The Wisdom of Waiting, The Dharma of Delay

Earlier this week, on one of the morning news shows, I caught an interview with Frank Partnoy, the George E. Barrett Professor of Law and Finance at the University of San Diego School of Law. He’s the author of a couple of books on modern finance, F.I.A.S.C.O.: Blood in the Water on Wall Street and Infectious Greed: How Deceit and Risk Corrupted the Financial Markets. He has a new one out and that’s what he was promoting the other day.

It’s called Wait: The Art and Science of Delay. In it Partnoy argues that we make make decisions too quickly and that we would benefit from taking things slower and delaying many of our decisions. One of the examples he gave in the TV interview was that of great tennis players who delay hitting the ball until the last possible fraction of a second.

According to his website,

Frank Partnoy provides a necessary rebuttal to the gurus of “go with your gut.” He shows that decisions of all kinds, whether “snap” or long-term strategic, benefit from being made at the last possible moment. The art of knowing how long you can afford to delay before committing is at the heart of many a great decision—whether in a corporate takeover or a marriage proposal.”

What he’s advocating here is a “mindfulness” approach to making choices, without the meditation element. Although I don’t suppose he would be against combining the “art of delay” with meditation. You could also call Partnoy’s concept of delaying as informed or enlightened procrastination, a notion which is at the heart of one of the oldest books in the world, Tao Te Ching. In the Gia-fu Feng and Jane English translation, we find these passages:


Who can wait quietly while the mud settles?
Who can remain still until the moment of action?
Observers of the Tao do not seek fulfillment.
Not seeking fulfillment, they are not swayed by desire for change.


Tao abides in non-action,
Yet nothing is left undone . . .


A truly good man does nothing,
Yet leaves nothing undone.
A foolish man is always doing,
Yet much remains to be done.


Practice non-action.
Work without doing.

Lao Tzu’s take on delaying is called wu-wei or non-action. But it’s not simply inaction, rather it’s taking natural action. Wu-wei is action that is pliable, responsible, and mindful.  One of the reasons we practice meditation is so that we can train our minds to think more deliberately and not to long for things. It is that longing, that need to have and have immediately is what often results in the bad decision-making that both Lao Tzu and Frank Partnoy are trying to help us correct.

The Taoist sage, Chuang Tzu explained wu-wei with the story of an archer who at first would draw and fire the bow in a relaxed, natural way, and was unconcerned with whether or not the target was hit (which it was every time). But when the archer became fixated on winning a prize, the need to hit the target and have the prize got in the way and caused the archer to fail. This isn’t to say that we shouldn’t have target or goals, but merely that there is another way, perhaps a better way to hit the bullseye, to accomplish the goal.

I haven’t read Partnoy’s book, but I sure appreciate his message about slowing down, taking our time, using the “art and science” of delaying to make better decisions in every area of our life. It not only reminds me of Lao Tzu and Chuang Tzu and the Buddha’s mindfulness, but also of an earlier time when we used talk about “stopping to smell the roses,” and Paul Simon sang “slow down, you move too fast, you’ve got to make the morning last.”  I’ve often found the greatest truths are the simplest ones. They may sound sophomoric or cheesy when you first hear them, but eventually you no longer try to filter them, and when they sink in, you come to realize the rightness in their uncomplicated expression.

On a golden autumn
day returning
Where each moment
never is the same
Sometimes pure joy it
comes with patience
When Im waiting on,
waiting game
When Im waiting on,
waiting game

– Van Morrison


Living in the Mountain

Saigyo Hoshi (1118 – 1190) was a Japanese Shingon priest who at times lived in temples on Mt. Koya and Mt. Yoshino, as well as many other locations, but spent much of his life as a wandering ascetic. He was also an accomplished poet. His name, Saigyo, was actually a penname, meaning “Western Journey.”

He approached both traveling and poetry as “a way of religious devotion.” And even though he lived much of his life “on the road,” he nonetheless lived deeply wherever he happened to be, in communion with nature, involved with the people he met. He seems to have been a friendly man, with a carefree and humble spirit, drawn to a solitary existence while often longing for companionship.

Saigyo painted by Hiroshige*

A word that occurs frequently in Saigyo’s poetry is awaré, meaning “sorrow from change,” “the pathos of things”, or “an empathy toward things”:

Yama fukaku   sa koso kokoro wa   kayou to mo
sumade aware  o  shiran mono ka wa

While you may travel back and forth
from deep in the heart of the mountain
unless you actually live here
you can’t know its sorrow.

Saigyo isn’t talking about physical space here. In this simple verse, the mountain represents the world and life. Often in Buddhism, we speak of living a life of detachment as a means to overcome the sufferings of the world. But there’s a caveat to that. To be detached, you must first be engaged. If we never take time to be engaged in the world, we can never understand its sufferings, and that lack of understanding, that lack of awareness, keeps us ignorant, and ignorance is not really bliss.

Nirvana is bliss, because nirvana means to have awareness of suffering. That’s why we also say sufferings are nirvana. It is only when we become aware of our sorrows that we can learn to work through them. And it is only when we are involved in the world and engaged in the sorrows of others that we can have true empathy.

The Fourth Precept of Thich Nhat Hanh’s Order of Interbeing reads:

Do not avoid contact with suffering or close your eyes before suffering. Do not lose awareness of the existence of suffering in the life of the world. Find ways to be with those who are suffering by all means, including personal contact and visits, images, sounds. By such means, awaken yourself and others to the reality of suffering in the world.”

In other words, we must live in the mountain to know its sorrows.

*from Edward F. Strange’s book, ‘The Colour-Prints of Hiroshige’, first published in 1925 by Cassell & Company, London


I’m A Yankee Doodle Buddha

My All-time Favorite Movie

I’m a Yankee Doodle Buddha
A Yankee Doodle, do or die
A real live nephew of my Uncle Shantideva
Born in the 8th Century

I’ve got a Yankee Doodle dharma
It’s my Yankee Doodle joy
Yankee Doodle came to America
Just to hype some phonies
I am the Yankee Doodle Buddha Boy

(Apologies to Geo. M. Cohan)

Every so often, someone asks me what kind of Buddhism I practice. I used to occasionally reply, “American Buddhism.” “What’s that?” they would ask. I’d say, “I don’t know, we’re still trying to figure it out.”

Old American Buddha

I think that is probably the best thing that can be said about “American Buddhism.” Only these days, I don’t know if we need to figure it out. It’s just another label and we have enough already: Engaged Buddhism, Integral Buddhism, Existential Buddhism, Secular Buddhism, Speculative Non-Buddhism, Humanistic Buddhism, Consensus Buddhism, Post-traditional Buddhism, Neo-Buddhism, Protestant Buddhism, True Buddhism, Rebel Buddhism, Practical Dharma, Living Dharma, Buddhist Geeks, Dharma Punx, and on and on. Some of these, do not make any sense.

For a while, I practiced non-sectarian Buddhism. Another label, another “ism.” These days, I’m just a Buddhist.

New American Buddha

And, every so often, the news media discovers that some Americans practice Buddhism and then they publish articles proclaiming it to be the next big thing. Every five years, I reckon.

Several recent articles have cited findings in 2008 by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life Religious Landscape survey and the American Religious Identification Survey that estimated “the number of [Buddhist] adherents rose by 170 percent between 1990 and 2000, reaching 1.2 million followers in 2008.”

I find that hard to believe. I think a lot of people are interested in Buddhism. A lot of people read about Buddhism. They like the Dalai Lama and think he’s cool. But I don’t think that many actually “follow” or “practice” Buddhism.

One of these articles, at Humanities, notes that Buddhism has become a marketing tool and “its ideas permeate American culture—from song lyrics by the Beastie Boys and spiritual themes in Star Wars, to the publicly professed faith of superstars such as Tiger Woods and Richard Gere. Buddhists have been elected to Congress, and according to recent polls, Buddhists are less discriminated against than are Christians.”

A sales tool, absolutely. But the Beastie Boys, Star Wars, Tiger Woods, and Richard Gere are hardly evidence that Buddhism has permeated anything. And only two Buddhists have been elected to Congress. And I don’t buy that Buddhists are less discriminated against than Christians. The article goes on to ask the probing question, “But what do Americans really know about Buddhism?” I suspect not much when you really get down to it.

Another recent article, actually a guest blog at the Washington Post by William Wilson Quinn, delves into the matter of how Americans practice Buddhism and suggests that they are doing so in un-traditional ways. I have mixed feelings about that. Buddha-dharma must change, and will change. I’m just not so sure that people doing most of the changing know what they are doing.

My real question though, is just who the hell is this guy, William Wilson Quinn? He is identified in the blog piece as “a scholar of Buddhism and brother of On Faith’s Sally Quinn.” But I can’t find anything on the Internet about him beyond this single article which everyone and his or her brother who is not related to Sally Quinn seems to have picked up on. I don’t think he’s a real person. Maybe he’s really Sally Quinn. I think an investigation needs to be launched into this matter. Spurious people spinning specious scripts about Buddhism is suspect. Actually, this may be a job for my favorite crime-fighting Buddhist – The Green Lama!

Maybe William Wilson Quinn is a real person. Maybe American Buddhism will be the next big thing. Maybe Justin Bieber will renounce his career and all worldly things and go to live in a monastery. Maybe he is the reincarnation of John Wayne. Maybe Abraham Lincoln really was a vampire hunter. Maybe this post has no real point to it. Now, that last one is a definite possibility.


Having A Stubborn Streak

"The Lady" meets the Dalai Lama

I’ve been on vacation. Visiting relatives in Northern California. Had a wonderful time. Now I’m back and catching up on all the news and different things I missed while I was away: Rodney King died. That guy had one troubled life. Hosni Mubarak suffered a stroke and may be brain dead. And Henry Hill, the guy who inspired Goodfellas, also passed away. Aung San Suu Kyi traveled to Europe and finally got her Nobel Prize.  And yesterday, on her 67th birthday, she met with the Dalai Lama.

In the UK, someone asked Aung San Suu Kyi how she found the strength to resist the military government in Burma for so long, and she said,

During this journey I have found great warmth and great support among people all over the world . . . So it’s all of you and people like you who have given me the strength to continue . . . And I suppose I do have a stubborn streak in me.”

Stubbornness is not usually considered a positive trait, but all truly great people are stubborn. Unyielding might be a better word for it. I’m thinking especially of my aunt, who is English, and not because she is particularly stubborn or unyielding herself (although she probably is to some degree), but because during one of the evenings I spent at her and my uncle’s house, she told me some stories about her life as a young woman in London during the early days of World War II, when the Germans were bombing the city and the block she lived in was completely destroyed. Thank goodness, the English people were stubborn, unyielding, and refused to knuckle under to Hitler’s onslaught.

There were a lot of stubborn people around that time. Churchill was stubborn, so was Roosevelt, and Gandhi. Stubborn people are real heroes of life. In more recent times, Nelson Mandela was stubborn. After his long years of imprisonment, he stubbornly did not give in to hatred, bitterness, or vengeance. Stubborn people refuse to yield to oppression, or life-threatening diseases. They are the kind of people who do not accept their circumstances in life and want to better themselves, or resist acceptance of the way things are and because they’re stubborn, they work to enact change. Sometimes it’s simply a matter of being stubborn enough to just survive.

In this sense, I think stubbornness is good trait for Buddhists to cultivate. I hear many people complain about meditation practice these days. They say, well, you know, Buddhism is more than meditation, and so on. They’re right, and yet, I have the feeling that’s just a rationalization, an excuse. Whether it’s silent meditation or chanting, a daily practice is hard to maintain. Maybe these complainers lack the stubbornness to keep it up.

“Resolution” is another good word for stubbornness. Shantideva wrote:

The thought of enlightenment has two stages: (1) the resolution for enlightenment; and (2) the advancement toward the same. As the holy Gandavyuha says: ‘Rare, my son, in all the world are such beings who make a resolution toward the highest illumination, yet rarer than these are they that have started toward the same’ . . . The first of these, the thought of the resolution towards enlightenment, is produced by the decision of the mind: ‘I must become a Buddha’ for the Surangama Sutra says that the thought of enlightenment produced by actual deception is a cause of Buddhahood . . .”

The way I interpret this is that the “deception” is the notion that there is a final stage, a consummate state called Buddhahood or enlightenment. It’s a deception because, as I always say, enlightenment is a journey, not a destination. Yet, without some idea of an end, we would never begin; we’d never make that decision of the mind to step off on the journey. That’s why I prefer to use the word “awakening” for enlightenment. The “ing” form implies something happening in the present, of “doing.” We don’t become enlightened so much as we are becoming enlightened, we are awakening.  And to me, being a Buddhist means having the stubbornness, the resolution, the unyielding spirit to continue the process of awakening no matter what happens.

The Dhammavadaka Sutra says,

You, no less than all beings have Buddha Nature within. Your essential Mind is pure. Therefore, when defilements cause you to stumble and fall, let not remorse nor dark foreboding cast you down. Be of good cheer and with this understanding, summon strength and walk on.”

Having a stubborn streak means to “walk on.” For 15 years the military government of Burma kept Aung San Suu Kyi under house arrest. She could not step out of her small compound, yet she walked on. This year she was elected to her country’s parliament. This week she went to Norway and finally received her Nobel Prize, and she traveled to England and finally received her honorary degree from Oxford University. And she, like Mandela, has resisted the temptation of hatred, bitterness or vengeance.

Unyielding. Resolute. We should all have such a stubborn streak.

Suu Kyi/Dalai Lama Photo: Jeremy Russell/OHHDL



I’m getting ready to take a brief trip up north to the Bay Area and Monterey. I thought I’d get out one of my favorite novels and reread it, Cannery Row by John Steinbeck, to kind of get in the mood. Not that I need to get in the mood, but it’s a good excuse to become reacquainted with an old friend: “Cannery Row in Monterey in California is a poem, a stink, a grating noise, a quality of light, a tone, a habit, a nostalgia, a dream.”

As I was digging around for one of my three copies, I ran across Turtle Island, a book of poems by Gary Snyder, whose name certainly brings forth Northern California associations for me. Buddhism, too. Thumbing through Turtle Island, I found a great poem I hadn’t read in years, and I just had to share it with you. It’s called “Avocado”:

The Dharma is like an Avocado!
Some parts so ripe you can’t believe it.
But it’s good.
And other parts hard and green
Without much flavor,
Pleasing those who like their eggs well-cooked.

And the skin is thin,
The great big round seed
In the middle,
Is your own Original Nature –
Pure and smooth,
Almost nobody ever splits it open
Or tries to see
If it will grow.

Hard and slippery,
It looks like
You should plant it – but then
It shoots out thru the
fingers –
gets away.