Like everyone, I experience brief periods of depression from time to time, but I don’t think I have ever felt as blue as I have this past week. Not in a long while anyway. It’s not just the death of my cat. I’ve dealt with the death of loved ones before. I’ve counseled people who have suffered the loss of loved ones. Tara’s death has served as the catalyst for bringing up a multitude of  . . . stuff. Feelings about my life, where it’s going, where it’s been, etcetera  and etcetera.

I haven’t been able to focus on much of anything. Haven’t felt like focusing. At the same time, I haven’t felt like engaging in self-pity, feeling sorry for myself. Let’s just say, I’ve had better weeks.

Somewhat perversely, there may be nothing more effective for taking you out of the depths of your own suffering as witnessing the sufferings of others.

I’ve been watching the Casey Anthony trial off and on. Today I thought I would tune in for a moment or two to see what was happening and there was George Anthony testifying yet again. I have a lot of empathy for George and Cindy Anthony. To lose your only grandchild like that and then to have your own daughter accused and possibility guilty of murdering her – their pain must be excruciating.

Today, George Anthony testified that he was so grief-stricken over the loss of his granddaughter Caylee that he wanted to kill himself. In a statement that mirrors my own feelings about Tara, my cat, he said, “I believe I failed her.”

From the outside, George Anthony looks like a tough guy. A hardened ex-cop. But earlier in the day, he broke down while on the stand. As he wept, the judge asked if he need to take a break and he replied no, that he wanted to continue. He said, “I need to have something inside me to get through this.”

My first thought was “You already have something inside.” Yet, as soon as the thought appeared, it seemed insufficient. We hear it all the time: the answer is inside you. The truth is within. How many times I have written something similar to that just this month. After a while, it begins to sound trite I suppose . . . and insufficient.

For some reason I thought of This Light in Oneself by Jiddu Krishnamurti. I got it off the bookshelf and turned to the section from which the book gets its title:

Most of us, if we are at all aware of our inward confusion [want clarity]. Let us see if we can come upon this clarity, so that your mind and your heart are very clear, undisturbed, with no problems and no fear. It would be immensely worthwhile to see if one could be a light to oneself.”

I wondered, how is it possible to see a inner light when everything inside you is ablaze with the flames of incessant suffering?

To do that requires meditation . . . We are going to see for ourselves if we can come upon the state of mind that is always in meditation. To lay the foundation for that meditation one must understand what living is, living and dying. The understanding of life and the extraordinary meaning of death is meditation. It is not searching out some deep mystical experience, not a constant repetition of a series of words . . . That only makes the mind quiet, but it also makes it rather dull, stupid, mesmerized. You might just a well take a tranquilizer . . .

But Jiddu, I’d like to take a tranquilizer. I wish I could get my hands on some. I’d like to tranquilize myself for about a month.

We all want to accept someone who promises something, because we have no light in ourselves. But nobody can give you the light: no guru, no teacher, no savior, no one.

So, I guess pills are not the answer either.

He tells us not to accept authority, to follow no one, that there is no path. I’m not sure if I am familiar with Krishnamurti enough to know if he means this is same way that the Heart Sutra does, or if he is speaking literally. Either way, it still feels insufficient.

But It will always be insufficient, because the truth of this light in oneself is a lonely truth. In the end, we are left to our devices. Meditation is but a tool, not a tranquilizer that makes everything wonderful after we take it. Only we ourselves can make meditation work for us. It would much easier if there really was a God to absolve all our sins or a celestial Buddha in a Pure Land whose name we could chant with the confidence that after we die, we’ll be in paradise.

Yet, the fact is that it is by oneself that we must do the work of grinding through the hard karma and the jagged emotions that belong to us alone. This lonely truth doesn’t condemn us to loneliness, however.

We stand-alone but we are not solitary. We’re not talking about cutting ourselves off from others, living in a forest as a recluse or residing safely behind monastery walls. If we experience loneliness, it is only because we are forgetting how we are interconnected with everyone and everything around us.

We are standing in the real world where real suffering takes place and it’s much harder to cross over suffering here. We can’t hide. No one can take away our sufferings. No one can give us the light. But I think that when we get that light to shine in this place, it shines brighter because it reflects all the lights shining within others.

Elsewhere in the book, Krishnamurti says,

We are going together to investigate what it means to be a light to oneself, and see how extraordinarily important it is to have this light.”

We are going together . . .

Qian: The Creative Principle

I’ve been studying the I Ching, or “Book of Changes”, off and on for over a decade now. And consulting it. I’ll toss the coins to see what hexagram they correspond to and then study the text. I’ve thought about doing I Ching readings as a little sideline but have never gotten around to it. The I Ching is often called “The Oracle” but the truth is that it’s no more a soothsayer than a Ouija board or one of those 8-balls you turn over to get a smart alec answer to some question posed (I had one as a kid; the answer I always seemed to get was “Not very likely.”).

At the same time, the I Ching is incredibly complex. Based on the interaction and balance of yin and yang, the I Ching explains how life is a process of movement and change. There are 64 hexagrams (2 trigrams each) composed of six horizontal lines that are either solid (yang) or broken (yin) and may be moving (indicating cyclic reversal) or fixed. From the 64 hexagrams, there are over 4000 possible permutations. It does not divine the future, but it does distill wisdom. Carl Gustav Jung, the famous Swiss psychoanalyst, studied the I Ching for years. He once said that it was a challenge to

feel one’s way into such a remote and mysterious mentality as that underlying the I Ching. One cannot easily disregard such great minds as Confucius and Lao-tse . . . much less can one overlook the fact that the I Ching was their main source of inspiration.”

If you look beyond the entertainment aspect, you’ll find that the advice given by the I Ching, pertaining to patterns of movement, stillness and transformation, relate not only to the way we view our world and live in it, but also to our spiritual practice. I’ve read many times that Taoist meditation has its origins in the I Ching and based on Jung’s comment, it seems like a reasonable statement.

A solid line represents yang, the creative principle. Yang also symbolizes other principles or qualities; however, the subject today is creativity. I am defining creativity in the same way that American existential psychologist Rollo May did in his book The Courage to Create: “its authenic form – the process of bringing something new into being.”

Creativity is not the exclusive property of artists. Each of us are constantly engaged in a creative process. Mostly, in the act (or art) of creating our lives. How we create is through thoughts. Meditation and texts like the I Ching can help us initiate creative thinking by suggesting new avenues of thought for improving and enhancing our quality of life. Being creative, though, doesn’t necessarily mean being original. Creativity is often just a procedure of collecting other thoughts, concepts, and experiences we come across as we fare along the Way and learning how to apply them.

So here are some thoughts you can collect today, from the I Ching and the first hexagram Qian, the creative principle:

The power of creativity is vast and great, it is the source of all things. Clouds form, rain falls, and everything develops in their proper forms.

Qian: Pure Yang, Creativity.


Creativity is successful and sublime. Good fortune comes from perseverance in the right way.

Structure and Imagery of the Hexagram

With 6 unbroken lines, the hexagram denotes strength. Its primary image is Heaven, representing the primal creative power of the universe. Its the source of all things, and is constantly in motion. The hexagram has 4 attributes: benevolence, virtue, justice, and perseverance (wisdom).


Creativity initiates change and everything obtains its true nature. When change is used to strengthen character and achieve harmony with nature, the result is beneficial and correct. In this way, aspirations are fulfilled and harmony is established. A sage understands the relationship between beginning and end, and comprehends how the lines of the hexagram reach completion, each in their proper time.

As the text states, Qian is pure Yang, signifying movement and change; it is associated with strength and male energy, which is hard and firm. Qian is called “opening the door”, indicating new beginnings.

Creativity in this sense is the strength of mental energy, initiating energy. Strength can also mean the courage to be honest with yourself. Or, staying true to your original vision, holding on to your values. Success in both thinking and acting comes from your level of consistency and perseverance.

Yet, if in using Qian, you are unyielding, this can be dangerous. The text states that “an overbearing dragon causes regret.” In China, the dragon is regarded as a symbol for wisdom and dignity and sagehood. So, it says that a dragon must have “an understanding of end as well as beginning, of retreat as well as advance, of failure as well as success.”

The I Ching wants us to understand the path of change. In term of spiritual development, change means personal transformation. When we are strong in character, and strong enough to win over ourselves, the result is beneficial to both ourselves and others. The tao of creativity is to become skillful at transformation so that all will find their true nature and destiny, and in harmony with each other, create meaningful lives.

The creative act is an intense experience of the present, and as such, timeless.”

- Lama Govinda, The Foundations of Tibetan Mysticism

The Heart Sutra is a Buddhist text that explains how prajna-paramita (transcendent wisdom) goes beyond fundamental ignorance to penetrate ultimate truth or things as they really are. This wisdom is not intellectual knowledge, rather it is an intuitive wisdom that when uncovered leads to the transcendence of suffering and the flowering of compassion. The Heart Sutra is also a practice in that it teaches a method for training the mind.

The other day while browsing some Buddhist blogs, I ran across a blogger who had analyzed the Heart Sutra in terms of which parts are formulaic, advertising, meaningless filler, repetition, stuff that is wrong, stuff that is weird, and actual content. Even the term prajna-paramita was classified as just unimportant religious formula and therefore, unnecessary. In the end, everything judged to be of no value was removed and there was not much left. Well, this is nothing new. Indeed, the sutra was crafted from a process of reductionism.

It’s likely that the precise history of the Heart Sutra will never be known. There is some disagreement among scholars as to whether it originated in India or China. Some maintain the sutra was composed in 1st century CE by a monk of one of the early Buddhist schools. Other scholars date it several centuries later. I think it was probably “composed” by a number of people, one or more of whom added elements that are not found in the Prajna-paramita sutras (Avalokitesvara/Kwan Yin from the Lotus Sutra) and there is a strong influence from esoteric or tantric Buddhism whose practitioners had a keen interest in distilling Buddhist teachings into short phrases (dharani and mantra) and eventually into single letters (bija or seed syllables).

My humble attempt at creating Siddham characters on a computer: dhihmma above, dhih below.

The Heart Sutra is based on the collection of 40 Prajna-paramita Sutras. These were first redacted into the Maha Prajna-paramita Sutra with 100,000 lines. Following this was a 25,000 line sutra, an 18,000 line version, a 10,000 line sutra, a 8,000 line version, and eventually a 40 line version which is the essence of the Heart Sutra as we know it today. Around 250 CE, we have the first mention of a Prajna-paramita dharani (Chih-ch’ien), and later, a mantra: Tadyatha Om Gate Gate Paragate Parasam Gate Bodhi Svaha, which was further trimmed down by hacking off Tadyatha and Om. Finally, they condensed the Heart Sutra into a single bija or seed syllable, dhihmma, and then shorted it to simply dhih.

This centuries long process was undertaken for specific reasons, and while one aim was to negate the most fundamental concepts of early Buddhism, it was not a complete negation. After the negations, the concepts are then reaffirmed, only now in a new light, in the transcendent light of going beyond. On one hand the authors offered up a critique and on the other they presented an valid alternative view.

As many of you know, there are two versions of the Heart Sutra, a long version and a short one. The longer one has a prologue where the Buddha enters into a samadhi called “perception of the profound” (observation of emptiness) and an epilogue where he praises Avalokitesvara. The short version is normally used for recitation. In my opinion, every word is important and necessary, especially in the shorter version. This is a cryptic text. Each word has meaning, is a symbol, represents a thought, a concept. The Heart Sutra, in one way or another, discusses every major concept in Buddhism, and I would go even a step further to say that it touches upon nearly every philosophical idea known to the world. How is that possible in such a short work? Well, that’s the genius behind the text. It’s like a form of shorthand.

Now, I don’t mean to suggest that the Heart Sutra is so sacred that it can’t be altered or subjected to different interpretations. I’m just saying that this carefully crafted work shouldn’t be filtered through one’s personal preferences or gutted for the sake of post-modernism or secularism.

In the context of Prajna-paramita literature, the term prajna-paramita means transcendent wisdom. This concept is perhaps even more central to the sutra than the concept of emptiness. Paramita means “crossing over” or “going beyond.” When Avalokitesvara sees that the five aggregates are empty of self-being, the sutra says that he was able to “cross over all suffering.” [The sea of suffering, the raft, the other shore, nirvana.] This implies real transcendence: the wisdom that goes beyond not only the extremes of conceptual thinking but suffering as well.

The relevance of the mantra at the end (“gone, gone, gone beyond, gone far beyond . . .”) to the rest of the sutra is that it serves as a coda, summing up the sutra. And yet it has further significance. The mantra is a call to action, it implores us to go beyond, go beyond our preferences, our preconceived notions, our attachments, the limitations we place on ourselves, the limits of our mind – go beyond everything, entering into a new realm of insight and wisdom, which in the end means seeing things differently than we did before, seeing things with a pragmatic and intuitive kind of wisdom.

By the way, the phrase “crossing over all suffering” is not found in either the Sanskrit or Chinese versions. It’s usually added to English translations for clarification, to further emphasize the point of transcendent wisdom. The text is altered in this way for the purpose of clarifying  and supporting the sutra’s message.

So then, before we start to critique of this little gem, I suggest we try to practice it, study it, develop a basic understanding of the meaning and how it uses words and meanings to describe prajna-paramita which goes beyond words and meanings.

There are some very good books on the Heart Sutra. One of the best is Heart of the Universe by Mu Soeng Sunim. It’s very short and offers an excellent explanation of emptiness. Thich Nhat Hanh’s The Heart of Understanding is also short and captures the positive spirit of the sutra. Elaborations on Emptiness by Donald S. Lopez Jr. is excellent as well, although I wouldn’t recommend starting with this book as it’s a rather scholarly presentation from the viewpoint of Tibetan Buddhism. Red Pine’s The Heart Sutra and There Is No Suffering: A Commentary on the Heart Sutra by Master Sheng Yen and Chan Master Sheng-yen are also fine. I found Essence of the Heart Sutra: The Dalai Lama’s Heart of Wisdom Teachings to be somewhat light, but it’s not a waste of time.

Here I am reciting the Heart Sutra in English. The text of the sutra is below.

Great Heart of Transcendent Wisdom Sutra

Kuan Yin Bodhisattva, while practicing deep Prajna-Paramita, clearly saw that all five Skandhas are empty and crossed over all suffering. Shariputra, form is emptiness, emptiness is form. Form does not differ from emptiness; emptiness does not differ from form. Sensation, perception, volition, and consciousness are also like this.

Shariputra, all dharmas are marked with emptiness: Not beginning, not ending, not stained and not pure, not increasing and not decreasing. Within emptiness there is no eye, ear, nose, tongue, body or mind; no seeing, no hearing, no smelling, no tasting, no touching, and no thinking; no realms from sight to mind; no ignorance and no ending of ignorance, no old age and death and no ending of old age and death; no suffering and no beginning and no ending of suffering, no path; no wisdom and no attainment with nothing to attain.

Therefore, the Bodhisattvas rely on Prajna-Paramita, the most excellent wisdom, and with no hindrance of mind, no fears and no illusions, they enter into Nirvana. All Buddhas from the past present and future practice in this way and awake to complete and perfect enlightenment.

Therefore, know that the Prajna-Paramita is the great bright mantra, the great transcendent mantra that relieves all suffering. Know this as truth and declare:

Gone, Gone, Gone Beyond, Gone Far Beyond, Be Set Upon Awakening!

A couple of weeks ago I went with a friend to The Huntington Library, Art Collections and Botanical Gardens in Pasadena. It’s a private nonprofit collections-based research and educational institution established in 1919 by Henry E. Huntington. He was a railroad magnate and among his many holdings and operations were the famous “Red Car” trolleys here in Los Angeles.

Since our interest that day was on the Botanical Gardens, we just breezed through the library at the end. The collection is rather eclectic. Apparently, it’s the only library in the world with the first two quartos of Hamlet. They also have the Ellesmere manuscript of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, a Gutenberg Bible on vellum, the manuscript of Benjamin Franklin’s autobiography, the first seven drafts of Henry David Thoreau’s Walden, and the double-elephant folio edition of Audubon’s Birds of America. And then to show that they’re not snobbish when it comes to literature, there’s a collection of manuscripts and first editions of works by Charles Bukowski.

We didn’t see any of that stuff. We did check out Gainsborough’s Blue Boy, though. When Huntington purchased it for $700,00 in 1921, it became the second most expensive painting in the world. Number One was da Vinci’s Mona Lisa. Neither are even in the Top Ten Today.

But we went The Huntington to stroll through the gardens and they’ve got more than a dozen of them, including the Desert Garden, with more cacti than you can shake a stick at; the Japanese Garden, with a Zen rock garden and a bevy of bonsai trees; a beautiful Rose Garden; and the Liu Fang Yuan or “Garden of Flowering Fragrance.”

It was a typical June Gloom day with grey skies overhead, but that didn’t stop me from taking beaucoup photos. Today, I’ll just share three. You can see the rest at my photo site here. The text is from “A Chinese Garden of Serenity” translated by Chao Tze-chiang.

In every human heart, there is a Symphony of Nature . . .

Natural scenery – such as the azure mists on the hills, the ripples on the water, the shadow of a cloud on a pond . . . all of which are existent and yet non-existent, half-real and half-unreal – is the most agreeable to the human heart and most inspiring to the human soul. Such vistas are the wonder of wonders in the universe.

When the wind blows through the scattered bamboos, they do not hold its sound after it has gone . . . So the mind of the superior man begins to work only when an events occurs; and it becomes a void again when the matter ends.

A drop of water has the tastes of the water of the seven seas; there is no need to experience all the ways of worldly life. The reflections of the moon on one thousand rivers are from the same moon: the mind must be full of light.

A vital element in our practice and understanding of dharma is a sense of appreciation. In the way I’m using the word, it’s not the same as gratitude. Gratitude is a feeling in response to something received – a kindness, a gift, an opportunity. Appreciation, on the other hand, is a quality that should always be present and is not dependent upon any external causes. It goes beyond merely being an aesthetic admiration of the beauty and wonder of life. We develop this sense of appreciation at the very core of our being and it encompasses everything we observe and experience. That includes appreciation for our sufferings.

We naturally want to avoid suffering. We seek freedom from life’s miseries. Buddhism is supposed to help us attain nirvana, which is freedom from sufferings. In Mahayana, we say that sufferings are nirvana. Many people wonder how that makes sense. How can nirvana be the very thing we are seeking to escape?

Understanding “sufferings are nirvana” begins with the recognition of a simple fact: it is only through suffering that we can even approach nirvana. It’s like the simile of the raft. You’re on this shore and in order to reach the other shore, where nirvana awaits, you must cross over the sea of suffering. There’s no other way. You have to do it.

In Shoji (“Birth and Death”), Dogen wrote,

When we see that sufferings are themselves nirvana, there is no need to avoid suffering or to seek nirvana. Only with this understanding is there a possibility for freedom from birth and death.

“Birth and death” is often a metaphor for Samsara, this mundane world we inhabit, and because Samsara is permeated with suffering, so it too is a metaphor, representing suffering itself. What Dogen is saying is that nirvana can be found only in the here and now, in this world, in the midst of suffering.

He also says that there is no need to avoid suffering, but the truth is we cannot avoid them. Now, he’s actually referring to the non-dual nature of sufferings and nirvana, and he may not have also had the idea of cultivating appreciation for suffering in his mind when he wrote those words, but they certainly lend themselves to that additional interpretation.

Appreciation for one’s sufferings may be a hard concept to wrap our minds around, but when you consider, for instance, that suffering can be a teacher, it starts to make sense.

I didn’t pay that much attention in the past when people would tell me about the loss of a pet. Kinda like baby pictures. To me, all babies look the same. Ho hum. Yawn. But now I know what it feels like to lose a beloved pet. When I hear of someone’s loss in the future, I’ll be able to feel their pain. I had to do through my own suffering to be able to see the suffering of others. My personal suffering taught me a lesson.

A small lesson, perhaps, and yet, that’s what life really consists of – small things. The big stuff, the large events of life come few and far between, actually. Typically, life is just a series of small moments. That’s one reason why mindfulness practice is so beneficial. Because mindfulness helps us to become aware and have appreciation for the small, present moments that make up our life. And the small lessons.

Appreciation is a prerequisite for awakening. We often think of awakening as being this big, esoteric thing. A quality of an elevated state of being. But awakening, too, essentially is rather small. At least, it starts out that way. It’s just being aware of the moment you’re in. Thich Nhat Hanh came up with a little verse I like a lot:

Breathing in, I am happy.
Breathing out, I smile.
I am in the present moment.
It’s a wonderful moment.

That moment may be joyful or sorrowful. Buddhism doesn’t make any distinctions between what sort of present moments are worthy of our awareness. Nevertheless, whether the moment is good or bad, if you have appreciation, it’s wonderful. To be able to see it in that way is the essence of awakening, perhaps even the key to freedom.

We cannot avoid sufferings, so when they come, try to cultivate appreciation. It’s hard to do, but within your suffering is something very valuable for your life. Remember that irritation is the stimulation that produces a pearl. Should a tiny grain of sand get inside an oyster’s shell, the oyster coats the irritant with layers of fluid, and from that coating, a pearl is formed. No irritation, no suffering – no pearl.

My present tribulation is not so heavy,
And will be beneficial;
Let me be glad of a suffering
That redeems the world of its suffering.

- Shantideva, Guide to the Bodhisattva Way of Life

I hope you all will excuse me if I indulge in a remembrance of my little cat Tara who passed away yesterday. She was 13 years old. That’s the equivalent of 68 human years.

I got Tara when was she was 6 months old. We had an infestation of mice in my apartment building at the time. I had always heard that if you have a cat, mice won’t come around. That sounded good to me, ‘cause I hate those meeces to pieces. I named her after Tara the bodhisattva of peace and protection. She did a pretty good job of protecting me from the mice. Nary a one set foot inside our apartment after she arrived.

She was very sweet, gentle cat. But you know cats are strange creatures. The love you share with them is definitely on their terms. Tara had a way of looking at me sometimes that seemed to suggest she was in possession of some profound wisdom and I was merely some fool she tolerated. Then there were those other times, like just before lights out when she’d hop up on the bed and want to lick my face. It was her way of saying, hey, you’re not so bad after all.

My step-mother, Hazel, sent me a nice note describing a rose and two blue and white iris she put in a vase the other day and how beautiful they were to admire, but then yesterday morning “each flower seemed to say ‘thank you for appreciating my beauty while it lasted but it’s time for me to fade away.’”

Flowers, animals, people, planets, stars – they come into existence, they get old, sick, and then they fade away. “Sabbe sankhara anicca,”  the Buddha said. All things are impermanent.

While I understand that intellectually, right now, emotionally, it’s a different story. I miss Tara. I grieve at her passing. And I can’t help but wonder if I was a good bodhisattva for her. She had been losing weight for some time – in spite of how she would have done nothing but eat all day long if I had let her – and that concerned me. Yet, I knew that some cats lose weight as they get older. Sometimes, she’d throw up at night. I chalked that up to eating too much to fast. Which she did and then at some ungodly early hour of the morning she’d be pawing at me wanting to be fed again.

About two weeks ago, I had a strong feeling that things weren’t right. I considered taking her to the vet, but held off. Perhaps I was overreacting. I thought I’d change her diet and make one last attempt to fatten her up. I shouldn’t have waited. All day Sunday, she was lethargic and when she did get up and walk, she could not lift her head as she normally would. I knew I couldn’t delay a visit to the vet any longer. I took Tara to the animal hospital first thing yesterday morning. They decided to keep her. They hydrated her, gave her tests, medicine. But, it was too late.  She died overnight.

It turned out she had hyperthyroidism, a common problem in older cats that affects their kidneys and liver. I have no idea how much pain she was in or even if she was in pain, except for that last day. Then, it was obvious she was feeling pretty bad. Maybe it wouldn’t have made any difference if I had acted sooner. Perhaps prolonging her life would have only prolonged her suffering. That’s the hardest part. The unknowing. However, like Tara’s death itself, what is unknown must be accepted because chances are it will remain unknown. Speculation around maybes and ifs are the same as the metaphysical speculations the Buddha advised against. It does not bring us closer to truth or to an end to suffering.

I think it’s better, as my step-mother suggested, to think of Tara as a beautiful flower, and to have some appreciation for the time I had to admire her beauty, and to remember all the things she taught me.

This poem by e.e. cummings says the rest of it:

why did you go
little fourpaws?
you forgot to shut
your big eyes.

where did you go?
like little kittens
are all the leaves
which open in the rain.

little kittens who
are called spring,
is what we stroke
maybe asleep?

do you know? or maybe did
something go away
ever so quietly
when we weren’t looking.

She had the cutest face . . .

Goodbye, little Tara

Today’s post is below. First, this:

Asbury Park, New Jersey – September, 1971. A Nor’easter blew in that night. Its cold devil wind rattled the windows of the storefronts along the shore. Wires of lightning jolted the black sky. Thunder cracked and rolled. He was a big man. He carried a saxophone in his hand. He stood outside a bar called The Student Prince. Inside a band was playing, the singer was singing something about rock and roll. He could hear strains of the music through the din of the slanting rain. He’d heard about the cat inside. The sax gripped tight in his hand, he made his move. As he pulled open the door, the thunder roared once more and an extraordinary gust of wind swept up and tore the door off its hinges, tore it out of his hand. The door flying down the street and this big black man, 6 feet 4, 250 pounds, dressed all in black standing in the doorway of a white bar silhouetted by the silver rain and the bone white lighting – heads turned, the band quit playing. He walked up and got on the stage. “I want to play with your band.” The singer looked up at the black giant and said nervously, “Sure, you do whatever you want.”

More than music was made that night. For some of us it was history.

Years later, the Big Man said of that mythical evening when he first met Bruce Springsteen: “I swear I will never forget that moment. I felt like I was supposed to be there. It was a magical moment. He looked at me, and I looked at him, and we fell in love. And that’s still there.”

Clarence Clemmons 1942 – 2011

Go in peace, brother. Thanks for the music, and the memories.

NY Times obituary
Rolling Stone

The Story of the Rich Man and His Son

Here’s a story from the Lotus Sutra that is both timely for Father’s Day and relevant to recent discussions here.

18th Century Korean painting of the Buddha teaching on Mount Grdhrakuta (Vulture Peak)

The Buddha was on Vulture Peak, where he had expounded a number of important sutras. In attendance there was a congregation of monks, nuns, male and female lay devotees, gods, Nagas, goblins, Gandharvas, demons, Garudas, Kinnaras, great serpents, non-human beings, governors of states, rulers of armies and rulers of four continents.

Among the assembled were the Venerables Subhuti, Mahakatyayana, Mahakashyapa, and Mahamaudgalyayana, who were astonished when the Buddha taught a dharma unheard of before and predicted that Shariputra would attain complete and perfect enlightenment. They rose in unison and spoke to the Buddha in one voice, saying, “We are old and thought that we had attained all there is to attain, but now with this Lotus teaching, we have heard from the World-Honored One a dharma rarely encountered, which we had never known.

“It is like the case of the young man who left his home, taking his father’s money. For a while, he led an extravagant life, traveling in many countries; however, it did not take very long for him to run through all the money. He was forced then to become a beggar, living hand to mouth.

The father, concerned about his son, searched constantly for him over the course of many years, but always in vain, for he was never able to discover his son’s whereabouts. The father was extremely wealthy, living in a mansion with a treasury filled with gold, silver, and precious gems. In addition, he had a large herd of livestock, a caravan of elephants and horse drawn wagons, as well as many servants and employees. He was respected and envied by all, and yet, his life felt empty without his son. The father had long since forgiven him for stealing the money, and in fact, his only thought was: ‘O how happy should I be, if I could find my son to bequeath to him this mass of riches!’

Meanwhile, the wandering son, who was approaching the age of fifty and had completely forgotten his father and his wealth, was one day near his father’s house in search of some menial work that would provide him a few coins for food and clothing. As he approached the magnificent home where he had once lived but which was completely unrecognizable to him now, he thought of going up to see if there were any jobs available. However, seeing the opulence of the place and the rich man, his father, on the veranda surrounded by many servants, he thought better of it. He said to himself, ‘This must be the home of a king. No place for a pauper such as me to inquire about work.’

His father, looking down at the gate, immediately recognized his son and sent his servants to fetch him, but the poor son thinking he had committed some error by approaching the home, began to flee.  The servants, though, were able to catch up with the son and they dragged him back to the mansion and brought him before his father who he no longer knew.

Fearing that he might be subjected to capital punishment, the poor son screamed ‘I have given you no offense’ and begged to be released. The father, overcome by the pitiful sight of his wayward son, reluctantly acquiesced and the son ran off to haunt the slums of the city.

The father understood that his own stately position and wealth distressed his son, yet satisfied he had found his son, said nothing to others about it. As an skillful means, the father sent out two men shabbily dressed, posing as night-soil workers. [night-soil: human excrement collected at night from cesspools, privies, etc.]  The two men found the poor son and said to him, ‘Why don’t you come work with us?’

The poor son agreed to join them and thought it merely a coincidence that they worked at the home of the rich man he had seen earlier. And thus, the son began to work for the daily pay he received from his own father.

Some time passed and one night the rich man was watching his son toil at his lowly job and he was disgusted by the sight of it and he removed his fine robe and his jewels, and putting on shabby clothes, he approached his son saying, ‘Look, this is menial and fithy work. You are better than this. Pull yourself up and I will give you a proper job and increase your wages. I am an old man now and I will treat you as a father would his son.’

The poor man was happy with this turn of events, although he considered himself nothing more than a hired hand. Twenty years went by and the son, still unaware that he was working for his very own father, became intimate with the rich man’s affairs and handled his accounts and managed his money.

One day, the rich man fell ill. He summoned his son and handed him the keys to all his storehouses and said, ‘Here, I give you control of all my riches, my granaries and my livestock, that you may conduct business in my name. I am too ill to take care about it anymore.’

Some time passed, and the son had run the business profitably without taking anything for himself save the relatively low wages he received, and still living as he had in past, lowly and humbly, until the day finally came when the rich man knew he was soon to die. He gathered his son and all his servants and employees and relatives together and told them, ‘This is my own son, who left me and whom I had not seen for fifty years. At last, he has returned home and to him I give all my possessions.’

Upon hearing this, the poor son was overjoyed. He said, ‘I never dreamed that I was his son and yet, I have come to love him as a son should love his father, and I have gained uncountable treasure without ever seeking it.’

World-Honored One, this old man with his incredible wealth is none other than the Buddha, and we are all like the Buddha’s sons. And you, World-Honored One, by your skillfulness perceives our disposition, as we ourselves do not. It is for this reason that the Buddha now tells us that we are to him as sons, and that he reminds us that the great treasure of the Dharma has come into our own hands.”

At that moment, Mahakashyapa began to speak in verse:

We have heard the Buddha’s voice
And have obtained the unexpected.
The Buddha declares that we will become buddhas;
Without seeking, we have received a great heap
of precious jewels such as we had not imagined . . .

News anchor Karl Stefanovic never got to the part of the joke where the Dalai Lama asks for his change and the pizza guy says "Change must come from within."

By now you’ve probably seen the recent video of an Australian news anchor who is interviewing the Dalai Lama and tries to tell him the joke about the Dalai Lama walking into a pizza parlor and asking, “Can you make me one with everything?” The Dalai Lama, of course, doesn’t get it, and at one point even starts to give him a serious reply. If you have not seen this thing, go here. It’s a hoot. Although you do have to wonder about the wisdom of telling a joke to the person who’s the subject of the joke.

The idea of becoming one with everything has become a cliché, a laugh, and yet, the realization of oneness is an essential step in the path.

Yesterday, I quoted Joko Beck as saying, “Enlightenment is not something you achieve. It is the absence of something.” This absence is called emptiness. Near the beginning of the Heart Sutra, it says Avalokitesvara saw that the aggregates are sunyata-svabhava or empty of self-being. This is what Joko Beck meant, even if she wasn’t thinking in exactly those terms. Self-being is the independent, unconditioned being – the self that is pure imagination, a fantasy that pushes us “forward after something, pursing some goal”. Emptiness is the absence of self-being. All things are empty of self-being. Nagarjuna considered sunyata-svabhava to synonymous with the ultimate reality.

Self-being is the cause for the illusion that we are independent, separate from others. Perhaps it is because of our basic tendency is to cling to this sense of separateness, that many people in experience an overwhelming sense of isolation. Especially in these times when our society is so fragmented and contentious, where so many are standing against others. Conservatives vs. liberals, straights vs. gays, one religion vs. another religion. Even in Buddhism, there is a great deal of separation and opposition. Gen Y doesn’t like the way Boomers present dharma. Modernists denounce traditionalists and vice versa. East vs. west. And so on.

As far as Buddha-dharma is concerned, I feel that some of these issues are really non-issues, yet there’s no denying that numerous divisive elements exist both within Buddhism and our larger society.

Buddhism says that fundamentally, we actually are all one. It’s written that beneath the Bodhi tree, the Buddha awakened to the truth that all living beings are linked together in a chain of causes and conditions. From modern physics, we have learned much the same thing.

Some scientists feel that each element of the universe contains all the information present in the whole cosmos. This is similar to the concept T’ien-t’ai master Chih-i put forth some 15 centuries ago, i-nien san-ch’ien or “Three Thousand Worlds in One Thought” (Jp. ichinen sanzen), in which “life at each moment permeates the universe and is revealed in all phenomena.”

So then, the oneness of all things is neither a cliché nor a joke. It’s a reality, indeed, it is reality.

In this scene from My Little Chickadee, WC Fields considers Mae West to be one with everything.

However, this oneness shouldn’t be construed as saying that all things become merged or fused and there are no differences. Difference is not necessarily separateness. Difference is a recognition that the whole is made up of multiple parts which are not exactly the same. Buddhism teaches that the universe consists of a multiplicity of different elements united through their relationships with each other and then combined into a unified whole.

As we use the word “universe” here, it doesn’t mean just the clusters of galaxies of stars, rather it refers to the whole of reality. In Buddhism, it’s known as Dharmakaya, which in this sense means “Realm of Dharmas (Things).”

Mahayana Buddhism, especially in the Chinese branch with its Taoist influences, presents us with the ideal of each individual functioning as a harmonious component within the larger universe. One thing we take away from the practice of meditation should be a sense of the interrelatedness of the whole of our life in each present moment to the whole of reality.

We may not realize it, but oneness is a basic human aspiration, as D.T. Suzuki pointed out in Outlines of Mahayana Buddhism:

The ever-increasing tendency of humanity to widen and facilitate communication in every possible way is a phenomenon illustrative of the intrinsic oneness of human souls. Isolation kills, for it is another name for death. Every soul that lives and grows desires to embrace others, to be in communion with them, to be supplemented by them, and to expand infinitely so that all individual souls are brought together and united in the one soul.

Suzuki wrote this over 100 years ago, and he uses the word “soul” which most Buddhist writers today would eschew in favor of some other word. When he mentions the “one soul”, though, he means Dharmakaya. In Dharmakaya all things are interrelated and mutually inclusive. They are in perfect harmony.

Suzuki also noted:

The veil of Maya, i. e., subjective ignorance may temporally throw an obstacle to our perceiving the universal light of Dharmakaya, in which we are all one. But when our Bodhi or intellect which is by the way a reflection of the Dharmakaya in the human mind, is so fully enlightened, we no more build the artificial barrier of egoism before our spiritual eye; the distinction between the meum [mine] and teum [yours] is obliterated, no dualism throws the nets of entanglement over us; I recognise myself in you and you recognise yourself in me.”

Well, in light of all this, there’s only thing to say: “Make me one with everything.”

American Zen pioneer, Charlotte Joko Beck, died yesterday at the grand age of 94. Her Wikipedia entry says, “After years of declining health, Beck was placed under hospice care in June 2011. After her health rapidly deteriorated, she stopped eating and was dramatically losing weight. According to Beck’s daughter, Brenda, up until the end ‘She is happy as a clam and, as she told me, will die when she’s ready. She says it’s soon.’” And so it was.

Joko Beck studied and practiced with three important Zen teachers: Soen Nakagawa, Yasutani Hakuun Roshi, and Hakuyu Taizan Maezumi, founder of the Zen Center of Los Angeles. In 1983, she started the San Diego Zen Center, and later founded the Ordinary Mind School.

I did not know Joko Beck but I know people who did and have heard a lot about her. It seemed to me that there was much to admire, and emulate, about her approach to dharma and teaching. Adam Tebbe writes in this article published yesterday that “She is the founder of the Ordinary Mind Zen School, a loose fit organization of her Dharma successors which is non-hierarchical. As a teacher of Zen, Joko Beck was free from the patriarchal trappings of Japanese Zen. Joko’s approach to Zen teaching was greatly informed by Western culture, and she discontinued shaving her head, seldom wore robes and seldom used titles.” Yes, hers was a modern approach, yet she didn’t try to reinvent the dharma wheel, pursue wild theories, or attempt to set herself up as an enlightened guru.

She was also the author of several books. I particularly like this passage from the beginning of Everyday Zen: Love and Work:

Enlightenment is not something you achieve. It is the absence of something. All your life you have been going forward after something, pursing some goal. Enlightenment is dropping all that. But to talk about it is of little use. The practice has to be done by each individual. There is no substitute. We can read about it until we are a thousand years old and it won’t do a thing for us. We all have to practice, and we have to practice with all of our might for the rest of our lives.

Copy this passage, write it down on a post-it note, stick it on your refrigerator, tattoo it on your arm or forehead, read it every day and every night, memorize it, share it with others. Make it your dharani, your mantra, your prayer. Find some way to engrave these words on your life, for they go directly to the heart of this thing called Buddhism.

And then don’t forget to say, “Thanks for that, Charlotte Joko Beck.”

I have several times in the past discussed my discomfort with the way people use the word “Zen” to sell stuff, whether it’s a commercial product, an article of some sort, or Buddhism itself. You know what I mean: “The Zen of This”, “The Zen of That.” Most of the time whatever is being pushed has nothing whatsoever to do with dharma. And, if you have being reading in the Buddhist Blogosphere this past week, you have no doubt noticed some controversy over “secret” conferences and elitist agendas.

Here’s a group that combines the best (or worst) of both worlds: Donna Karan’s Urbanzen Foundation. I am only vaguely aware of who Donna Karan is. She’s a clothing designer. Rich. Famous. She’s founded an organization that, in it’s own words “creates, connects, and collaborates to raise awareness and inspire change in the areas of well-being, preserving cultures, and empowering children.” Noble stuff. But what does it have to do with Zen or Buddhism? From what I can tell, nothing really.

It’s not a good idea to become attached to a word, but I always liked Zen. It has such a zesty, zenny sound to it. I hate to see it abused.

This past week Urbanzen hosted a gathering to honor President Bill Clinton. It was definitely an A-list affair. Attendees included Sarah Jessica Parker, Ashton Kutcher, Uma Thurman, Demi Moore, Calvin Klein and some old mangy looking English musician. Isn’t this just more elitism? Where is the diversity? Why weren’t any poor, un-famous people invited? Does Bill Clinton really need another honor? Foundations like this one do some good work, no question. However, it does get a bit tiresome to see the rich and famous patting themselves on the back all the time. Especially when there are plenty of other folk doing just as good work who receive no attention, little pay for their efforts, and definitely no awards. Just saying . . .

A picture worth a thousand words . . .

What drew my attention to this affair was a blurb I saw about that English musician. Calls himself Keith Richards. Plays guitar in a band with some other old guys called the Rolling Stones. Apparently Keith and President Clinton had a top secret dinner at New York City’s Craft restaurant last week. Oh no! Another secret meeting! And what conspiracy were these two bad boys hatching? Cornered by a reporter at the aforementioned awards dinner for the former Prez, Richards refused to answer. “Unfortunately, it’s under wraps,” he said. Then, doing his best impersonation of Johnny Depp impersonating him, he added “We talked about saxophones.”

Speaking of saxophones, here is some serious and sad news: sax great Clarence Clemons, a member of Bruce Springsteen’s E Street band, suffered a massive stroke this past weekend. According to Rolling Stone magazine, he’s making progress at a Palm Beach County hospital. Clemons reportedly underwent two brain surgeries after the stroke and was in serious, but stable condition.

A “close friend” informed the Springsteen fan site that Clemmons is paralyzed on his left side, but “now he’s squeezing with his left hand.” The Big Man, as he is affectionately called, has had a number of health issues in recent years. He’s 69.

Blood brothers, back in the day.

If you never liked Bruce Springsteen, chances are you didn’t see him in concert between 1975 and 1985. Live performing was his forte. I think he’s probably the greatest live showman since Al Jolson.

I attended at least 25 shows during that period. That was when Bruce and the E Street Band were at the height of their musical and magical powers. The concerts were celebratory affairs. You didn’t just go and watch and listen. You participated. The audience was as much a part of the show as the band was. It was a shared experience. I always left those concerts feeling uplifted and happy and absolutely sure that rock and roll would never die. It wasn’t like going to see anyone else. The Big Man was indispensable part of that particular spirit in the night.

In 1985 Bruce Springsteen suffered a crisis in faith. He began to doubt the saving power of rock and roll. The concerts after that have been different. I’ve gone to about 10 shows since then. They’re always good, but they don’t have the same magic. For some strange reason I can’t help but feel that my being young and caught up in the romantic idealism of the songs might also have had something to do with it, too . . .

Best wishes for a speedy recovery, Big Man.

When the change was made uptown
And the Big Man joined the band
From the coastline to the city
All the little pretties raise their hands
I’m gonna sit back right easy and laugh
When Scooter and the Big Man bust this city in half
With a Tenth Avenue freeze-out . . .