Growth and Decay (Part 1)



 Growth and decay are natural cycles in our world. Unfortunately, most of us in this country don't live in a "natural world". We live in human-made worlds.  Especially those of us who live in cities. It is fairly hard to see natural cycles if you live in a world of concrete, brick and glass. Some of us live in the suburbs, surrounded by trees; perhaps grass and flowers. Perhaps we have easy access to the countryside. So you would think that natural cycles would be apparent to us. But for some reason they are not.

 As I write this I am 74 years old.  It appears that old people like myself spend a bit of time looking back on their lives, which perspective certainly offers a different vista than looking forward. Looking into the future it seems like there will be a lot of winding down.  In fact, the recent past looks the same.  Why is this troubling? It seems like the natural order is to grow and then decay. So why do I feel distressed that I am in this phase of life?  It is not that all my life is winding down.  Certainly my body and finances are winding down and there does not seem to be any way to resist that.  For that matter, my mind seems to be headed in the same direction.  Yet another part of me seems to become clarified in this process, seems to be flourishing -- though growing might not be quite the right term for what I experience.

 It seems that many things are being pruned away by time.  I do not much mind having worn out cloths that sometimes are sewn together by my not-too-competent darning.  At one time I would have simply replaced the worn out sweater. It might have made a bad impression at work.  But when I work I do so from home now. What would my friends or neighbors think about my looking shabby?  I no longer care too much, though I do try to keep up some appearances.  I shave when I am going out.

 I've never been successful with money. Never could grow it or invest wisely.  I spent it on foolishness, or perhaps more wisely on meditation retreats. I invested in my inner life rather than my outer.  So has my inner investment grown while my finances decayed?  This is a critical question at this point in my life.

 I expect that it is a critical question for many in my generation. Many folks my age of course invested in family, real estate, stocks and so forth. My early life was composed of wandering through bohemia and I didn't own a house until I was 50. Children were not on my agenda. Meditating with my lama Tara Tulku in Bodhgaya was more my style, and somehow I experienced a conflict between being bourgeois and bohemian, and though I tried to reconcile that conflict in the life I now look back on, I never succeeded.  

 Yet I never entirely failed either. I own the house I am sitting in (jointly with the mortgage company). And when I sit to meditate, broad mental vistas open before me. Lifelong assurances as well as uncertainties are part of that vista; some trivial and some important. I've written about these things.

 If I am going to ponder death, then it seems that I will be pondering what that really is.  Not just physically, because I have a sense of that.  What about the non-material parts of me? That is where the questions arise. I don't have the cultural assurance about rebirth that a Tibetan might have. Nor even the assurances of a Christian who expects heaven (or worse).  I grew up with a mother who never discussed such matters as life after death and a father who bluntly considered death "the big sleep."  I am psychologist enough to know that their minds are merged with mine in some aspect of me because they raised me and I imprinted on them.  But my life of inner journeys also inclines me to a broader vista. And what is in that vista? Ambiguity seems to best describe it.

 It is clear that my rational mind can only understand so much, though it never ceases to define and box in everything. Like a hand that cannot grasp itself, my mind cannot know its source in any conventional way of understanding. This is almost axiomatic both from the perspective of modern psychology and Buddhism. But what cannot be comprehended seems to be something I can experience at times.

 Like a lotus flower, the waking world seems to emerge from something fundamental to me.  I touch it when I settle deeply into meditation.  At night when I surrender to sleep and the lotus flower world is enfolded within, I rest there. Maybe that is why my father called death "the big sleep." Maybe he, like all of us, intuited what we can only vaguely comprehend, that the part of us that exists when we sleep deeply is the root and stalk of that lotus world.

 So this brings me back to the mystery of sleep. And its partners, dream and wakefulness.  I've written about this before, and will do so again because the winding down of my life has forced this upon me.

Blood on the Rocks


  Across the valley the Sangre de Christo Mountains stretch quietly. The Blood of Christ: salvation, in the Spanish mind. For an immigrant me, they also are a refuge, wedged between the fires and smoke-filled skies of the west and the hurricanes and floods of the east. 

 The rocks beside me once flowed molten hot.  After eons their patina became a canvas for Tewa people. Their glyphs remain a mystery. What did they feel as their world wound down? They already had known drought and famine. In the end, did their eyes see demons in metal clothing, those ancestors of the enchanting Spanish accent of Santa Fe? 

 How did the Tewa face the end of their world? Did apocalypse figure in their stories?

 My friends flee fire that incinerates places I know so well. Family returns to a devastated home. Here it is peaceful before my eyes but my heart is rent as deeply as the gorge of the river that has given life to this land from a time even before humans.  It has meandered through the ages and though it will shrink and it will grow, it will not stop flowing.

 And the mountains and rocks of the mother we have treated so shamelessly? Will they remember us, as they do the Tewa who respectfully left their marks upon her? Or will they think of us as but a passing dream?

 Like the ancients, I am compelled to open my heart and inscribe my thought-images upon a canvas, but one much more fleeting than theirs.







Butter and Buddha

  Tibetan Buddhist practice is sometimes described with the terms ground, path and fruition. These are what we start with, our current situation of mind and body (the ground of practice), the process of transforming them (the path of practice) and the goal of the process, awakening or enlightenment (fruition, Buddha-hood). This is a nice schema, but for me, at least, it has had some drawbacks, such as feeling unwholesome dissatisfaction with the life of the present and frustration about whether I am progressing. And since fruition is nothing less than being a Buddha, frustration or dissatisfaction does seem inevitable.

 When I think about this problem I have to wonder whether or not I, as an achievement oriented American, actually have created the problem with my own attitude.  The Tibetan monks I've known don't seem to have the same dissatisfaction. It seems that for them life on the path is sufficient, and for whatever reason this attitude seems to actually yield greater progress toward fruition than my striving attitude.

 In Zen one does not find the terms ground, path and fruition, but teachings about transforming the present situation are abundant. Zen is also quite insistent on recognizing that one is already a Buddha, though one is ignorant of that truth. Waking up (fruition) is "just" a matter of realizing this truth.  In fact this idea is present in the Tibetan tradition as well, but seems to be obscured a bit by the emphasis on the path, as one finds in the gradualist Lam Rim (Stages of the Path) teachings. 

 In Tibet in ancient days there was a great debate between the Zen teachers and the gradualist teachers. The gradualist tradition won out, and for the most part has shaped Tibetan Buddhism ever since.  As one of my teachers, Thubten Jigme Norbu, recalling his life in Tibet explained all of this, if you have buttermilk and want to butter your toast (or tea, in his case) you need to churn the butter out of the milk. We may have Buddha nature already, but it is obscured by our mental distortions.  We need to remove the distortions (do the churning) to reveal ourselves as Buddhas. 


 Over the years as I have thought about this little story it has occurred to me that really there is not much difference between the Zen way and the stages on the path. Sitting zazen might be a matter of stillness, but a lot of mental churning takes place before one settles. Similarly, the stages of the path may require the application of a considerable number of antidotes to cleanse the deluded mind (more churning) but in my experience this is only successfully accomplished if one can settle into peace on occasion.

 This settling into peace has been key for me.  Without my having this experience fairly regularly I find that ongoing practice becomes a burden. In this sense the goal and the path are not really different.  It seems that I need to drink a glass of buttermilk once in a while to be reminded of the taste of butter.




Where is the Moon? (Part 3)

 At Green Gulch Zen Center residents and visitors were called to the Zendo by the sound of the han.  It was a large slab of wood which was rhythmically struck by a mallet.  The han at Green Dragon temple was venerable: it had been struck so frequently that it had a deep depression that obscured the words inscribed on it. Do not waste time; consider the great matter of life and death.

 I've been considering this matter for much of my life.  Now that I am 74 I am watching my once muscular limbs wither and my mind get increasingly forgetful.  This "great matter" has my attention with more salience.


 In my previous essay about the finger pointing at the moon I wrote "And then of course, there is the moon itself, whose silver white light is a reflection of the sun’s light. Did the Zen masters know the source of the moon’s light? What might it mean that the luminescence of our mind is a reflection of something?" This question, in the literal sense, has occupied me for the better part of my life.  I've asked many great lamas about this. What is the relationship of our mind-streams? Or in the metaphor of the sun illuminating the moon-like mind, ultimately, are our minds the same or different?  When I asked Geshe Ngawang Dhargyey, Tara Tulku Rinpoche and Denma Locho Rinpoche they all gave the same cryptic reply, "There are several answers to this question."

 For me this question is like the depression in the han.  It is the great matter. And it is intimately tied to the question of the reality of rebirth. For the Zen and Vajrayana Tibetan masters this may not have even been a question.  But I am a modern person and the question remains.  It is not only what is the relationship of my mind-stream and that of the masters, it is the question of the continuity of my mind or consciousness beyond death. I began the practice of meditation in 1966 with Thich Tien-an. Now, 54 years later, the great matter is unresolved.  In fact, over the years, the question only has become more complex.

 "There are several answers" the masters have said. How unsatisfying, in one way.  But how open at the same time. It is almost like a Zen koan.  Not "take your pick of which answer you like best" but something else I suspect.  That there are different teachings is the obvious meaning. That the mind is limited in its ability to understand that which is its own foundation strikes me as another meaning. I prefer the later, though this does not cancel the former.  In fact it almost proves the former. Perhaps the mind cannot grasp its true nature, just as a hand cannot grasp itself. Not being able to grasp itself, the mind makes up stories about itself because just as grasping is a function of a hand, story making and theorizing is a function of the mind. And as the finger on the hand points to the moon, so the mind points at its own nature through its stories.

  It seems that different people need to hear different stories, and perhaps the stories even evolve as we change and evolve. Geshe Ngawang Dhargyey replied to my question: "There are several answers to this question." That was it. He shared some answers but did not say "this is the best answer."  But when teaching in Seattle eight years earlier, he told students there that "... your own mind and the Guru's mindstream do become indivisible on your attainment of complete enlightenment." Apparently he decided I needed to hear a paradox, that I had to work on the problem.

 Curiously, reflection on this great matter brings my thoughts to the ancient Gnostic Christians.  The Church patriarchs declared the Gnostics heretical for many reasons, but Irenaeus was very specific in one of his many criticisms. You can't let people draw their own conclusions about spiritual matters. They either don't have the capacity to think and experience clearly or they might get it wrong and lose their souls. And since he was a patriarch of the Roman church there was also the power issue. 

 Buddha insisted that we not simply depend on authorities, that we figure it all out for ourselves by testing the teachings we are offered. On the one hand this is very unsatisfying.  I just want to know about the consequences of my death and the deep relationship of my mind and that of others. Please just tell me and pacify my mind, as the second Zen ancestor said.  On the other hand, the insistence that I explore and verify the truth for myself has been like the clock spring which turned the years of my life of exploration, of my questioning.  It has forced me to be honest about the ambiguities of the human condition. "There are several answers to this question."




The Arrow's Trajectory

 These days it seems pretty difficult to not fall into apocalyptic thinking. We are beset by a pandemic that is destroying global health and economies. The democracy we Americans pride ourselves on may have a dubious future.The priesthood of scientists tells us that global climate change is a certainty, that there are limits to growth and so forth. Political and economic commentators on both the left and right warn us that the world is moving in directions which are frightening. The left warns us of financial/corporate oligarchs who seem to have in mind a return to a sort of feudal society where the majority of workers are serfs who are perennially indebted to the new landed overlords.  The right warns us that our Christian values are being destroyed by the liberal forces of society and that we are headed for an ungodly future. 

 It is hard not to feel in one's bones that the world is off balance and deeply fear for the future. Powerlessness and anger seem to be the mood of the times.  Act locally and think globally may be the best ecological option, but I can't help look around my house and see the mass of non-biodegradable stuff that fills it and realize what I am willing to future generations. If there are any. No less a public intellectual than Noam Chomsky wrote that he is not sure humanity even has a future.

 How did it come to this?  Does the past even matter, or is it only the future that matters? Perhaps it is the archer in me, but I can't help but think that seeing the flight of an arrow to any point in its trajectory will tell me a lot about its future trajectory and where it is going to strike the target. 

 The thing that occurs to me about my feeling powerless these days is that a couple of consequences derive from it.  One is a sense that everything around me is in chaos, but the other is that we have arrived at this situation as a consequence of a natural process. Probably the Buddhist in me prefers the later, as the foundation of Buddha's teachings is causality: if this, then that.

 So now what?  What can I divine from the arrow's trajectory? What will I find when the pandemic is quelled? When the election has passed?

 There is no lack of commentators writing stories about the future. They fill the magazines and social media posts. But what trajectory are they mapping in their stories?  It has seemed to me that usually they see the future as an alternative to a familiar past. Occasionally a really creative mind suggests that the arrow is headed into territory unlike anything previously experienced. Nora Bateson has that sort of mind.

 As for myself, I try to avoid making up any stories about the future. My imagination is not up to creating a story about a future that does not look like a version of the past. I find I need to reject dystopian pessimism as much as naive optimism. And anyway, as Zachoeje Rinpoche has been reminding me lately, most of the stories my mind creates about the present or past  have nothing to do with reality anyway. Why would it do better with the future?  It is hard to sit with unknowing, but it seems like the only real honesty.