, the songwriter Doc Pomus. Reed juxtaposes things that don’t make sense together — some real, some truly nonsensical — while trying to come to terms with the death. His conclusion: “Life’s good, but not fair at all.”

Let Love Rule by Lenny Kravitz
A latter-day All You Need Is Love. If love is indeed the answer (as we hear in Mind Games), then we would do well to let love rule.

(What’s So Funny ’bout) Peace, Love and Understanding by Elvis Costello & The Attractions
Written by Nick Lowe, this is a seeker’s lament. We see the pain, hatred and misery. We respond with compassion. Why should anyone scoff at that?

One by U2
Our feelings of the universal are often rooted in our experiences of the particular. Here, a relationship is coming apart, and it brings out something much bigger: “We’re one, but we’re not the same / We get to carry each other.”

Just Breathe by Pearl Jam
What Buddhist wouldn’t be intrigued by that title? It’s only mentioned once, but it’s the best response to contemplating impermanence, and being grateful in the moment.

All Things Must Pass by George Harrison
From the über-spiritual album of the same name, Harrison wrote this in the midst of the turmoil surrounding the disintegration of The Beatles. It’s a beautiful reminder that everything — whether we see it as good or bad — will pass away.

Do You Realize?? by The Flaming Lips
Structurally similar to Mind Games, and musically just as rousing. Listeners have been quite moved by this track that includes the lines “Do you realize / That everyone you know / Someday will die?” Far from being morose, it’s a celebration of seeing the world as it is, seizing the day, and giving the lie to illusion. It brings to mind the Evening Gatha. Take heed. Do not squander your life.

Find the River by R.E.M.
Back to water imagery for the final summation. Michael Stipe’s lyrics are frequently impressionistic (if not downright cryptic) and R.E.M.’s songs have always touched me at a more subliminal level. Find the River feels like an elder looking back at his life and passing the torch. Throughout the song, he observes how “Nothing is going my way” — except at the end, when he sings, “All of this is coming your way.” It could be a warning from a world-weary soul. Or it could be sage advice to check desire, to “do without doing,” to open up to what is flowing in the river — or blowing in the wind.

[2013]

(Click here for the playlist on Spotify.)

God is a Loaded Term

I’m a regular reader of CNN’s Belief Blog. More often than not, the blog’s contributors have refreshing takes on the role of faith in American life. They also don’t shy away from addressing the subject from the point of view of non-theists. (CNN in general has become a magnet for theist/atheist arguments; they seem to crop up in the comments section of many of their articles, even when the article isn’t about religion.)

This past week, the blog highlighted the response to an iReport by Deborah Mitchell, a Texas mother of two teenagers. (iReports are stories sent to CNN’s website by users — an exercise in citizen journalism). Mitchell’s report has garnered the second highest number of page views of any iReport, and the most comments of any submission.

The title? “Why I Raise My Children Without God.”

Predictably, there was considerable backlash in the comments section. Some tried to have the report flagged as inappropriate in an effort to have it removed. But many others — including more Bible-belt moms hiding in the atheist/agnostic closet — applauded her bravery. Yes, bravery — because non-believers may well be the most hated minority in the country.

I have quite a bit of sympathy for freethinkers (the term I use for atheists, agnostics and all manner of religious skeptics). This was the road I took to Zen Buddhism. It was Bertrand Russell’s Why I Am Not A Christian that helped me shake off the last vestiges of my Catholic guilt. Thomas Paine and Robert Ingersoll are two of my heroes, freethinkers unjustly ignored by American history. I am truly saddened that Christopher Hitchens is no longer among the living.

Like Deborah Mitchell, my wife and I also decided not to raise our children with organized religion, and to be free and open with them concerning questions about God and spirituality.

When our daughter was born, we did not have her baptized. Much to my relief, this did not cause any problems with the more devoutly religious among our friends and family (perhaps one of the perks of living in New Jersey). In fact, my wife’s grandfather, who had been an officer in the Knights of Columbus, never once questioned us about it, never tried to sway us, and never changed the way he treated us. I found this so incredibly decent that I decided we could meet him half way. We had our daughter baptized when she was eighteen months old (which I know pleased my mother-in-law as well as her father) and also our son shortly after he was born. But that was the extent of our involvement with any formal church.

As our children grew, questions about religion would come up. I would always try to answer them by starting with “In the Christian tradition” or “In the Jewish tradition.” When they would ask what religion we were, I would tell them we were all baptized Roman Catholics but we don’t go to church, and that I was now a Buddhist. I told them they could claim to be either. As near as I can tell, they usually told their friends they didn’t have a religion. And again, this doesn’t seem to have caused any problems.

Questions about God were trickier, because “God” is such a loaded term. When I was younger, my stock response to the question “Do you believe in God?” was “Define your terms.” Of course it was always God as they imagined him in the Bible. I say imagined because I’ve found that a good many people who profess to believe in the God of the Bible have actually read very little of the book. And then my answer is “no.” I’ve felt for a long time that whatever God may be, he or she is in desperate need of better PR.

I have told our children what others believe God to be while admitting that I just don’t know (and that no one else does, either). I’ve always found agnosticism to be the only intellectually honest position, since theism and atheism both seem to require a degree of certainty that I feel is unwarranted.

My children are acquainted with the basics of the Tao and of Buddha-nature. This is how I’ve approached the idea of God, and this seems to make sense to them. One day I’ll also tell them about Emerson’s Over-soul. I know our children don’t believe in a God that sits in judgement up in the sky, dishing out rewards and punishments. They understand that doing good, that acting from a kind heart, doesn’t require these.

I’ve also tried to teach them to appreciate the value others find in religion, and the difference between private faith and religion-based social policy. There is a time and a place for understanding personal needs of the spirit, and a time and place to defend freedom of the mind and heart.

I really do miss Hitchens.

[2013]

Election 2012

We were relatively lucky in our confrontation with Sandy: Two days without power and a vent cap torn from the roof. My wife and I work from home, so gasoline is not an issue for now. Far too many people fared far worse. The photos from our beloved Long Beach Island are heartbreaking.

That everyone has rallied together to help one another is truly inspiring, but not surprising. This is what I know is in us at all times.

Halloween was postponed until Monday. I’m surprised there’s still any candy in our house to give out. We still watched “It’s The Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown!” on the day. I am always dismayed by the editing that is done to make more room for commercials.

In the coming weeks, I will change the name of this blog to reflect broader interests. Parenting is still job #1, but there is so much more to write about.

Below is something I posted to Facebook concerning the upcoming election. Don’t worry, I have no intention of turning this blog into some wonky political screed. In fact, after this I will most likely avoid political topics here. I can’t make the same promise when it comes to religion.

Wherever you are, whatever your politics, please vote. And if you can, please send a little hurricane relief to your friends here in the northeast.

My dear friends —

I have tried — and reasonably succeeded — to keep politics and religion out of my Facebook postings. So now, with the election just around the corner, I’m going to throw in my two or three cents and be done with it.

I’m voting for President Obama. Not because he’s perfect. Not because he’s some kind of political messiah. Because I believe he has worked in good faith to do the right thing by the people, and will continue to do so (which is more than I can say of the Republicans in Congress). I’m not happy with everything about the last four years, but I believe he was presented with an enormous mountain of crap from the previous administration, and there are just so many shovels.

I am also voting for him because the Democratic party, while certainly not perfect, better represents my views than the Republicans. In my opinion, the GOP has been taken over by a political and religious lunatic fringe.

I was actually sympathetic to many of the concerns initially voiced by the Tea Party. But like so many grass roots movements before them, they were quickly infected by opportunistic parasites. I cannot help but oppose a group that so willingly harbors bigots, displays such utter contempt for science and reason, and embraces the likes of Sarah Palin and Michele Bachmann as serious political thinkers.

Then there is Ayn Rand, who is something of an avatar to conservatives, especially the Tea Party. Paul Ryan is a Rand devotee. He has his staff read her books. I don’t know if the same can be said of Governor Romney. I’m not sure he has any unshakable principles beyond saying and doing whatever is necessary to close deals that favor himself. By that measure, he may well be a Randian Objectivist and not even know it.

When politicians simultaneously embrace Jesus and Rand, I’m surprised their heads don’t explode. According to Rand, Jesus was a chump and altruism is an unforgivable sin. I am not a Christian, but like Thomas Jefferson, I believe that the sayings attributed to Jesus of Nazareth amount to one of the most sublime philosophies of life ever offered to humankind. Buddhism has taught me that self reliance and acts of compassion are not mutually exclusive; indeed, they are both absolutely essential in a world where everything is interconnected.

Rand’s entire career was one big pity party. Her family’s business was confiscated by the Bolsheviks. So instead of coming here and just starting over, she also had to promulgate a capitalist fantasy that, to me, is essentially Marxism turned on its head, enshrining selfishness as a virtue and money as a basis for morality. But her philosophy fails for precisely the same reason Marxism fails: it’s predicated on the notion that people will voluntarily deal fairly with one another at all times. Unfortunately, this has never been the case, which is why we have laws and regulations.

Conservatives have told me that caring for the least among us is the duty of individuals, not the government, that there is nothing in the Bible about the state caring for the poor. Ah yes, but the American form of government did not exist when the Bible was written. Properly regarded, our government is an instrument of the will of the people. If it is the will of the people to do good, to care for the least among us, then it is entirely appropriate to use the government to those ends. If that is not our will, then we should stop the pretense of being a “Christian nation.”

The cries of “class warfare” ring hollow to me. The assault has been going on since the 80s, and only now gets called warfare by the right because the lower classes are starting to fight back.

The Republicans claim they want to restore the “American Dream.” It’s a cynical ploy that amounts to “Yes, we’re wealthy, and you can be, too, if you will just get these burdensome taxes and regulations off our backs.”

By all means, let’s work to achieve our dreams. But the truth is that most of us will never be that wealthy, and chasing that particular carrot on a stick only leads to voting against our own true interests.

It should be in the best interests of the producers in this country to facilitate upward mobility and an expanding middle class so as to grow their consumer base. This is what happened in the 1950s, when the wealthy were taxed at between 70% and 90%: A booming middle class, massive investment in infrastructure, and the rich still partied on. This is what has worked, not the trickle down BS of the last 30 years.

But money is also power, and for the last 30 years, the wealthy — through their bought-and-paid-for proxies in government — have pushed policies that hold the lower classes down while expanding the wealth of the top 1%, thus solidifying their hold on power. And in a global economy, the jobs will go where labor is cheap, and goods will go wherever buyers can be found; it makes no difference to the monied interests. Where is the patriotism in that? It seems they don’t love God or country so much as money and power.

I am suspicious of patriots who feel the need to advertise themselves as such, just as I am suspicious of a “news” channel that needs to trumpet that they are “fair and balanced.” They are either trying very hard to convince themselves they are worthy of the label, or attempting to pull the wool over our eyes. Probably both.

Listen: I know the names of my ancestors who fought in almost every American war since the Revolution. I know which of my ancestors owned slaves. I have a pretty good grasp of my country’s history — the good, the bad, and the ugly. We haven’t always been the nicest kid on the world playground. Sometimes we’ve been the bully, and many times we’ve been the one to slap the bully down. To admit as much isn’t unpatriotic nor an apology; it’s an honest assessment, and a pledge to do better. Blind patriotism fixes nothing.

Many on the right are quick to point out that our unalienable rights to “Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness” as written in the Declaration of Independence are not a guarantee of outcomes, only of opportunity. I agree. But I also hold dear the closing statement of that document: “…we mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes and our sacred Honor.”

That doesn’t sound like “every man for himself.” It sounds like “we’re all in this together.”

And that doesn’t sound like today’s Republican Party.

[2012]

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]

Kyron Horman

Love and knowledge, so far as they were possible, led upward toward the heavens. But always pity brought me back to earth. Echoes of cries of pain reverberate in my heart. Children in famine, victims tortured by oppressors, helpless old people a hated burden to their sons, and the whole world of loneliness, poverty, and pain make a mockery of what human life should be. I long to alleviate the evil, but I cannot, and I too suffer. ~ Bertrand Russell

It has been just over a year since Kyron Horman disappeared from his school in Portland, Oregon. Much money and manpower has been spent looking for him, and authorities don’t seem any closer to find him or explaining what happened to him. His stepmother, who was the last person to see him, is not a named suspect. But most people who have followed the story believe she knows more than she has said.

I have been following his story from day one. I don’t know why, but when I saw Kyron’s picture, I took an instant liking to him. Perhaps it’s because he reminds me of my own son.

Some have been critical of the amount of attention Kyron’s story has gotten. They point out that children go missing every day, and ask why Kyron’s story is so special.

A lot of the attention has to do with the tremendous efforts of Kyron’s parents to make sure their son is not forgotten, and to make sure that people keep an eye out for him. I can only applaud their efforts. My heart breaks for them.

My heart breaks for missing and abused children almost every day.

Every time I read of some tragedy committed against a child — all too often by someone they trusted — I whisper “I’m sorry,” as if there was something I could have done to save them. I swear, if I could be granted a super power, it would be to know whenever a child is being harmed, and to be able to bolt to them in an instant to stop it.

I’d never have a moment’s rest.

From a Buddhist perspective, am I causing myself to suffer by clinging to these thoughts? Maybe so. But I find it difficult to be dispassionate about such things. It’s one of the aspects of Buddhism with which I struggle.

There is a scene in Woody Allen’s film Radio Days in which the family is listening to a live radio broadcast of the rescue of a little girl who has fallen down an abandoned well. The scene was inspired by the true story of three-year-old Kathy Fiscus back in 1949. The ensuing rescue effort was broadcast live via radio as well as the still-novel medium of television. I remember my dad telling me about it. The world was riveted by the story.

In the film, as in the real-life incident, the little girl did not survive. The family in the film is quietly devastated by the news. The father, holding his own little girl on his lap through all this, holds her a little tighter, barely able to contain his tears.

In the absence of any super powers, this may be the best I can hope for. These terrible stories will continue to come. I will hold my children a little tighter. And I will keep a watchful eye on all the other children in my small corner of the world.

[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]

Old Photographs

All we have is now.

This perspective, so central to Zen, has helped me immensely. The past is gone.  The future does not exist.  There is only now.

And yet, I have found that photographs of the past have a way of fostering compassion.

One way is having before my eyes representations of the world in which my ancestors lived. It’s one thing to hear the stories. It’s a bigger thing to have the stories illustrated.

I’ve been researching my family history for 15 years now, and one of the great joys is acquiring photos of the people and places I learn about along the way. It creates an appreciation for all those who have gone before me, whose lives made my life possible.

Old photos have also been helpful when it comes to family members who are still very much alive. I first discovered this while compiling photos from my mother’s past.

My relationship with Mom is very good. But like anybody else, she can be difficult at times, and of course there are those rough spots in our past that sometimes resurface when you least expect it. Letting go, it seems, is a full-time job.

But ever since I uncovered a photo of her when she was five years old, looking somewhat lost while sitting on a makeshift merry-go-round in Germany back in 1940, I see her in a different light. She had no idea what was going on or what the future would hold. And for all our life experiences, this still holds true for us as adults.

It’s now very easy for me to remember this when I look at her, age 75, and it brings up this wellspring of compassion that I would have felt for that lonely little five-year-old girl if I had crossed her path way back when. That’s not to say I don’t have compassion for my mother to begin with — I certainly do — but any transitory irritation or anger that may come up is immediately vaporized by the memory of that photograph. It’s a remarkable thing.

A similar reaction happens when dealing with my children. They’re only 10 and 14, and I have vivid memories of them at every stage of their lives. I try not to fall into the trap of longing for a time when they were younger and seemingly more respectful of their parents and kinder to each other. But a photo of either of them around age five does wonders do disarm my anger.

Yes, we only have now. But I have to wonder, since most of us meet the other adults in our lives as adults and not as kindergartners, if it would be a good idea to carry photos of ourselves at age five, and to share them at the moment we’re about to act out of anger.

[2010]

Grasshopper Moments

I had to admit sometime ago that the TV series Kung Fu may have been my earliest exposure to Zen. It made sense once I’d read the stories about Bodhidharma bringing Buddhism to the Shaolin temple, and also giving them the foundations of what would become the martial art called kung fu.

I was a big fan as a kid, and probably made my parents more than a little crazy with my endless attempts to mimic David Caradine’s moves. But as much as I enjoyed seeing Caine kick butt in the Old West, my favorite parts were always the flashbacks depicting different lessons with his masters.

Because of that show, the word “grasshopper” (Master Po’s nickname for the young Caine) has become synonymous with “student” or “apprentice.” So when I see one of my kids demonstrate some aspect of Zen in their own life, I call that a “grasshopper moment.”

Now this certainly isn’t a monastic kind of thing, not any kind of formal training (and I’m certainly in no position to be that kind of teacher). What I’m hoping is that I can at least walk the walk (not just talk the talk) and have Zen be the way I am in the world, without any outward advertising that it’s “Zen” — just life. That takes some doing, but my other hope is that my kids pick up on this by example, that it’s just a way to be without necessarily knowing what it is.

My recent grasshopper moments were from my daughter on, of all things, Facebook.

I’d found clips on YouTube from an 80s documentary on Kurt Vonnegut and posted a link to them on my Facebook page with the comment “I miss Kurt.”  A short time later my daughter added this comment: “Well . . . Everything does have to end sooner or later . . .”

Talk about “getting” impermanence! I think Kurt would be impressed.

Then, a few days later, she felt the need (like so many of us Facebook users) to post a pithy saying to her Facebook status. And this is what she wrote:

“Don’t wish for what is not already here, do what you can, with what you have, where you are right now, and that should satisfy.”

My first thought was that she had somehow managed to channel Emerson. Then my more rational thought was that she may have started reading something other than “Twilight.” I had to know who she was quoting, and I asked her.

“I made it up” was her response.

“Really?” I asked, trying very hard not to be insulting. “Since when do you use the word ‘satisfy’?”

“I don’t know,” she said. “It sounded smart.”

So like any proud father would, I posted this comment about her status: “That’s my girl.”

And like any embarrassed daughter would, she quickly deleted the comment.

That’s my girl.

[2010]