Thomas Merton: “Everything is emptiness and everything is compassion.”

Today is the 99th anniversary of Thomas Merton, the Trappist monk considered a major spiritual thinker of the 20th century.  Author of more than 60 books, he was an influential Catholic writer.  He also had an impact on the religious culture of America through his embrace of Buddhism and other Eastern philosophies.  He pioneered inter-faith dialogue, engaging with such people as D.T. Suzuki, the Dalai Lama, and Thich Nhat Hanh.

Merton burst upon the consciousness of America with his biography, The Seven Story Mountain, published in 1948.  I’ve never read it, but I did read a biography, The Seven Mountains of Thomas Merton by Michael Mott.  The overriding impression of Merton I got from that book was that he was a conflicted person.  Well, aren’t we all?  In Merton’s case, he lived the life of a monastic at Abbey of Our Lady of Gethsemani, but he had a bit of wild side.  He liked jazz, dancing, drinking, smoking, etc.  My feeling was that the real source of his conflict had to do with celibacy.  He fell in love several times in his life, and if I recall correctly, he renounced his monastic vows to be with one of the women.  It didn’t last long and he returned to his monk’s cell in the abbey.  Which only proves he was human.

Merton’s interest in Eastern philosophy and meditation began an encounter with the writings of Adlous Huxley in the 1930’s.  By the late 50’s he developed a keen interest in Zen, which sparked a dialogue with D.T. Suzuki, who contributed greatly to the popularization of Buddhism in the West.  The dialogue was subsequently published in Merton’s book, Zen and the Birds of Appetite.  He also greatly admired the writings attributed to Chinese philosopher Chuang Tzu and adapted them as poetry and short pieces in The Way of Chuang Tzu.

Merton’s life ended unexpectedly, and tragically.  In 1968, he was attending an interfaith meeting in Bangkok, Thailand, when he was electrocuted by an electric fan as he was getting out of his bath.  It was three weeks after the third meeting with the Dalai Lama.

thomas_merton_dalai_lamaOf that meeting, he wrote in his Asian Journal,

[The Dalai Lama] asked a lot of questions about Western monastic life, particularly the vows, the rule of silence, the ascetic way, etc… It was a very warm and cordial discussion and at the end I felt we had become very good friends and were somehow quite close to one another. I feel a great respect and fondness for him as a person and believe, too, that there is a real spiritual bond between us. He remarked that I was a ‘Catholic geshe,’ which Harold said, was the highest possible praise from a Gelugpa, like an honorary doctorate!”

Shortly before the meeting in Thailand, Merton visited Sri Lanka.  He went to the Buddhist shrine at Polonnaruwa.  The priest he was traveling with would not enter the shrine owing to its “paganism.”  But Merton removed his shoes and walked barefoot through it.  This entry in the Asian Journal records his impressions:

Then the silence of the extraordinary faces.  The great smiles.  Huge and yet subtle.  Filled with every possibility, questioning nothing, knowing everything, rejecting nothing, the peace not of emotional resignation but of Madhyamika, of sunyata, that has seen through every question without trying to discredit anyone or anything  . . . For the doctrinaire, the mind that needs well-established positions, such peace, such silence, can be frightening  . . .

Looking at these figures I was suddenly, almost forcibly, jerked clean out of the habitual, half-tied vision of things, and an inner clearness, clarity, as if exploding from the rocks themselves, became evident and obvious…

All problems are resolved and everything is clear. The rock, all matter, all life, is charged with dharmakaya  . . . everything is emptiness and everything is compassion.  I don’t know when in my life I have ever had such a sense of beauty and spiritual validity running together in one aesthetic illumination.  Surely . . . my Asian pilgrimage has come clear and purified itself. I mean, I know and have seen what I was obscurely looking for.  I don’t know what else remains but I have now seen and have pierced through the surface and have got beyond the shadow and the disguise.

The whole thing is very much a Zen garden, a span of bareness and openness and evidence… a beautiful and holy vision.”


Man of a Thousand Songs

We visited a land of a thousand songs
Every garden many shades of green
Still they told us, after peace will come
Such colors then as you have never seen.

– Pete Seeger, “Land of a Thousand Songs”

pete_seegerIt’s hard to know where to begin with Pete Seeger. I guess with the end . . . Pete Seeger has died at the age of 94. He’s been called “America’s conscience” and “the father of American folk music”; he was a great storyteller, renown banjo picker, environmental crusader, anti-war protester, collector of folk lore and songs, husband, father.

I had the pleasure of seeing Pete Seeger perform several times. One memorable concert was at the old Universal Amphitheater here in Los Angeles during the 1984 concert tour with Arlo Guthrie, Holly Near, and Ronnie Gilbert (one of the original Weavers). Pete believed in audience participation. No one was better at getting an audience on their feet and singing along than he was. He called this ability to rouse the audience his “cultural guerrilla tactic.”

At Pete’s 90th birthday celebration held at Manhattan’s Madison Square Garden in 2009, Bruce Springsteen said,

At some point, Pete Seeger decided he’d be a walking, singing reminder of all of America’s history. He’d be a living archive of America’s music and conscience, a testament of the power of song and culture to nudge history along, to push American events towards more humane and justified ends. He would have the audacity and the courage to sing in the voice of the people, and despite Pete’s somewhat benign, grandfatherly appearance, he is a creature of a stubborn, defiant and nasty optimism. Inside him, he carries a steely toughness that belies that grandfatherly facade and it won’t let him take a step back from the things he believes in.”

Much of that was just Pete’s natural way of being. Some of it he learned from the man who was, along with Leadbelly, his mentor in music, and life, a certain Woodrow Wilson Guthrie from Oklahoma, a man the world knows as Woody. Woody’s music and his sense of what it means to be an American was, for me, one of the most notable causes Pete Seeger championed during his life. He was instrumental in keeping Woody’s songs alive. We should all be grateful for that, and remember as well, that Pete wrote, or co-wrote, some great songs himself. “If I Had a Hammer”, “Where Have All The Flowers Gone?” and “Turn, Turn, Turn” will live forever.

That last song Pete adapted from the Book of Ecclesiastes. Another song Pete adapted was an old gospel tune, “I’ll Overcome Someday”, by African-American composer Charles Albert Tindley. When Pete got through with it, the song was called “We Shall Overcome” and it became the anthem of the civil rights movement.

Pete was the epitome of ‘spiritual but not religious.’ He had a distrust for anything too organized, especially religion. In an interview from a few years back, he mentioned that he used to say “I was an atheist. Now I say, it’s all according to your definition of God. According to my definition of God, I’m not an atheist. Because I think God is everything. Whenever I open my eyes.” Nature was probably the only church Pete regularly attended. He and his wife Toshi, who died last July, lived in the woods in upper New York state. For many years, their cabin had no electricity or running water. The couple had an appreciation for Eastern philosophy, but as far as I know it was not a major influence in their lives. However, Pete did write a parody of the song “Give Me That Old Time Religion” that mentions Zarathustra, Hare Krishna, Odin, Aphrodite, and includes this little verse:

Let me follow dear old Buddha
For there is nobody cuter
He comes in plaster, wood, or pewter
And that’s good enough for me

You can read the LA Times obituary here, and more details of Pete Seeger’s amazing life on his Wikipedia page.

It’s a bit of cliché now to talk about leaving the world a better place than you found it, but that’s exactly what Pete Seeger did. He left us better people, too. So long, Pete, it’s been good to know yuh.

Here is a video clip of Pete picking a hard-drivin’ banjo and singing one of my favorite Woody Guthrie songs, “Pastures of Plenty.”


Desire, Dreams, and Cups of Gold

Today’s post is about desire . . . and pirates.

Desire – lust, appetite, need, an overwhelming feeling of longing, to want something, that craving to hold onto pleasurable experiences, the principle cause of suffering . . . and pirates – buccaneers, sea-bandits, freebooters, picaroons . . .

Why? Because it was on this day in 1671 that one of the most famous pirates of history, Henry Morgan, landed in Panama. And it was on some other day, in August of 1929, that one of my favorite authors, John Steinbeck published his first book, Cup of Gold, which he subtitled “A life of Sir Henry Morgan, Buccaneer, with Occasional Reference to History.”

The reason Henry Morgan landed on The Isthmus of Panama was because he wanted to take the city of Panama, and he wanted it bad. Steinbeck writes,

Panama was a great, lovely city in 1670 when Henry Morgan determined on its destruction; a rich, strong city, and justly called the Cup of Gold. No place in all the raw New World could compare with it in beauty and in wealth.”

First edition
First edition

In Steinbeck’s novel, Henry Morgan is obsessed with this goal: “I must take Panama. I must capture the Cup of Gold.” Because the author presents Morgan as a rather romantic character, for Steinbeck was at heart a romantic writer and many of his books are modern retellings of the legend of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table, it is not merely the riches of the city he desires. He wants a woman, too:

‘There is a woman in Panama and she is lovely as the sun. They call her the Red Saint in Panama. All men kneel to her.’ Thus said the whispering. The voice grew and grew until men in the taverns drank to La Santa Roja. Young seamen whispered of her in the dog watch. ‘There is a woman in the Cup of Gold and all men fall before her as heathen kneel before the sun.’ They spoke softly of her in the streets of Goaves. No one had seen her; no one could tell the tint of her cheeks or the color of her hair. Yet, in a few years, every man in the wide, wild Main had drunk to the Red Saint, had dreamed of her; many had prayed to La Santa Roja. She became to every man the quest of his heart, bearing the image of some fair young girl left on a European beach to be gloriously colored by the years. And Panama was to every man the nest of his desire. It was a curious thing. In time, no speech among gathered men could end without mention of La Santa Roja. She was become a queer delirium in the minds of the rough pirates, a new virgin for their worship. Many said she was Mary come to live on earth again, and they added her name in their prayers.”

Morgan and his men landed on Panama’s Caribbean coast and marched overland to the city. However, to the pirates chagrin, they found very little in the way of plunder, for the city officials, having anticipated the assault, transferred most of the town’s treasure to a Spanish galleon that lay in the Gulf of Panama beyond their reach. Not too happy about this turn of events, Morgan and his men tortured as many of the Panamanian citizens they could find, but these folks had little gold to surrender, and perhaps, that’s why, in frustration, the pirates burned the city to the ground.

After Cup of Gold came out, Steinbeck was of the opinion that this first published work was not very good, and others have agreed with him. When I first read it some thirty years ago, I enjoyed it immensely and thought it too short, but then I’m a sucker for pirates, and especially Morgan, portrayed on film by Errol Flynn (as Captain Blood) and the immortal Steve Reeves. In case you might pick up the book some day, I won’t include any spoilers here. I’ll just say that Morgan was consumed by greed and hunger, a consummation that led to fairly predictable results.

The moral of Steinbeck’s version of the Captain Morgan legend is pretty obvious: all that glitters is not gold, or as the Buddha puts it in the Dhammapada,

Even a rain of gold would not be able to quench the thirst of desire, for It is insatiable and the origin of sorrows. This the sage knows, and finds no delight even in the pleasures of heaven. A disciple of the Buddha delights only in the elimination of desire.”

Not all desire is destructive. The desire for peace, for instance, is constructive. In Vajrayana or Tantric Buddhism, desire is the fuel for transformation and the foundation of compassion. The idea is not to reject desires but to use them. That can be a tricky path, though, and a practitioner needs to possess a superior degree of self-discipline because it’s easy to end up going down a side path where one indulges desire.

For most Buddhists, the path means having few desires, and although the Buddha spoke of the elimination of desire, I think their complete eradication is somewhat idealistic. In theory, there’s something to be said for the Vajrayana approach. It’s more realistic to conquer desire. Just as we strive to master our minds, we want to master our desires so that they don’t master us.

Desires are like dreams . . . I often dream that I am about to get something that I want very much, but always before I can have it, I wake up. These dreams can be intense, and seem real, and in those first few minutes of wakefulness I am disappointed that I was only dreaming, and I experience frustration and a sense of loss that I didn’t get what I wanted. Buddha said not getting what you want is the greatest suffering, and actually getting what you want is the second greatest.

But enough about desire. When I was a boy, I used to dream about being a pirate . . .

Mother, mother ocean, I have heard you call,
Wanted to sail upon your waters
since I was three feet tall.
You’ve seen it all, you’ve seen it all.

Watch the men who rode you,
Switch from sails to steam.
And in your belly you hold the treasure
that few have ever seen, most of them dreams,
Most of them dreams.

Yes, I am a pirate two hundred years too late.
The cannons don’t thunder there’s nothin’ to plunder
I’m an over forty victim of fate
Arriving too late, arriving too late.

– Jimmy Bufffett



Healing and the Emptiness of Karma

In any discussion about the Buddhist perspective on healing, one of the first things we have to contend with is the doctrine of karma. This is a troubling notion for some modern Buddhists who are inclined to doubt karma (and rebirth) because there is insufficient evidence of their validity. I have doubts myself about these two concepts, yet I have never been willing to dismiss them outright. One thing I’ve learned over the years is that there is little in Buddhism that is not useful on some level.

Sickness is one of the four sufferings taught by the Buddha (along with birth, old age and death). Raoul Birnbaum, in Healing and Restoring, explains the traditional view of how karma relates to sickness:

Most fundamentally, disease relates to either a direct or indirect result of karma, either retribution for specific acts or the ultimate effect of longstanding patterns of thoughts, words and deeds. Since the mind drives the speech and actions that generate karma, it is the mind especially that is seen as root of disease.”

Karma has long been seen as a form of metaphysical payback. If you’re not “good,” then something really “bad” is going to happen. Your karma will get you. Karma became a tool to coerce people to adopt socially acceptable behavior. There is a flip side. Good deeds will reap future positive situations. The amount of merit (punya) a person accrues can result in good karma: a good rebirth, or in this life, good health and freedom from disease. Basically we have been presented with a scenario where a sword of Damocles is hanging over our head and a carrot dangles from a stick in front of our face.

Now, our old friend Nagarjuna had some problems with this. He understood that karma referred to “action” and not to a law of causality, and that all action is volition and volitional. Karma is not the result or effect of action. For karma to be “a law of cause and effect,” it would have to be of the nature of permanence (nityata):

If karma were a fixed thing [i.e. enduring] because of its self-nature, then its ripening would always remain.

Nagarjuna, Fundamental Verses on the Middle Way 17:25

The questions Nagarjuna dealt with in Verses, included whether or not the ripening or effects of karma were imperishable and inevitable, and if perhaps the effects existed prior to the full ripening.  As I understand it, Nagarjuna felt these questions suggested that karma exists from its own side, that it has self-nature. However, that cannot be the case, for all phenomena whether material or immaterial are devoid of any inherent self-nature or essence, and are impermanent.  Things are not “fixed.”  They are sunya – empty.

David J. Kalupahana (who passed away Jan. 15) writes in Nagarjuna The Philosophy of the Middle Way,

Even though there is no continuity of karma (and in this case, borrowing), that is, it does not continue in any subtle or substantial way, the responsibility for that karma cannot be denied once that karma is performed . . .

The simple notion of human responsibility is what is upheld here, not the metaphysical notion of the fruit or result that lies hidden and gradually attains maturity . . .”

I am simplifying Nagarjuna’s explanation a bit, and yet it is simple. He did not reject cause and effect, for actions do have consequences.  However, he does reject the notion that karma is some self-existing force, a Law of the Universe.  It seems to me that a sense of responsibility is the all-important take-away from the doctrine of karma.

Few people in this modern age have any use for the notion of responsibility. As soon as it is suggested that individuals should assume responsibility for what happens to them, one is accused of blaming the victim, etc. That’s missing the point. It is foolish not to take responsibility for one’s own actions, just as it is equally unwise to say that every consequence in life is a result of karma.

We can’t say the cause for every suffering exists within the life of the individual, or that effects are always the result of some past action. But, without a doubt, suffering exists within, and taking responsibility for the suffering can influence the future.

The first step in healing, then, is to “own” the suffering.  We take full responsibility not only for the suffering but also for the healing process. This requires a willingness to break free from past negative patterns in thought, word and deed that can impede healing. It also involves compassion or love for oneself and for others.

The English word ‘heal’ is connected the word ‘hale’, which is related to ‘whole.’ To heal is to be whole. ‘Whole’ also means, “that which has also survived” and “keeping the original sense” and “to heal.”

In Buddhism, wholeness ultimately means to be awakened.  Awakening implies wisdom, but also surviving or transcending suffering, and discovering one’s original nature.  In this way, the path to awakening is also the path to healing.

Listening to and understanding our inner sufferings will resolve most of the problems we encounter. In order to heal others, we first need to heal ourselves. And to heal ourselves, we need to know how to deal with ourselves. If we know how to go back to ourselves, listen and heal, we can change. But most of us don’t know how to listen to ourselves and understand the sufferings.”

Thich Nhat Hanh, “Stop and Heal,” Jamsil Indoor Stadium, Seoul Korea, May 2013


Every Day Should Be A Day of Service

Today, Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, is not only a time for remembering the life of a courageous man, it is also meant to be a Day of Service. As explained on the site,

The MLK Day of Service is a way to transform Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s life and teachings into community action that helps solve social problems. That service may meet a tangible need, or it may meet a need of the spirit. On this day, Americans of every age and background celebrate Dr. King through service projects that strengthen communities, empower individuals, bridge barriers, and create solutions.”

Buddhism teaches that every day should be a day of service. It is not alone in promoting this idea, but I would argue that Buddha-dharma has a unique conception of what service means. And service is the core, the heart and soul, the supreme path of Buddhism, at least in the Mahayana branch.

The ideal that epitomizes the spirit of service is that of the bodhisattva. This means “enlightening being,” a person who helps others, primarily by assisting others to light their inner light – by awkening them. Formally, a bodhisattva vows to liberate all beings without exception from suffering. What’s more, the bodhisattva resolves to remain in this world for “as long as beings remain” and not only liberate them but assume the burden of their sufferings, to take into his or her body the sufferings of all living beings.

For some time now, I’ve been of the opinion that the hidden message of Mahayana Buddhism is that it is more important to be a bodhisattva than it is to become a buddha. The seed of this idea was planted in my mind by something the Dalai Lama said at UCLA in 1997. I’ve posted it before, but a good teaching can’t be repeated too many times. He was talking about a passage in Nagarjuna’s Precious Garland that deals with feeling discouraged over the length of time required to become “enlightened”:

If, as a result of one’s commitment to the principles of the Bodhisattva ideal, one sees that the purpose of one’s life is to be of benefit to others, and from the depths of one’s heart there is a real sense of dedication of one’s entire life for the benefit of other sentient beings, and that kind of strong courage and principle – for that kind of person, then time doesn’t seem to matter much. Whether or not that person becomes enlightened, as far as he or she is concerned, it doesn’t make any difference, because the purpose of existence is to be of benefit to others, and if the person is able to be of service to others, then that person is really able to fulfill his or her true purpose. Such is the kind of courage and determination to altruistic principles that bodhisattvas should adopt.”

In promoting the bodhisattva ideal, the Mahayana Buddhists were rejecting the notion that Nirvana meant extinction. This very world of suffering is Nirvana, they said. Buddhahood is not some supra-mundane state, and this is perhaps why in the Mahayana sutras the Buddha was elevated to a mythological, celestial status, a reality that could not possibly be realized. Bodhisattvahood, on the other hand, is a state of being for this mundane world, and can be realized by everyone. Indeed, most Mahayana schools teach that Buddhahood or enlightenment is possible in this very life, with this very body.  Some teachings put the Buddha and the bodhisattva on the same level. For instance, Nagarjuna in his Treatise on the Maha-Prajna-Paramita Sutra wrote,

The Buddha and the bodhisattva are one, undivided. It is therefore that the bodhisattva is considered to be the same as the Buddha is.”

Unfortunately, many Buddhist chase after Buddhahood as if it were a prize.  They are so busy trying to realize supra-mundane states, that they neglect the mundane but necessary work of helping others.  They never know the joy of bodhicitta, the thought of awakening, the starting point of the bodhisattva path.  I can’t help but feel that the path of a solitary buddha must be a lonely one.

Had he been a Buddhist, Martin Luther King, Jr. would have understood all this. Actually, he did understand it, in his own way, on his own terms as a Christian. He knew that every day should be a day of service, which is why he once said,

Life’s most persistent and urgent question is, ‘What are you doing for others?’”