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The Journey to the West

Though we journey to the West We pray to the East More or less that's the way Each day begins and ends It’s a tale everyone ...

Sunday, August 27, 2017

Home Grown Dharma (part two)

This is part two of an essay inspired by rereading Walden Pond in celebration of the bicentennial of Thoreau's birth.  The gist of my argument is that Thoreau has much to teach us about the successful integration of the spiritual traditions of East and West. Although his first hand exposure to Buddhism may have been quite limited, Thoreau's own thinking and writing evidence a very deep Bodhisattva awareness, almost as if he had independently and spontaneously arrived at the Noble Truths through his direct contemplation of nature. In that way, Thoreau still serves as a model for us today, showing us how to cultivate our Buddha awareness within the framework of our familiar western ways of thinking, pointing us down the path where we can discover our very own home grown dharma.

Yet there is a serious problem with viewing Thoreau in this light. Reading Walden Pond you will not find a single mention of the Buddha. There are a few passing references to Shiva, the Vedas and sanskrit but Buddha himself appears nowhere in Thoreau's contemplation about nature, which admittedly makes it a bit harder to make a case for him as one of the first great Bodhisattvas of North America.

Rick Fields (the brilliant historian of dharma in America) has suggested that the New England Transcendentalists may have been a little confused about the finer points of distinction between Hinduism and Buddhism, which is readily understandable given the paucity of Eastern texts that had been translated into English at such at early point in the 19th century.

But in fact, no matter how limited Thoreau's formal dharma training may have been, he appears to have been preternaturally gifted in his capacity for spiritual insight and growth. Where the Sixth Patriarch was brought to awakening simply by overhearing the Heart Sutra chanted in the street outside his window, it doesn't seem to have taken much more than that to bring awakening to Thoreau. He read a chapter or two of the Lotus Sutra in translation.  It made enough impression on him that he helped publish part of it for the first time in North America in 1845. For the most part, though, Thoreau seems to have figured out the rest of the dharma by himself, through development of a self-styled Yankee practice of his own, as described in copious detail in the pages of Walden Pond.  As Thoreau himself put it: "The Vedas and their Agamas are not nearly so ancient as serene contemplation."

* * * * *

Dipping into Walden Pond it doesn't take long to notice the Buddhistic qualities of Thoreau's ways of thinking and living. Quite striking from the outset is his presentism and mindfulness. In no uncertain terms he proclaims himself dedicated to the here and now, no less so than Baba Ram Das, or any Zen monk sitting in zazen for that matter. For Thoreau, the depth of his attachment to the present also means he trusts more in the truth of his lived experience than in the wisdom received from books, no matter how ancient their origin. In that sense, he seems even more Zen like, priviledging the insights derived from his quiet contemplation over those found in the sutras.

It's also not hard to see how Thoreau's recipe for living is something of a 19th century American variant of Buddhism's Middle Way. It is a path of compromise between extreme asceticism and extreme indulgence, a path dedicated to simplification and relishing the mundane pleasures of daily life. In Thoreau's case it is a Middle Way between the wilderness and civilization, a modest shack on the outskirts of town, close enough to town for regular visiting but remote enough to preserve the tranquility and space for quiet contemplation.

"I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach," as Thoreau summed up his statement of purpose.  "(N)or did I wish to practice resignation, unless it was quite necessary. I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life, to live so sturdily and Spartan-like as to put to rout all that was not life ...."

To live more deliberately. What better way could there be to sum up Thoreau's practice of bringing a focused awareness to the daily routines of living.  This is surely a far cry from a meditation based practice of sitting cross legged and concentrating on the breath. Thoreau also meditates but in the manner of a Romantic poet, traipsing across the countryside and paddling after the loon on the Pond, letting loose of himself in the natural world.  But his spiritual practice is really not confined to occasional meditation. His practice is fully expressed in the way he goes about daily life. It is inherent in the meticulous way he builds his cabin by hand, plastering (after digging up his own lime) and stone masonry, keeping track of every penny spent in the process of doing so, and providing a detailed written account.  It partakes of the way he plants his bean rows and sounds the depths of Walden Pond. This hyper self-reliance and awareness of the natural world are the essence of Thoreau's method of spiritual cultivation.  In one beautiful passage he describes it as a matter of bringing the parlor as close to the kitchen and workshop as possible, when it comes to building an appropriate habitation for the human spirit. In other words, Thoreau's practice through living deliberately calls for stripping away all the trappings and indirection of civilization so man or woman may assume full and direct responsibility for his or her own material and spiritual well-being. An adz and an awl have taken the place of a begging bowl.

If nothing else, this underscores just how different Thoreau's notion of practice is from what we encounter in the teachings of the dharma masters.  Thoreau strives for an intensification of self-awareness and heightened mastery over his immediate environment instead of a letting go. The Self is his pathway as opposed to an illusion he seeks to overcome. And yet what's most remarkable is that the ultimate goal of Thoreau's is so strikingly similar to that of any great dharma master. "Not till we are lost, in other words," as Thoreau explains it, "not till we have lost the world, do we begin to find ourselves, and realize where we are and the infinite extent of our relations."

Whether we proceed through the Self, or over or around it, Indra's Net is waiting to catch us and hold us in its thrall.  Different as Thoreau's notion of practice may be, his home grown dharma begins to sound very much like what you would expect to hear from a Bodhisattva after all.

* * * * *

This is all I have time for right now. Hard to believe that our month in Nova Scotia is coming to a close and it is almost time to turn my attention back to life beyond the meadow. With any luck I will get around to writing the third and likely final part of this essay next week once we settle back into our Long Island routine.

Wednesday, August 23, 2017

A Prose Poem in Tribute to the Intense Fog of the Maritimes

The sea is no more than sound this morning, advancing or retreating, I have no idea, as the fog holds sway from just off the shoreline to a horizon unseen, all despite the sun's deeply discounted glare.

From the interplay of what is seen and inferred, obscurity gives way to occasional clarity, through the compounding mix of fire water and air.

*  *  *  *  *

*  *  *  *  *

Tide, wind and fog are the controlling elements of life in Nova Scotia.  Tide becomes the major player along the upper reaches of the Bay of Fundy, while wind and fog prevail over most of the rest of the coastline.  The fog may be paramount in its influence both in what it conceals and reveals.  Elizabeth Bishop who was native to these parts described it this way:

The world is a mist
And then the world is
Minute and vast and clear 

Hard to say it more perfectly than that.  But (if you'll forgive me for adding) once you surrender to this landscape, don't be surprised if lighthouses soon begin to figure prominently in your dreams.

Tuesday, August 22, 2017

Home Grown Dharma (part one)

It's chilly this morning from a stiff onshore breeze; I've come to sit with my back to the sun, facing north into the meadow. I can see but one plump McIntosh hanging ripe on the tree just in front of me. And yet everywhere the dharma abounds, all around, everywhere you look you encounter the world so ripe with the possibilities derived from endless natural experimentation; it's the same stuff that we are all made of, being equal inheritors per stirpes from birth. Grace seems to be singular but really it's not. Nor is truth subject to monopoly power. It's unfettered and therefore it's also fruitful and abundant as it propagates across the open face of the earth.

* * * * *

Enough preamble. Let me get to the point. There is nothing more powerful than dharma that's home grown. Here in this Port Lorne meadow I'm glad to say we seem to be growing a crop of our own. So I want to tell you a little more about what I've been thinking up here in this Nova Scotia meadow.

* * * * *

Yankee and Red Sox fans alike, we each relish getting our own  turn at bat, individualism being hardwired into our North American operating system and core to our beliefs. That's why the insights of Buddha sometimes strike us as discordant with our native disposition. How is it possible to accept no-self or not-self as an honored member of our home team while continuing to cherish and protect our individual rights, privileges and liberties as North American citizens?
Is there any such thing as dharma that's native to our soul and soil?

But any discordance is imagined not real. From my perch in this meadow I can discern a path that allows us to harmonize our Buddha nature with our distinctive cultural heritage that privileges individualism. This is an important wellspring of my current sense of well being, finally having tapped into a dharma that feels truly home grown.

* * * * *

We are accustomed to think of Buddhism as a spiritual practice that is not indigenous to North America. Of the many varieties of Buddhism that have flourished in here, from Gampo Abbey in the eastern extremity to the Tassajara Center in the far west, they have come as transplants from foreign soil, and even as they take root here they remain strongly identified with their original Asian lineages.  Spread across the continent we can find communities that uphold and preserve the Buddhist traditions from Tibet, Korea, China and Japan but where can we find a sangha built around the notion of a distinctively American practice of Buddhism?

In a way then, the development of Buddhism in America, at least so far, seems quite different from the development path it followed all across Asia, where distinctive regional variants of practice emerged, very different from each other, often heavily influenced by syncretic traditions otherwise indigenous to a particular region. So we end up in Tibet with Varjayana Buddhism that incorporates aspects of Bon and in China Chan practice emerges through the absorption of Daoism into the tenets of the Middle Way. And yet in North America we have on display the widest array of world-wide forms of Buddhist practice, that is all except for one we may truly call our own.

It may be that this lack of a distinctly American form of practice can simply be explained by the relatively early stage of development that Buddhism has so far attained in North America. After all, the regional forms of practice in Asia developed over the course of many centuries, as Buddhism gradually established itself in new terrain, and assimilated to unique local conditions, while Buddhism's entire history in the U.S. only extends back about 150 years, and really it's only in the years after World War II that Buddhism has achieved any significant degree of visibility within mainstream American culture, leaving far too little time for any uniquely North American characteristics of practice to emerge.

There is also a case to be made that Buddhism will always remain exogenous here because the idea of no-self cannot be integrated into our self-absorbed and self-obsessed culture.  By this line of reasoning, it is unrealistic to suppose Narcissus will ever discover Buddha in the waters of the lake (no matter how many swans may come to swim upon it).  Self and no-self will remain forever alien to each other.

But in this Port Lorne meadow I have come to the conclusion that such is not the case.  Here the dharma grows abundantly, all the way to the clearing's edge, and who knows how much further into the surrounding spruce forest.  But in order to see it you must first empty your head, by which I mean to say, you have to be ready to accept the familiar world as the strange and wonderful place it truly is.

* * * * *

My first real taste of home grown dharma came from a book that I knew well, or at least thought I did, from prior readings at a much younger age. But I guess in our youth dharma often passes us by or gets confused for something else, whereas once we reach a ripe old age (and just this year I turned 60) we may stand a better chance of taking due note when it's propounded.

In any case, it was in the pages of Walden Pond that I discovered this entirely new sense of Buddhism as somethingbthat could be practiced in a home grown or indigenous way, not requiring any contortionism in order to suit my native disposition. "In every man's brain is the Sanskrit," as Thoreau himself expressed it so succinctly.  And it is up to each of us to decipher the Sanskrit writ within as best we can.

Now I'm certainly not the first person to comment on the Buddha spirit that animates Thoreau's writing. No less an authority than Rick Fields, the brilliant historian of Buddhism in America, devoted an entire chapter of his seminal book (When the Swans Came to the Lake) to discussing the importance of Emerson and Thoreau in setting the stage for the arrival of Buddhism in America in the second half of the 19th century. Fields in particular singles out Thoreau as being "pre-Buddhist" in spirit, as somehow forecasting the true dharma's subsequent arrival.

I see it differently. I see Thoreau himself as the real deal, not merely a precursor but as a true dispenser of something utterly new in the Buddhist canon - a North American Bodhisattva of the very highest order, perhaps the very first in our domestic lineage, propounding a home grown dharma of our very own.

And the essence of this home grown dharma is quite simple: it shows us a way to reconcile our head and our heart. Ego or the self may become a pathway instead of an obstacle that must be overcome. This is not an observation you'll find in the pages of the Lotus or Heart Sutra. But you will find it very clearly expressed in Walden Pond, in a surprisingly accessible way.

(To be continued ... )

Monday, August 21, 2017

A Tweet for the Eclipse

I'm not one of those who looks forward to this afternoon's eclipse as an altogether fortuitous event. I'm far too suspicious by temperament, far too pre-scientific. I'm more inclined to an Aztec or Roman way of thinking about an eclipse as an omen of great but uncertain meaning. It marks one of those times when the future hangs very much in the balance, for good or ill --as if we all didn't know that already, I mean really, how far is General Kelly's hand from the switch?

So in honor of today's solar eclipse here's a little tweet from me ...

We've all heard so much
About the eclipse teed up
For later this afternoon
But what about all the ellipses
Soon to follow? One day perhaps
The sun will more fully oblige us
By briefly standing still

Sunday, August 20, 2017

Nova Scotia off the Starboard Bow

A hawk soars
In the breeze come ashore
High over the meadow
Marissa strides across the lawn
Studio bound
I'm half baked
In late afternoon sun
Summer's not yet dead and gone
The wild blueberries here
Just coming into season
In the pith of the now
I spy Nova Scotia
Off the starboard bow

Sunday, August 13, 2017

On Wisdom and Aging

Wisdom is a matter of aging with grace. This is an aphorism Marissa and I came up with this morning while lying around in bed, unsure whether it was time yet to get up. A raven kept cawing indignantly just outside our bedroom window saying "get up now!" Understood in this light, wisdom is a kind of insight that we receive but don't really possess; it's most important that we be open to it rather than engage in its active pursuit.  Much as with the Daoist concept of wuwei, wisdom comes to us through our least effort and but for the grace of the Dao pointing us in the right way.

Saturday, August 12, 2017

Deeper into the Meadow We Go: my week in Nova Scotia with Henry David Thoreau

Life in this Nova Scotia meadow seems to unfold according to a very different logic than Marissa and I are accustomed to back home in Long Island. Up here Nature is that much more accessible - it happens in the open meadow, where every critter struggles to define and defend its niche. We witnessed a perfect example of this soon after we arrived when Marissa threw open the double barn doors and started setting up her summer studio.  Almost immediately a flock of swallows appeared, hovering overhead, as if responding to a neighborly invitation. A few of the braver birds took turns dive bombing us, flying in one door and out the other. One briefly perched in the rafters, and then, just as suddenly as they appeared, the flock took wing, apparently declining the invitation on the grounds that the accommodations weren't spacious enough.

The countryside here is only half tamed. It always seems to be renewing itself through its ready association with the wild. The humming birds are ubiquitous. The dogs must stay fenced in the backyard and cats remain strictly indoors lest they become prey to larger predators lurking at the meadow's edge. The boundary line between the human and the natural realms has clearly been redrawn in a number of interesting ways.

* * * * *

My first week in Nova Scotia has been greatly enriched as a result of what I've been reading. Walden Pond it turns out is still a pretty reliable guidebook when it comes to a spending an extended period in or around the country. It was Marissa who had the foresight to pack a copy of it, a beautiful new edition she came across recently which was published to comemorate this year's bicentennial of Thoreau's birth.  I picked it up as soon as we unpacked and immediately began enjoying the opportunity to reacquaint myself with Thoreau. What a remarkable presence he is  - still vital after 200 years.  And it's even more remarkable how a great book like Walden Pond can actually transform your experience of Nature right down to the present day.

Let me give you a concrete example of what I mean. A few days ago I went down the coast for a short hike in Delaps Cove. There's a footpath there that runs through the woods and then drops into a ravine and ends by a waterfall on the coast. I went on this walk largely at Thoreau's urging to explore the great outdoors. As I was hiking along a rock outcropping that overlooked the Bay of Fundy, I noticed two brownish birds bobbing in choppy water about 30 yards offshore. I watched as both of them in quick succession dove underwater and counted to myself as almost a minute elapsed before they resurfaced, far distant from where they first submerged.  It was then that I realized I was watching two loons at play. I only knew it because just the night before I had been so completely engrossed by Thoreau's description of chasing a loon in his rowboat all across Walden Pond. And here I was experiencing the very same delight, with two loons of my own, as it were, watching them at play in the Fundy surf.  Nature is full of such wonders; we discover these deep correspondences everywhere around us almost as soon as we begin to look. It defies ready explanation.  Suffice it to say El Shaddai of the forest and meadow seems to be keeping busy performing amazing new work.

* * * * *

Next week I plan to follow up with a further blog post about Thoreau. I was really deeply impressed by the depth of Walden Pond this time around, much more so than when I read it last back in college.  As Thoreau himself sought to remind us - it is a pond with an amazing capacity that never disappoints in its ability to surprise and refresh us.

Tuesday, August 8, 2017

Seeing the World Anew: reflections on what emerges from crisis

High in a hilltop meadow in Nova Scotia, overlooking the basalt reaches of the Bay of Fundy, it's possible to contemplate the Age of Trump, without inducing the usual gag reflex from the onrush of outrage and bile. The Canadians we find ourselves amongst are warm and  sympathetic hosts who have attained a far more measured outlook on the bizarre turn of events in the lower 48 - this too shall pass, they assure us. It reinforces our gratitude for having come north to this tranquil spot, far removed from the daily barrage of breaking news and fake news alike.

From here it is easier to see this moment for what it is, without feeling crushed by the negativity it engenders. We have entered a darkly farcical stage in the drama of American public life. It is Brechtian  in the sense it is characterized by an equal share of buffoonery and corruption. Suki Tawdry and Jenny Diver both being on intimate terms with Donald Drumpf.  Of course, low and darkcomedy have always been an important element in American popular culture, as evidenced by such long running successful franchises as the National Enquirer and The WWF. But in the Age of Trump this mode of discourse has achieved ascendency. Bathos rules the airwaves. It turns out that the market for public discourse is subject to something akin to Gersham's Law, as a result of which the value of our public discourse has undergone abject debasement.

This, as I remember learning in college, is one of the rules of farce as a genre - all the participants in a farce are eventually dragged down to the same low level.  Not just the sycophants, like Mnuchin and Cohen, but also the sparring partners, like Joe and Mika. You could hear the same principle at work in the recently released transcript of the post inaugural call Trump placed to Enrique Nieto, in which the American president ably ensnared his Mexican adversary in his trademark brand of radical idiocy. Sooner or later everyone looks ridiculous.  Ridicule simply replaces reason and commentary. When you fight a buffoon you become a buffoon, even if you lay him bare.

* * * * *

This farcical turn of events has been deeply unsettling to many of us. Ever since the election we've been walking around with a bad hangover that just wont go away, no matter how long we meditate or how much herbal tea we drink. As citizens of a hegemonic world power, we are accustomed to thinking that what happens in our public life should be dignified and of real consequence, both domestically and abroad. How strange it is to become a laughingstock to the world, how disruptive to our sense of well being.  In other words, what is happening now in the US has all the hallmarks of being a major social and political crisis. Trump is merely a symptom of a much bigger problem.  What began as a financial crisis in 2008 has festered and morphed into contagion that has seriously destabilized the political order. The system, which long maintained stasis through alternating two party rule, seems to be breaking down and nobody knows if it will end up being damaged beyond repair. Trump is merely a catalyst or accelerant speeding the system's demise. Or sticking with the contagion metaphor, Trump is the vector by which the disease of disaffection  has spread from the margins to the mainstream of society. It is a debilitating condition which may result in a complete loss of confidence and the knack for self-governance.

* * * * * *

I don't mean to sound full of doom and gloom. From this mountain-side meadow in Nova Scotia, the view is quite breathtaking - the panorama spans across three or four different vistas, each with its own story to tell. As I sit here writing, two hummingbirds are working over the hydrangea by my side, accompanying my thoughts with a pleasant occasional low register hum.

Already it is evident how much good can come from this most unfortunate turn in our public life. I'm not speaking about the eventual political outcome because frankly I have no idea how events in Washington are likely to play out. The positive outcome I'm thinking about is on a more personal level. In a time of political and social crisis, each of us faces the challenge of renewing our understanding and connection to the society we live in.  The old world order is most likely irretrievably lost, which means this is a good time for us to think about the world we really want to live in and consider what we can do to make it happen.

There is another more spiritual way to appreciate the unique quality and opportunity inherent in the present moment. We find ourselves cut adrift from both our past and future. The Age of Trump heralds a break in our sense of historical continuity - we have lost our connection to a stable social and political order. At the same time, the specter of climate change hangs as a dark cloud over the prospects for our collective future.  Bereft of a strong connection to past or future, we have no recourse but to come alive to the present tense.  This of course is the very place that sages and wise folk (from the Buddha to Thoreau) have long urged us to direct our attention. In a way then we should be grateful that world events have thus conspired to make our spiritual quest that much easier to accomplish.

Thursday, August 3, 2017

Letter from a Nova Scotia Meadow

How much better the world begins to seem with a little Port Lorne home grown coursing through the bloodstream - in the golden light of the late afternoon there's a whole meadow to embrace. And where we're living now there's this apple tree growing in the middle of the back yard. What was a farm once may yet spring back to life with Marissa gearing up to start painting in the purple barn. So it's time to let the telemarketers talk amongst themselves as Guan Yin and I have plans for the next few weeks. Blue tooth has taken  control of the stereo casting a spell of trance and the apple tree has commenced to flex its muscles in a light onshore breeze.

When everything fades away there is always the present tense to fall back on. That's what a Nova Scotia meadow means - a few acres of transparency. A visible perimeter in which the bounded space begins to cohere.  Sitting on the porch you better appreciate how a meadow is a living thing, its  very own organism. The purple barn standing astride the old stock apple tree - it is almost as if we have stumbled upon a Tree of Life right in the backyard, as it blends into the meadow, the present begins to feel quite enlarged.

Tuesday, August 1, 2017

The End of the End of the World as We Know It

It was Tom Moloney – one of the smartest lawyers I ever had the pleasure of working with -- who taught me an important lesson about drafting. After working all night to settle a sordid dispute among Wall Street finaglers, shuttling back and forth from one conference room to another, we were at the point of exhaustion and capitulation, a time when even the greediest financier is prepared to make a deal.  That’s when Tom instructed me to insert one final revision into the terms of the settlement.  Where the agreement purported to release any and all claims against our client, arising from the beginning of time to the settlement date, Tom told me to modify the clause to specify that our client would be released from all claims arising “from the beginning of the beginning of time”, a clarification he felt would be beneficial, as he explained it, so that any matters stemming back to the very first day of creation would inarguably be covered by the agreement.

Tom's drafting point underscores a fundamental difference between lawyers and poets, as they typically work at opposite ends of the language spectrum.  Lawyers face the Sisyphean challenge of honing their phrasing to remove any conceivable ambiguity (such as the gap between the first and seventh day of creation) whereas poets more often busy themselves making the most of language’s inherent uncertainties.   But a great lawyer, such as Moloney, sometimes can achieve a true poetic effect in the pursuit of precision, just as a great poet, such as William Blake, is capable of suffusing the deepest ambiguity with an overarching sense of clarity.

* * * *

Tom's drafting genius also highlights how what we think of as a discrete moment in time (such as the beginning or end of the world) may actually extend over a very protracted period.  Do you remember the REM song The End of the World as We Know It? It must be more than 30 years ago since it was an MTV hit. Does anyone even watch MTV anymore? And yet the lyric still seems perfectly apt, except now, borrowing Tom's conceit, we seem to have finally reached a new stage in the process. Today we seem that much closer to the end of the end of the world as we know it, as opposed to the beginning of the end as Michael Stipe so blithely sang about it.  Indeed, after 30 years of social and political floundering and drift, as the liberal welfare state finally seems prepared to give up the ghost, who among us (other perhaps than Steve Bannon) really feels fine about it?

But for the most part I  think it's good that we are closer to the end than the beginning of this process. If the world as we used to know it is really caput, we'll then it is time for us to get on with our new understanding of things. Now it is incumbent upon each of us to take no comfort in the tired old certainties of creeds outworn; we may not feel fine about it, but it is high time for us to discover the world anew.