“Proselytism is…

“Proselytism is solemn nonsense, it makes no sense. We need to get to know each other, listen to each other and improve our knowledge of the world around us. Sometimes after a meeting I want to arrange another one because new ideas are born and I discover new needs. This is important: to get to know people, listen, expand the circle of ideas. The world is crisscrossed by roads that come closer together and move apart, but the important thing is that they lead towards the Good.” – Pope Francis

La Repubblica, How the Church will change (2013)

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What the World Needs Now

Yesterday was the Boston Marathon. About 3 hours after the leaders crossed the finish line, at about 2:50 PM, two bombs exploded about 10 seconds apart from each other on Boylston street, one in front of a restaurant right near the finish line and one a couple blocks west, also on Boylston (if you want a map, the New York Times has a pretty good plot of it here). Suddenly, what was supposed to be Bean Town’s crowning glory, a collective roar of pride and joy, turned into a scene of war, destruction, and devastation. A nightmare unlike anything many people have ever seen here in the United States, with the exception of those who were at the World Trade Center attacks in 2001.

I’m sitting at home reading story after story of people who were hurt, people who made it home safe, and those who went into the fray to see what they could do to help. I’m both horrified and still reeling at the reality of it all, but also awed and inspired by the humanity of those in the area who immediately sprang into action. Even the outpouring of calls, tweets, texts, and facebook messages I got from people in far away places (as well as here in Boston) were heartening to me because in times of peril we really show we care. When people are hurt, we don’t shake our fist; we run to help the fallen.

Even New York City of all places, which is supposed to be the devil in sports to this Red Sox Nation town, had this to say:

Projected onto the side of the Brooklyn Academy of Music in Fort Greene. "Brooklyn loves Boston." is the other message, with a placard below reading "PEACE"

Projected onto the side of the Brooklyn Academy of Music in Fort Greene. “Brooklyn loves Boston.” is the other message, with a placard below reading “PEACE”

New York loves Boston. Brooklyn loves Boston. And with all the love pouring in from all over the world, it’s clear that love is the primary mode of humanity. And it’s what we need now.

Having lived through the chaos of September 11th, 2001 in New York City (I was in 7th grade), I can say that all this feels familiar. The familiar pit in our stomachs, the aching, burning question, “WHY?” The disbelief. The anger, the fear. So let me say this now, while it’s fresh: let’s not get wrapped up in anger. It’s natural to feel some, but we don’t know who is responsible, and we can’t jump to conclusions.

Only love conquers hate.

Let me say that again in all caps: ONLY LOVE CONQUERS HATE. We must not give way to anger. We must be harmonious. We must vow with all our hearts not to go down the path of anger, fear and destruction. This is darkness. Darkness is swallowed by more darkness. Only light can dissipate the dark. (By the way, that quotation projected onto BAM is from the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.)

The 9th precept in Zen Buddhism is: I vow not to give way to anger, and to be harmonious. Anger is discord. Harmony is love. Love is harmony. Here are more words from Dr. King:

“I am convinced that love is the most durable power in the world. It is not an expression of impractical idealism; but of practical realism. Far from being the pious injunction of a Utopian dreamer, love is an absolute necessity for the survival of our civilization. To return hate for hate does nothing but intensify the existence of evil in the universe. Someone must have sense enough and religion enough to cut off the chain of hate and evil, and this can only be done through love. Moreover, love is creative and redemptive. Love builds up and unites; hate tears down and destroys.” (Source: “Advice for Living, Nov. 1957″¹)

It’s not some hippie-dippie feeling that goes away after we’ve forgotten the fear and the pain. Love is THE way. The only way there can be. Love conquers hate, always.

Take it away, Jackie:

¹http://mlk-kpp01.stanford.edu/primarydocuments/Vol4/Nov-1957_AdviceForLiving.pdf

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Holes

My dad’s brain is full of holes. Especially, perhaps, his brain sections that have to do with memory and language. So, mostly left-brain functions. But as Dr. Jill Bolte Taylor expresses in her book and TED Talk, the left brain is the half that is a serial processor: it deals with past, present and future; takes the details of our surroundings and categorizes them; it thinks in language and labels everything; it’s the side that says, “I am,” that gives us a sense of being an individual being separate from everything and everyone else. The right brain, on the other hand, is a parallel processor: it takes in all the information from all our senses and leaves them just as they are; it’s the consciousness that gives us the sense that we are connected to everyone and everything around us; it’s the consciousness that is wide open and expansive, in which everything is perfect and complete, just as it is.

My father’s right brain works fine. Most of the time, when he’s not daydreaming about something, he’s right here, right now. He’s not checking or judging, because he’s lost most of his thinking processes from his left brain. So when I am home, I have to shift myself to the right side of my mind so I can just be with him, as he is. Because that’s how he is with me, and everyone around him.

I’ve come to appreciate Alzheimer’s Disease in a way that is respectful of its terrifying powers of destruction–anything that has the power to eat away someone’s mind must be feared and respected–, but also in a way that recognizes its potential for transformation in others. I have gone from anger, to defeat, hopelessness and despair, to curiosity and wonder. What a wonderful opportunity for those of us who are thrust into the role of caretaker for someone with Alzheimer’s to really grow as human beings! What an opportunity to exercise our compassion muscle, and care for another; to develop a mode of taking life moment-by-moment! Because that is the only way that you can work with an Alzheimer’s patient: moment, by moment, by moment.

My father’s brain is full of holes. Which means, it’s returning to becoming mostly empty space. But really it was always full of empty space, because we are mostly empty space. Matter seems solid, but it’s mostly empty space. We are simply energy beings vibrating with one another, arranged in a certain density to seem like form. But what that means is that we are all made of the same substance, we were originally nothing, became something, and one day will return to nothing again. My father reminds me that every single day.

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28 Days Later

SNAP! SNAP!

It’s the Housemaster, standing, looking out the window, and points to a spot down the hill below the monastery. A fox, its bright orange and red fur stark against the white snow still on the ground, was happily wrestling the carcass of some small furry animal it had found, periodically checking around to make sure no intruders could steal its prize, smacking and licking its teeth.

This was Thursday, my 26th day of Kyol Che, at the Diamond Hill Zen Monastery in Cumberland, RI. Behind the fox was the pond, frozen over and dusted with snow, in drifts due to wind flow. Further away, the Providence Zen Center, looking like a New England farm house, in light yellow. There is something really idyllic and yet quite contemporary about it. Something quintessentially American about it. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a fox with my own eyes before. There is a line in the temple rules about a man who spoke incorrectly and was reborn a fox for 500 generations. As I looked at this fire-colored creature, I wondered what it might have done in a previous life, if anything.

28 days. 430 wake up, 945 to bed. Intensive week, which for me was Week #4, midnight practice from 12 to 2 am. So, 945 sleep, 12 to 2 practice, sleep until 430, then wake up and do practice again.  There was a flow to it, and intensity to it, and yet also this great normalcy to it. After Day 10 it really started to just become everyday life. And it was wonderfully clear, and wonderfully simple.

It was hard work, in that it can be difficult to keep your practice pure. By that I mean, it is really easy to sit there and want something out of the experience. Or to imagine, “when I get out, I’m going to do this and this and this.” Or even to think, this is a good sitting period, this is a bad sitting period. That’s all checking mind, and of course, a lot of that appeared for me on the cushion. But somehow I found the courage to keep coming back to the practice. Just do it. (Nike, I don’t owe you any copyright money ’cause Zen Master Seung Sahn came up with that shit first.) Seriously–only do it, because the result is not what matters.  What matters is just doing your technique, moment, by moment, by moment.

And yet, periodically throughout the experience, there were some moments that were pleasantly surprising. Like the huge blizzard at the end of my 2nd week, blanketing everything in more than 2 ft of snow and overwhelming the pickup truck the Zen Center had for heavy-duty ploughing. I have shoveled snow in Brooklyn, but never this much snow, untouched and pure. It’s heavy. I shoveled the steps up to the big bell outside on a hill right across the access road from the monastery. At first I couldn’t see what I was doing, but I had some sense of how the path flowed, so I just dug. And dug. And dug. Eventually I felt the path going up hill, and found the first step. And then the second. In my excitement over this task I had forgotten to tell the Head Dharma Teacher of my plans, and was so engrossed in it that I did not hear the moktak for the afternoon sitting. I took a break, and as I walked back I heard some geese honking as they flew over head. I looked up to see them in V formation, flying over the blue-tiled roof of the monastery.  Once I got back, seeing I was 15-minutes late, I went back into my room to change, and fell asleep on my bed. I woke up, groggy but rested, two sitting periods later. That evening, Kwang Haeng Sunim (the HDT) pulled me aside and said, “You know you have to tell me when you take off like that.” I sheepishly apologized for my error, and after dinner, went back out to finish shoveling the rest of the steps, which I completed with plenty of time to come back before the evening chants. If no one had done it, it would have made it quite difficult to ring the bell in the evening!

Coming back into this world, this dream world, has been interesting too. It’s been a little over a week now, but still the insights linger. Everyone is very busy, busy, busy all the time. Talking, walking, on the move. Cell phones, coffee, gym clothes, sweatpants. Business atire, and everything else in between. The T is constantly moving back and forth on Commonwealth Avenue. People complain about it. The world doesn’t stop moving for anyone, ever.

But there is a serenity that comes from being able to be in the world, but not of it. To become, as the Zen expression goes, “a cow with no nostrils.” A cow with nostrils can have a ring pierced through its nose and be led every which way. A cow with no nostrils means independence and freedom from life and death. Then, clear compassionate energy appears, we can function correctly and help the suffering in this world.

The the evening bell chant in the Kwan Um School, translated into english reads:

Hearing the sound of the bell, all thinking is cut off;
Wisdom grows; enlightenment appears; hell is left behind.

The three worlds are transcended.
Vowing to become Buddha and save all people.
The mantra of shattering hell:

Om Ga Ra Ji Ya Sa Ba Ha . . .

Cut off thinking, make your mind clear like space, and wisdom appears.  Enlightenment appears. All on their own. Then, no past, no present, no future, but moment by moment by moment, what’s your function? How is it, just now?

Our inside job is to become clear. Our outside job is to be of service. How simple is that? There doesn’t have to be any lofty ideas, only in this moment, and this moment, and this moment, just DO it!

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4 Weeks

In order to expand our universe, we need to limit our focus. In order to have panoramic awareness, we need to limit our actions and our thinking. We must cut through our Small I to reach our Big I. The petty gives way to the expansive, and universal. Grasping and clinging gives way to compassion and giving.

28 days later, I’ll be coming out of a month-long section of Winter Kyol Che 2013, which is a 3-month intensive retreat held at the Diamond Hill Zen Monastery at the Providence Zen Center. The sun may or may not be shining, the clouds may be there or the sky may be clear and blue. But there will be clarity. And that will be enough.

We’ll see how it goes. It’s a radical re-orientation away from the common notion in the western world that we need to be working, working, thinking, thinking–just turned on and going all the time. What have you done in your life? What have you made for yourself? Instead, retreat is about returning to the way things are, not getting caught up in how we think they are, or how they were, or might be, or could be. Just, how is it just now? Who is sitting here, who is typing these words, who is reading these words? Only that. Breathe in, breathe out. Don’t know.

See y’all in a month.

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Our Human Job

In tragedy there are deep painful questions. “Why?” “Who could do such a thing?” “Why did they have to die?” “Where did they go?”

26 people died Friday morning, December 14th, at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, CT. A young man killed his mother, then drove to his mother’s school, forced his way in, and shot and killed 26 people, 20 of whom were 1st-graders in the same class. They all had families who loved them. Neighbors, friends, teachers, students, boys and girls, men and women. Brothers and sisters. The pain of loss is unimaginable, and many are going to have quite dark holiday seasons indeed. And all this happened because of hatred and delusion. But now everyone has the same big question: what is this? why did this happen to us? where did those children go? It’s by sitting with big questions like these that we can really start to digest our suffering.

Locals putting up a message of hope and love in Newtown, CT.

What is the antidote to hate? It’s always love. Gun control only solves the symptoms of the problem, which is that people choose to use violent weapons of destruction. The root cause of the problem is people have fear and hate. Some enjoy the sport of gunmanship, but in the hands of someone who has a completely delusional perception of reality, twisted with fear and hate, a gun becomes a tool for murder.

Many argue for stricter gun control, others argue for greater mental health funding. But let’s not argue. There is no “solution” that’s going to “fix” things so that this never happens again. That is why it feels like we’ve seen this movie playing before. Gun massacre, argument about how to “solve” the problem. We all have a wrenching feeling in our stomachs, and since no one wants to face it. We don’t want to face it, so we go off and try and get rid of it by trying to get legislation passed.

I’m not saying we shouldn’t do that. Don’t get me wrong, we most certainly need stricter gun control laws that target the kinds of extended magazines and automatic assault weapons that really have no place outside the military. And we definitely need to have well-funded mental healthcare initiatives so that the people who are sick enough to even consider killing another human being, due to delusion, or rage, or whatnot, get the help they need to prevent harm to themselves and others.

But we need to look at the root cause. Why do people kill other people? What are the processes people go through that lead them to pulling the trigger? I think one has to be really disconnected from reality to do something like the Newtown killings. But even to kill over money, or drugs, or love, it’s crazy. And what’s even more crazy is that human beings do this to each other all the time.

Really, it’s: Screw you, I want to be left alone. Obviously the only way to be left alone is to be alone, so I’m sorry, but you’re all gonna have to go. To Hell with you all! Bang, bang! Everyone’s dead. Ah, now it’s quiet. Okay, but I like Basketball, so I guess we’ll have to have the Knicks. The Knicks are going to have to have someone to play, so we’ll need the Lakers, and the Celtics. But that’s it! The Lakers, the Celtics, the Knicks and Laker girls and nobody else–okay fine, you can all come back. But don’t annoy me, or I’ll kill you!

That’s not clear. That is attachment thinking, wanting only for me. It is selfish desire devoid of compassion and love. You need both in life; compassion and love are like two wings of a dove. Love is the mechanism, and compassion is the direction. In Korean Zen it’s called dae ja, dae bi, which means, “great love, great sadness.” When you’re happy, I’m happy. When you’re sad, I’m sad. That’s it. Then, no need to take a gun and kill. Only love for all beings. That’s our human job. That’s correct function.

When people die, we have a funeral, and friends and loved ones come together to honor their spirit with tears, love, and laughter.

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A Leaf in the Wind

Last week I really did turn into a leaf in the wind, justifying (perhaps) the new name of this blog. I am sprung. Flung into the world with the freedom of never having to answer to a professor who thinks I need to write 2,500 more words on a page.

I can write what I want to write, when I want to write it. Like here, and now.

In a way, it’s a little scary. I have no constraints other than the need to get a job and make money. I can do that, find out what my passion is in life, and eventually make steps to get paid to do what makes me come alive in this world.

That’s awesome. And now I am thankful this holiday season for the best ChrismaHannuKwanzaaDiwali gift anyone could ever give me: freedom.

It’s like I’m a fistful of dust blowing in the wind, or something deep like that.

Word.

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Spaciousness

Today I have been practicing… speaking… slowly. Not  s  l  o  w  l  y within words, but with                spaces                 in between words.

Have you ever spoken with someone who seems to always be in a rush to get out what they have to say? I have, and since my pattern is to speak on the slower side, it gives a feeling of anxiousness to the situation. Though, probably that person felt the same way about me, if they were particularly accustomed to a faster-paced conversation.

Providing space gives some calm to the atmosphere.  Calm allows people to relax a little bit. Have you ever had a friend, or maybe you were the one so agitated, wound up like a spring too tight, you feel like nobody understands–then someone says, what’s wrong? no really–and they sit down and make eye contact, and just wait patiently. Pretty soon, you start talking, and all they’re doing is intently paying attention to you, but you unwind, you relax, and within a matter of minutes you feel much, much better. All simply because someone stopped pushing their own agenda long enough to listen, completely and attentively.

Listening is the direct expression of spaciousness. It helps people trust one another. How many times have marriages failed between couples where the number one issue was “communication?” How many times have I heard people fighting, and one person says, “no, you’re not listening to me!” Being 100% open to another person, putting down your own conditions and just being with them while they go through whatever they need to go through–this helps them grow, but the funny thing is that it helps you grow too.

We need to find that spaciousness in our lives. It starts with our minds: if you can find the space in between (or before) your thoughts, and get comfortable with that space, then you can lend that comfort to others. And you can add spaces to your speech, to the quality of your movements, your breath. It will help you, and it will help your friends and your family.

But of course, don’t take my word for it. I can’t live your life for you. You have to do it on your own and test it in the laboratory of your experience. Corroborate the results. Then use what you find to help this world become clear and spacious.

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When 1 + 1 ≠ 2

As kids, in school we were taught by way of simple additional mathematics that 1 plus 1 equals 2. One separate unit added to another separate unit makes two separate units, which we call a pair. This rests on the notion that the joining of two things still leaves the residue of each individual thing.

Perhaps it’s my occupational hazard, but as a student of anthropology I am quick to chalk it up to culture. In America we love individualism. One plus one equals two, because each part retains its original value. Break two apart, and you get one and one. Add them back together, and they are still one and one.

But what if what we were taught isn’t the whole truth? Really, it isn’t so accurate to say 1 + 1 = 2. It is much more accurate to say 1 + 1 = 1. Add two whole things together, you get a new bigger whole thing, but it’s still just one thing.

Human beings understand this even before learning basic math. In english we have a very simple, clear word for it. That word is love. John Lennon knew that; he wrote song after song about it.

When I think about certain people in my life, people that I love, I realize there is truly no separation there. Love is union; when we say the word friendship, that’s really what we mean. I don’t mean just our acquaintances. I mean, real friends. People we trust, people we confide in, laugh and cry with, hug and kiss. People we would lay down our lives for. When we are with them, or when we are apart, we are “not two.” We intuitively understand in our guts and our hearts, that one plus one does not equal two.

It’s important not to be attached to love. This doesn’t mean it’s sugary sweet all the time; often it’s harsh, bitter and painful. But it’s still “not two.” It’s leave-no-trace-style love. Big love. Universal love.

It flows like water.

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A Gossip-Free Week

Why do we gossip? We seem to have this burning desire to have the scoop on people and situations before everyone else, to be “in the know” about the juicy details of someone else’s life. This is why celebrity news tabloids are so popular–celebrities are an easy target of idle conversation (did you hear what Oprah did!?).  In a way, it brings people together because it provides a topic of conversation.

It also, according to Robin Dunbar, is the linguistic functional equivalent of grooming in other primates. Grooming is a social lubricant in chimps and baboons, facilitating the maintenance of social relationships. And both grooming and gossip produce the same sorts of endogenous opiates that give you runner’s high after a long distance jog.¹ But there is a darker side to gossip, especially when it involves people that we know more intimately than the rich and famous.

I recently walked into the kitchen of my house, where someone I live with was sitting, preparing some food and quietly eating. She seemed a little upset, so I asked if everything was alright. She replied that she was actually in a fairly bad mood, because she had just walked into the kitchen not ten minutes earlier to find that people were talking (or, rather, gossiping) about her.

That got me thinking: what would it take to completely stop gossiping for a week?

Where I live, the Cambridge Zen Center, we read one chapter of the Temple Rules every house meeting, and rule #3, On Conduct, includes the injunction, “Do not gossip.” Rule #4, On Speech, elaborates somewhat with, “Do not make the bad karma of lying, exaggerating, making trouble between people, or cursing others.”  I guess gossip could fall under the umbrella of both “lying” and “making trouble between people,” because when I hear Fred talking shit about Sally–and then tell someone else, who tells another person, who then tells Sally–she doesn’t get an accurate picture of the situation. Of course, her reaction (unless she has her guard up) will not be so good.

So, here are the rules:
1.  No talking about people not present, positively or negatively; they’re not present to defend themselves either way.

And that’s it.

I want to get to know this desire to gossip: where does it come from? How strong is it, really? In a way, I am afraid of what I might find; perhaps it will be difficult to check myself before I speak. At any rate, I am going to take notes on what I find out, and eventually draw upon my experience to include in a follow-up post about gossip over at BU Culture Shock. Check it.

¹Dunbar, R. I. M.. Grooming, Gossip, and the Evolution of Language. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1996.

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