My Father and the Beauty of Birth and Death

My father died last Thursday. He was 93. He lived a good, full life and although mentally he was as sharp as he ever was, his body was failing and it was time for him to go. I sensed this a few days beforehand. I had an opportunity to talk to him Wednesday on the phone and tell him that I loved him. I think we both knew we were saying goodbye.

For most of us, the word ‘death’ is ugly. We fear death and when death comes to those we love, it causes us to suffer. But the person who has passed away is not suffering. When death is peaceful, like my father’s, then death has mercy. Death can have beauty. To fear death and to experience great sadness when a loved one dies is natural, but it is also a bit irrational.

Jiddu Krishnamurti once said, “When you use the word ‘death’, dying, it means that you have also lived. The two cannot be separated.”

To understand the inseparability of life and death is one way to conquer our fear of it. It is also a way in which we can see the beauty of death.

Some people focus on what happens after death, a thing no one knows. They believe in an afterlife because they think they will find immortality. They believe they will go to a heaven or a pure Buddha land, or they will achieve nirvana – their reward for the sufferings they experienced in this life.

I don’t know if the theory of rebirth was originally a part of the Buddha’s teachings or whether it was something added later. But I do know that Mahayana Buddhism teaches that suffering is nirvana. This saha (mundane) world is itself heaven. Or, as Dogen said, our life right now is the life of the Buddha.

My father was a Christian man. An honest, moral, upright man, respected by all who knew him. I feel that his integrity transcended religion. It was a quality he possessed naturally. It was just the way he was.

While my grief is immense, I can see the beauty of my father’s death. More importantly, I can see the beauty of his life.

This present birth and death itself is the life of the Buddha. If you attempt to reject it with distaste, you are losing thereby the life of the Buddha.”

– Dogen


Throwback Thursday: Bamboo Mind

This is an edited version of a post published in 2013.

In “Discourses on Vegetable Roots” Hung Tzu-Ch’eng, wrote,

Human nature is frail; the path of life is far from being smooth. Where a journey is hard, therefore, wayfarers should know how to take a step backward; on the other hand, where it is not so difficult and it is possible to go on, one should have the grace of yielding a little.”

chinese-bamboo1cWe humans can learn how to yield by observing nature. For instance, bamboo stalks are brittle and can easily snap off from the force of a strong wind. But, they are also flexible and they bend to the wind. By yielding in this way, the bamboo finds success. It survives. For human beings, advancement is not always progress. Sometimes withdrawal, taking a step back, is progress. By knowing when not to advance, and when to bend, we can get through life successfully. We can learn from the way of bamboo.

The way of bamboo is similar to the way of water. The ancient philosophers of the Tao and of Ch’an Buddhism often advised emulating the adaptability of water. For instance, the Tao Te Ching tells us that nothing is more soft and yielding than water, and yet it overcomes things that are hard and rigid. Water benefits all things, and yet it does not strive.

In terms of Buddhist practice, yielding means we should not be too rigid in our approach and cling to any one point of view. It is difficult to perceive the true nature of reality, the nature of others, or even our own nature, when we stubbornly cling to positions and opinions. Attachment to a view is drsti-paramarsa, which itself is a sort of perverted or false view. Nagarjuna said, “One who does not accept the view of another and clings to his or her own construction is devoid of wisdom.”

What applies to Buddhist practice, also applies to daily life, for ultimately there is no separation between the two.

The species of bamboo known as Giant Bamboo can grow over 100 feet in height. Giant Bamboo are one of the fastest growing plants in the world, and their stalks are hollow. By being empty inside, bamboo is able to absorb more energy and yet use less energy. If the stalks were solid, they would not be able to grow as fast, or as tall.

Those who resist the urge to coerce satisfaction from life only through relentless advancement and by trying to force things, will find truer satisfaction and greater success at the end of the journey. This is one way to understand what it means to “become empty,” and it is what Hung Tzu-Ch’eng meant when he wrote,

Let us make the mind as empty as the interior of a bamboo . . . When the mind is empty, one’s nature reveals itself in its true state. A person trying to look into his or her own nature without without putting their mind at rest is like trying to see the reflected moon by disturbing the water.”


Stephen Levine, Kuan Yin and an Eagle

Teacher, author and poet, Stephen Levine passed away Sunday at the age of 78 after an unspecified “long illness”.

StephenLevineAs noted on his Wikipedia page, Levine was “one of a generation of pioneering teachers who, along with Jack Kornfield, Joseph Goldstein and Sharon Salzberg, have made the teachings of Theravada Buddhism more widely available to students in the West.” Lion’s Roar, in its announcement of Levine’s death noted how he “was influenced by various spiritual traditions. He was also a friend of Ram Dass and, like him, was a student of Neem Karoli Baba.”

Levine’s last book, published in 2013, was Becoming Kuan Yin: The Evolution of Compassion.

The story he tells, of Miao Shan, the princess who defied her father and became a Buddhist nun at White Sparrow Monastry, is central to the Chinese evolution from the male Avalokitesvara into the female Kuan Yin.  In the Heart Sutra, Kuan Yin transcends all sufferings, crossing over the sea of suffering. Transcending gender, Kuan Yin becomes even more relevant as an archetypal symbol for our times.

Instead of some cosmic being that exists above our everyday reality, Kuan Yin should be seen as representing the universal capacity of all human beings to give love.

This excerpt from Levine’s book is from Chapter Five, “Miao Shan Observing” and it struck me as rather beautiful:

Miao Shan was learning a lot about true prayer and the levels of loving-kindness meditation available in surrender and mindful service as they infiltrated each action throughout her day. She found her heart in the first breath upon waking, and it called forth her spiritual ancestors, the saints, the bodhisattvas, and the Buddhas of the ages for support.

Each intention was enforced with the clarity and power of love. She learned more about love by watching how unloving the people around her could be. She learned about how mercy could heal, like a poultice, the wounds of absence in the convent’s sad inhabitants. And the parishioners, many out of exasperation, came to plead their causes to some power beyond their own . . .

Some monks not entering the monastery sat in the courtyard in meditative prayer seeking not some Supreme Being but supreme beingness; doing spiritual practice not just for their own benefit, but for the well being of others . . .”

And we bid a sad farewell to Glenn Frey who died yesterday. He was a founding member of The Eagles, the band whose music typified the peaceful, easy (sometimes hard) California country sound.  Several years ago, he release a sole album of pop standards and here is a video of one of them, Bobby Troup’s immortal “Route 66”:


Unarmed, Unconditional, Unlimited

Very near the end of his final State of the Union speech Tuesday night, President Obama said that the America he knows is a country “Optimistic that unarmed truth and unconditional love will have the final word.”

Unarmed truth.  Think about it again: unarmed truth.

obama-martin-luther-king-jrThe President borrowed the line from Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., who in his 1964 Nobel Peace Prize Acceptance address said, “I believe that unarmed truth and unconditional love will have the final word in reality. This is why right temporarily defeated is stronger than evil triumphant.”

I suspect that to Dr. King, a student of Gandhian philosophy, “unarmed truth” meant the principles of satya (truth), ahimsa (non-violence), and satyagraha (“firmness in truth”) or nonviolent resistance, which for Gandhi, were eternal principles. The Mahatma once wrote,

Mere non-killing is not enough. The active part of Non-violence is love. The law of Love requires equal consideration for all life from the tiniest insect to the highest man.”

Gandhi equated the law of love with the law of gravitity and said it will work whether we accept it or not.

gandhi_tagore2We don’t use the word ‘love’ very much in Buddhism, rather we speak of loving-kindness (metta) or compassion (karuna), and yet as the great Indian poet Rabindranath Tagore (one of the first people to refer to Gandhi as “Mahatma”) said that the way of the Buddha is “the elimination of all limits of love, the sublimation of self in a truth which is love itself.”

In Buddhism, true compassion consists of two aspects: empathy, to understand and care about the sufferings of others, and action, to remove the cause for suffering, to give peace and happiness. There is an element of sacrifice with love. There are great benefits, too. The greatest benefit is when we can benefit others.

Some people tell us the idea of universal compassion is too lofty, unrealistic. But what is the alternative? Love is not the cause of the turmoil in the world. Hate is the cause.

For others, compassion is not only the path to truth, it is truth, unarmed, unconditional, unlimited.

In his Autobiography, Gandhi stated,

The instruments for the quest of truth are as simple as they are difficult. They may appear quite impossible to an arrogant person, and quite possible to an innocent child. The seeker after truth should be humbler than the dust. The world crushes the dust under its feet, but the seeker after truth should so humble himself that even the dust could crush him. Only then, and not till then, will he have a glimpse of truth.”

Only then will he or she have a glimpse of love.

– – – – – – – – – –

Gandhi quote at beginning from The Essential Writings, Mahatma Gandhi, Judith M. Brown,Oxford University Press, 2008, 115



As you probably know, David Bowie is dead. Comes as quite a shock. A victim of cancer, he just turned 69 a few days ago and released his 27th studio album, Blackstar. According to CNN, “Neither his publicist nor the statement elaborated on what kind of cancer the singer was fighting.” Earlier yesterday, this message appeared on Bowie’s Twitter account: “David Bowie died peacefully today surrounded by his family after a courageous 18 month battle.”

bowie2I was just thinking about Bowie yesterday. I was remembering how much I enjoyed the music on the Let’s Dance album, not because it necessarily represented his best work, but rather because the tunes had a beat and you could dance to them and it was part of the soundtrack to a fun time in my life. I thought I should listen to it again.

It was during the tour supporting that album that I attended my one and only Bowie concert. A great show at the Forum in Inglewood. August, 1983. It was called the “Serious Moonlight” tour.

Bowie got into Buddhism when he was a teenager, influenced (like so many of us back in the day) by the novels of Jack Kerouac. After he recorded his first album, Bowie spent a few weeks at a Buddhist monastery in Scotland. I don’t know this for sure, but I believe it was Samye Ling, founded by Chogyam Trungpa, and the first Tibetan Buddhist monastery in the West. I also don’t know if the interest in Buddha-dharma stayed with him the rest of his life. There was a period when he flirted with Christianity.

In 1993, he produced the soundtrack for The Buddha of Suburbia, a 1993 BBC mini-series based on the book by Hanif Kureishi, a coming of age story set in London during the 1970s. As I recall the book has more to do with rock music than Buddha.

David Bowie’s impact on popular music during the last three decades of the 20th century is nearly incalculable. He is among the pantheon of music greats. I always thought he deserved more credit as a great singer, and to me, a great singer is someone who after just a couple of note, you know exactly who it is. That was Bowie.

That early Buddhist influence is evident in this song, Silly Boy Blue, from his 1967 debut album. Lyrics follow the video.

Silly Boy Blue

David Bowie

Mountains of Lhasa are feeling the rain
People are walking the Botella lanes
Preacher takes the school
One boy breaks a rule
Silly Boy Blue, silly Boy Blue

Yak butter statues that melt in the sun
Cannot dissolve all the work you’ve not done
A chela likes to feel
That his over self pays the bill
Silly Boy Blue, silly Boy Blue

You wish and wish, and wish again
You’ve tried so hard to fly
You’ll never leave your body now
You’ve got to wait to die

Child of Tibet, you’re a gift from the sun
Reincarnation of one better man
The homeward road is long
You’ve left your prayers and song
Silly Boy Blue, silly Boy Blue
Silly Boy Blue, silly Boy Blue.