Tuesday, August 21, 2007

Smoothing out the Wrinkles

Some time ago, I requested that my teacher give me full ordination as a monk (I am currently a Sramenara ((also known as Samenara)) which is a novice monk.)

He told me that he would give it thought, and, after some period of time, met with me to discuss the issue, and decided to put the matter off for some months while he mulled it over and while he also paid close attention to my practice, analyzed my reasons for seeking such ordination, observed my general demeanor and level of understanding, etc., etc. All of the things that a Zen Priest and Teacher is supposed to do when confronted with such a request.

This past week, he sat down with me and advised me that he is willing to ordain me, once I have completed the requisite residency training. (I completed my residency training in a different order, but this doesn't translate or transfer directly over... I more or less had to start over, but the pace has been somewhat accelerated. )

Although I was eager to attend the training, even though it is quite difficult, I was confronted with a problem; I don't live in Asia any longer... and in this country there is no infrastructure whereby the monastic community receives material support from the laity. I have to work in order to support myself.

I was concerned that this may be a huge (read: 'insurmountable') obstacle in my path. But, a good Zen Cook takes what ingredients he has, and makes the best meal possible (as I have said in a previous post..).. and I went to my boss and asked if I could have the time off. After the screaming and yelling ended, I was more or less convinced that any possibility of getting time off from work was more or less non-existent.

When I relayed this to my teacher (perhaps hoping secretly that he would offer some other way for me to meet the prerequisites... um.. no dice! You gotta walk the walk.. and that's pretty much that... which, all things considered, is part of what makes it all worthwhile to me.), he nodded sagely, made an odd smile, and said, very quietly, "Keep trying."

So, I went home, sat down, and wrote a letter to my supervisor, the general manager, also addressing the letter to the office manager and to the president of the company.

I explained my reason for requesting the time off, what the training would consist of, who, what, where, why, and how... everything that I could think of that would help them to understand precisely what it was that I would be doing....

I wanted to make it clear that this wasn't a pretext to take a couple of days off... this won't be the easiest way to pass the time; quite the opposite, actually...

I explained in the letter that the person who would be presiding over the training may very well likely not be around to offer such training again; he is 100 years old, and it wouldn't be unreasonable to think that he may not be around for very much longer. Each day that he remains with us is a blessing, and a miracle.

I made it a point to simply leave the letter on my boss's chair, and to not pressure him in any way. I made no reference to it whatsoever.

I went into his office to confer with him on a project that I am working on, and he said to me, "Tell the office manager which days you will be taking off.."

Pleasantly surprised, I said, "Thank you!"

"How could I refuse this?? What? I'm gonna say 'no!' to this?? - Just go tell him what days you will need. We'll miss you while you are gone."

And that was that!

The next obstacle is a financial one... I am working on it, and waiting to hear what the results will be. If this problem is solved, I will be able to take the next step in my journey from warrior to priest.

It seems as though the way is being smoothed out for me by unseen forces... perhaps it is just the way things work out.. In any case, I have managed to come a lot further than I could have hoped.

When and if I am able to find out what the schedule will be like, providing I am able to obtain a syllabus, I will post it here... If not, I will post a fairly close approximation in order to give you an idea of what this type of training consists of...

Who knows? Within the next couple of years, I very well may be posting about my impending ordination!

I know that the road will become more and more difficult as I move along it... My teacher will expect me to take more and more responsibilities in the running of the center, and in doing the things that are expected of a fully ordained monk. He will test my understanding, my resolve, my patience, my endurance and stamina, and my resourcefulness.... and if he is convinced that my vocation is sincere, he will set a date for the ceremony.

If he has done his job properly, and if I have done mine, it will be much like my wedding in the sense that it will simply be a public declaration of something that is already present... something that is as much a part of me as my heart. Something from which I cannot be separated... much as the river cannot be separated from the ocean once it has flowed into it...

Now I must begin to prepare myself for the upcoming ordeal. I will have to work harder, solidify my practice, and learn not to cling to comforts. They will be in short supply for the duration....

But, this is what it means to be a monk!

Tuesday, August 14, 2007


My mom sent me a pair of semi-frantic emails, apologizing profusely for 'going off' on me. Apparently, she remembered that we had just spoken a few days prior, and I suppose she reconsidered the diatribe and felt that it was an unjust flaming after all.

I told her there were no worries... I don't particularly enjoy being 'gone off' on... but, well... she's my mom... and she's old... and I am sure that she must deal with a great deal of frustration, and a host of other things that create suffering, loss of dignity to some extent, not to mention loneliness and all of the other bits that come along with age and infirmity....

She lives very far away, and I know that she is feeling the pressure of time which makes the separation from family all the more difficult for her.

I find that it is mildly disturbing to me to see this note of near panic in my mom's personality. She has always been this sort of 'larger than life', powerful, domineering personality. As a parent, she was extremely stern and authoritative, (well, tyrannical would be slightly more honest...), as well as verbally, emotionally, and physically abusive/violent at times.. Which, I suspect, she must have perceived as a show of strength or something, presumably to seize and maintain control (Of us? Of life? Who knows?? In any case, control is an illusion, and trying to maintain it causes suffering for everybody...)

As I got older, I learned that I was stronger when I was gentle than when I tried to be 'tough' or confrontational... and I learned that I always had the power to excuse myself from contact with anyone. Including my mom.

I don't threaten or flaunt this power... but, on the occasions when I have little or no options - I simply fade away... and I am gone. And in this case, this is the sound of one hand clapping; silence!!

I felt, upon reading her email to me, that she feared that I would simply stop communicating with her, or perhaps close the routes of communication altogether..

.. and this saddens me for some reason.

I explained to her that I don't really attach to these situations or circumstances.. and that I had simply figured that we (she and I) had gotten our wires crossed for some reason, and that this mis-communication was the reason that she had gotten angry with me...

In any case, I set her mind at ease, and no harm done.

Except that it made me open my eyes to the fact that my mom is old, and lonely, and weak, and frightened.

And this is what is in store for most of us... (those who get themselves killed in other, more dramatic fashion, or at a younger age, are excused.)

Old age, failing health, and death. I am of the nature to suffer these things. I cannot escape it, and I cannot forestall it. There is no way to avoid it, nobody and/or nothing to fight, negotiate with, coerce, extort, or plead with..

There is nothing to do...

Nowhere to turn.

She will die. Everyone that I know will die. And I will die.

... Now. What do I do with that??

No religion, philosophy, or ideology has the answer... life cannot be 'solved'. It can only be lived... moment by moment.

Only by standing upon my own two feet, and by being a lamp unto myself rather than trying to depend on other sources for answers; and by cultivating a calm, nimble, non-attaching mind do I have any hope of being able to come to terms with these simple truths.

I find myself wondering how my Mom copes now... and how she will cope with whatever is to come in the future.

In this country, in our society, I find that nobody *ever* wants to consider that they are going to die... they run around, gathering things to keep; as though there is some attainable goal that will render one too wealthy to age or die. Or, on the other side of the equation, are the folks to try to calculate the exact distance that they can walk, run, or bike, and the number of 'healthy' foods that they must ingest, while avoiding a single teaspoon of ice cream throughout their entire life, that will keep them immortal and allow them to live forever.... but, this is nonsense, and we all know it on some level. There is nothing that is going to change the way things are. We are mortal. We live for some period of time... and then we die. And that, my friends, is that. There is no point in hurrying, because everyone's destination is the same... yes, some will say that we can prolong our life by being healthy, and I agree...

... but, the truth of the matter is that we are all just quibbling over a few short years, because, in the end... we are all going out 'feet first'. Period.

This isn't to say that I am a nihilist or pessimist or negative... because it isn't negative... it is simply the way it is. It is actually perfect just the way it is. The problem isn't that we die... the problem is complex, but, essentially, we expect that a reason for our life should be provided for us (we make our own reason, if a reason is needed at all.. ((I don't personally feel that I need a reason.. I am alive... that's all of it. The reason is sort of beside the point.)), and the other part of the problem is that we want to avoid death, and that we want our questions answered and our problems solved... but, there aren't any answers... there aren't any solutions, and we can want to avoid death every moment of our lives, and we will still be dead and as an added bonus, we will have squandered the time we had worrying about something that is unavoidable.

I guess the major question that springs to my mind is not 'How can I avoid dying?' - because that's, well, sort of ridiculous... because I can't. What is most important is what happens right now??! How do I live?! How do I do my utmost at whatever I happen to be doing.. in each and every moment, as it takes place??

How do I improve my life RIGHT NOW?

How do I become a better person NOW?

How do I respond correctly to each situation AS IT OCCURS?

How do I help others in the way that they most require my help - NOW?

How do I help my mom??

I think I helped a little... I doubt that she considers very much more that what she wants at the moment.. and that is for all of her family to be gathered around her in her last days.

Unfortunately, I don't see how that can work out... Visits, perhaps... but, like everything else, they are impermanent, and, in my experience, are spent almost entirely discussing when the next visit will be and how it will be arranged, and what we will do, and what we will say, and who else can make it, etc., etc.

I thought that this was peculiar at the time... but when I pay close attention to how people behave in their day to day lives (and I do, by the way... very, very close attention...), I realize that everyone does this very same thing to some extent.

Instead of being alive fully and completely no matter what they happen to be doing, so many people defer living until 'this' happens, or 'that' happens.

The problem is that 'this' and 'that' are only words... and they will only ever be accessible in the present moment. The present moment is when everything and everyone is accessible to us. And one day they will all be gone... people, things, and moments alike. Because when you are gone... the universe goes with you.

I would like to see my Mom wake up and learn to live in the present moment. I would like to see her become like a Zen Cook, who doesn't complain about the ingredients that he doesn't have, but who takes stock of what he does have, cleans the kitchen, and sets about preparing the most nutritious and delicious meal that is possible with the ingredients at hand.

Life happens NOW. There isn't any time for indulging in anger, or bitterness, or frustration.

The way is to simply take what life unfolds before you, and do the very best that you can with it, while still remaining divorced from any expectation or hope for the outcome. In this way however things turn out... they are exactly right... because they are exactly how they are... and that 'suchness' is precisely what it happens to be - and you can't get more perfect than that!!

Sunday, August 12, 2007

Facing a New Week...

Friday I missed work; I had been up all night with fierce stomach cramps and some other adventures that needn't be expounded upon... suffice it to say that I was not fit to leave the house for any reason of less import than fleeing a fire or some other life-threatening reason.

I felt marginally better Friday evening... and by Saturday felt more or less human. This was fortunate, since Saturday was my wife and my 'Eclipse Anniversary' which I wouldn't want to miss...

Today we woke up and ground some fresh coffee-beans and while listening to 'Sunday Baroque' on NPR enjoyed our coffee in the garden while we played a couple of games of chess with Jack (the outside cat) at our feet.

Afterwards, we sat quietly and just enjoyed the morning. I was watching what was quite possibly one of the largest dragonflies I had ever seen in all of my life as it alternately perched on a limb at the top of a tree in the neighbor's yard two houses away... the tree is perhaps 80 to 100 feet tall.. (I told you it was a huge dragonfly!! -- we are estimating ((well.. guesstimating, really... but still... we are fairly close, I think...)) that it had to have been about 10" to a foot long from wingtip to wingtip... so, even if we are inadvertently exaggerating, and you take away the 2" extra resulting from the 'Holy shit!' factor... it is still a monster of a bug!! -- as I had been saying, I was watching it as it would perch on the top of a huge Catawba tree... and then it would take off and fly around up there, presumably hunting for breakfast... and then, I guess when it caught something it would return to its perch and munch away... I was getting more and more blown away as it became apparent that its size wasn't the result of an optical illusion... it was just BIG!! Birds would fly very close to it at times, and that let me guess its size relative to them... I also wondered what went through their pea-brains when they got a look at this fella sitting up there contentedly munching away on water buffalo or draft horses or whatever the hell it eats!!

While we were looking at the dragonfly, the birds, and the various butterflies that popped by to inspect the flowers or play in the mist from the sprinklers, we saw another creature that sort of defies description; The closest thing that it resembled was something half way between a moth, and a bat. It had a sort of wedge-shaped body, or was carrying something... I couldn't really tell (I was sort of caught by surprise by the sight of this thing, to be honest....), and wings that resembled the wings of a Leonardo DaVinci Flying Machine... with a curved front surface and a sort of membranous trailing edge. The body was very dark in color, and the wings were a reddish-sorta-burnt-orange in color. It didn't do a great deal of flapping... more gliding... with a very occasional lazy flap every so often. The body looked as though it was hanging from the wings more than between them, which is what made me wonder if whatever the heck it was was carrying something. It flew by in one direction, went behind some trees, and then flew back out again before flying off... so I only really got a couple of glimpses of it for perhaps eight to ten seconds in total. After it had gone, I sort of just sat there, mystified, trying to make what I had seen gel with some creature in my mental catalog of living things... and I couldn't. Has anybody else seen anything that sounds like what I have described??

After sitting in our garden for a while, I made a salad, and we ate in companionable silence before heading up to the Zen Garden to weed and harvest altar flowers, and then over to the Zen Center to trim and rake and sweep and clean. We watered whatever needed watering, straightened and neatened, and put away dishes and cups and whatever other doo-dads needed puttin' away... and then, after a brief stop to pick up a cold drink for each of us, headed towards home, stopping to do some grocery shopping on the way.

Marcheline made some of her ass-kicking salsa when we got home, and we watched a DVD together and ate chips and salsa. It was a nice peaceful evening.


My mom called and left a message on my voicemail sort of hammering me because she 'hasn't been able to get in touch with me for over six weeks' -- which sounds like a legitimate complaint, except for the fact that I spoke with her just this past week. So, what do I do with that?? I'm not going to tell her that we just spoke last week and make her feel like an ass... so I suppose when I talk to her, I will just let her rail at me and tell her that I will do my best not to let it happen again.

She said "That's a very long time and is unacceptable... even for a monk!!"

This seems to be the angle that anyone and everyone who ever gets annoyed or angry with me takes; they play the 'monk' card. As in, "You know... I thought monks were supposed to be.... [insert favorite characteristic of the moment here], or, "if this monk thing doesn't help you to be [flavor of the month again] I don't see what good it is."

Monks are 'supposed' to be like the monks that one sees on television and in the movies. It's all 'grasshopper this' and 'grasshopper that' -- smiles and doing whatever it takes to make everyone feel however they would like to be made to feel at any given moment.

Well..... Wrong.

Monks feel anger, and they fart, and they eat, and they sometimes feel that it is a responsibility to break someone away from their attachments and from their views.

And some people don't like this... wrong views and faulty perceptions cause suffering. Attachments cause suffering. Facing reality is not always so easy.

In Korea there is a proverb that translates to approximately; "Garbage people become monks, garbage monks become Zen monks, garbage Zen monks become Buddha..."

This means that fundamentally, those human beings who have a mystical or monastic calling are most often dissatisfied with society as they see it, perceive it, or experience it... and wish to follow a path that will allow them to perceive truth, or reality, or what some would term the divine, or god, or GOD or what have you....

This dissatisfaction most often results in these people being perceived as being somehow odd, different, strange, or separate from 'the rest of us' in some way by most people with whom they come into contact.

Initially, the monastic experience then separates these individuals even further from society... in some cases this is permanent... so, taking the robe and the bowl is, in effect, entering the coffin... dying to the world... and extinguishing the notion of a separate self. In many cases, at least among Zen Monastics, this period of separation comes to an end, and the Zen Monk is expected to return to society and to engage the world... sometimes as a Priest or monk, sometimes as a 'civilian' who is not recognizable in any outward way as a monk... or as a former monk... (though recognizably different to those who perhaps come to know these individuals...)

It is not the function of a monk to prop up or to support whatever perception, notion, belief, illusion, or what have you that somebody may hold... it is the function of a monk to hold up a mirror to that person, and to help them to experience reality through their own experience.... and, at times, this experience may not be the most pleasant experience.... life is difficult, life is confusing, and life throws us curves... it cannot be 'solved', there isn't an 'answer' and monks don't always behave in a set pattern. So... to those of you who feel that I should meet or approximate whatever belief you may hold regarding my vocation, I suppose I have to say this; Insomuch as I adhere to the precepts of my order, the direction of my teacher, and my own personal judgment of what is true function in any given circumstance or situation... that is *precisely* how a monk acts!! If you were expecting something else, the problem may very well be with your expectation.

In those cases where the problem is with my behavior, I offer this; If I were already perfect, I would not feel any need to submit myself or to devote myself to the harsh discipline of a monastic lifestyle. I am a simple monk struggling to learn what I can and deepen my practice.... not a saint, not a god, and certainly not enlightened in any way, shape or form.

I don't have the answers... I don't even have the questions!!

So... to my mom, when you cannot get in touch with me when you would like, it probably doesn't have anything whatsoever to do with my monastic practice, unless I happen to be engaged specifically in that practice when you are trying to contact me, in which case I am a very good monk indeed.... but more with the fact that life happens... and it unfolds to each of us in whatever fashion it happens to take.... and we have to respond to that... so, unfortunately, I am not always available to answer the telephone, or to pick one up to call.... this is not indicative of disrespect or a lack of love on my part... it just means that time is a finite resource, and that perhaps I am not so great at managing it.

For those who ask me 'Monk Questions' and then get pissed off at me when I don't give the answer you wanted... all I can do is respond in the best way I am able.

Q: "Why am I here?"

A: "On Long Island?? I thought you lived here?"

Q: "NO!! Why am I alive... on earth!!?? Does life have a purpose?? Why am I HERE??!"

A: Well... to this sort of question, all I can really do by way of response, is to ask a question of my own; "Are you REALLY here??".

It sounds as though I am being a wise ass... but I am not. If you are here... REALLY here... in the present moment... which is the only moment that is ever available to you.... this is not a question that bears answering. Go drink some tea! Wash your cup! Look at the clouds in the sky!

As to the other big question, "What happens when I die?" -- well, that is a question that will answer itself in time... but my question is, "What happens RIGHT NOW while you are alive??"

No ideology has the answers, folks... life is a process that we take with each breath.... I am not the same person at this moment that I was when I began to write this sentence... but, nothing has been lost.... I don't exist... but here I am!! My experience is not your experience... I cannot give anyone answers to these questions...

If you were to come to me and ask me to serve you tea, but you had no cup... I couldn't serve you tea by pouring it directly into your open mouth, or into your hands... the tea would scald you and it would ruin the floor mats or the carpet...

You would need a cup before I could serve you.... and in any case, I couldn't tell you how the tea tastes... you would have to have a cup, and then you would have to drink your tea!!

In the same way, I cannot give answers to questions.... I can only help you to find a cup... and then I can serve you some tea...

... You have to drink it yourself.

Now I have to go to sleep... tommorrow starts a new week.... and there will be a lot of tea to drink!!

Go get yourself a cup!

Saturday, August 11, 2007

Eclipse Anniversary

My wife and I celebrate two anniversaries: Our wedding anniversary, and the anniversary of our first date, upon which we became a couple... and have remained so, quite happily, for eight years as of today!!

The night of our first date happened to be the night of the last eclipse of the millennium... so we refer to it as our 'Eclipse Anniversary'. It was the night of the last eclipse of the 20th century... and of our first kiss as a couple.

There have been many kisses since that night... many hugs... many dreams shared, and many that have been made to come true. We have cooked and enjoyed countless meals... laughed more than I can even manage to convey... and have come to know one another more intimately than most people ever do, I think... In many cases, I have heard that this results in contempt between people... but, in our case it has made us love and respect one another more and more deeply as the years have passed and we have been privileged to see one another's character shine through when it counted.

The past eight years have been the happiest and the best of my life... I have learned what really matters... I have learned to give... and I have learned to accept. I have learned what it is to truly have a friend; a very best friend.
We have been through difficulties that would have crushed most relationships... and, I am sure, has... many times. We have faced adversaries, faced defeat, and faced fear together... we have lived, loved, persevered, and triumphed together.

When nobody saw the good in me... she stood by my side, took my hand in hers... and gave me her heart to safeguard. When others turned their backs... she took me in her arms.

When I had nothing.. she gave me everything... and she continues to give each and every day.

I have learned about strength and gentleness from her... I have learned that being in love isn't something in a movie or in a book... it's not only what you are and what you do... but how you face each moment side by side.. I have learned that we are much more as a couple than we are individually... and I have learned that there is someone in this world that loves me so fiercely that I can I can feel it in my chest when I wake beside her in the middle of the night... and that when I let myself think about it... I can hardly breathe.

When I get knocked flat, she helps me to fly... and when my head is in the clouds, she grabs me and places my feet firmly back on solid earth.

I have learned that there is not a smile anywhere in all of the world that can light up a room like hers does... that are no hands that can work so hard, create such beauty, and bring such pleasure as hers do... no eyes that are so endlessly deep or that dance and glitter with as much mischief and mirth as her eyes do...

I have learned that there isn't another woman in all of time that I could ever love as deeply as I do this one....

She is beautiful to me... unpredictable as lightning... mysterious, amazing, fey, wondrous, and magickal...

And today I am ever so grateful that of all of the guys in the world...

... she chose me!