Saturday, July 18, 2015

The Fruits of Our Labor

I’ve been working on my house of late – replacing the siding, gutters, soffit & fascia, and so forth. It’s a big enough job that I dedicated a whole week of vacation just to getting it underway. Much still remains for me to do, but I’ve made fairly decent progress so far. And along the way I’ve had plenty of time to reflect upon what I’m doing, and why. Don’t I have enough to keep me busy without taking on such time-consuming and expensive chores?

Of course, there are many ways I could answer that question: I’m increasing the resale value of my home. I’m staving off having to make more costly repairs in the future. I’m making my home as pleasing a place for me to live in as I can. I’m being a good neighbor by making my property as appealing to live next to as I can. I’m keeping my house from becoming one of those that just gets torn down upon resale so that another can be built in its place. Certainly everyone can relate to such motivations. We all understand the concept of being rewarded for our labor – if not with money or prestige, then at least with the knowledge that we’ve built or maintained something that will outlive us and become useful for another. We all want our work to amount to something, don’t we?

“The world is imprisoned in its own activity,” says Lord Krishna to Arjuna in the Bhagavad Gita, “except when actions are performed as worship of God. Therefore you must perform every action sacramentally, and be free from all attachments to results” (Prabhavananda, 1964, p. 45). Such advice is characteristic of the path of liberation known as karma yoga, one of three such paths outlined in the Gita (the others being the path of devotion and the path of knowledge.) One who devotes himself to the path of karma yoga surrenders himself to the circumstances of his birth, and the duties and constraints that such a birth entails. He neither begrudges his circumstances nor seeks to become enriched by them. He simply gives himself over so completely to whatever action is required of him that it becomes the means of his liberation, rather than the circumstances of his imprisonment.

The author shows off his new digs

Applying the teachings of karma yoga to our modern Western lifestyle requires some flexibility of thought. Life was simpler some 2,500 years ago. Humans had fewer choices to make regarding how they would live. We were more like the rest of the animal kingdom. Birds nest. Rodents burrow. Each lives out the karma of its existence. We moderns, on the other hand, are no longer so constrained by natural heritage; neither do we live in such a rigid class system as the one that gave rise to the teachings of the Gita. It’s difficult to say how karmically constrained we really are. But that doesn’t mean that the teachings of the Gita have no meaning for us moderns.

I might think of my home remodeling project, then, in terms of living out my karma as a homeowner. Homeowners have a responsibility to maintain their property, so just do it. Neither begrudge the hard work and expense, nor scheme of future enrichment. Simply focus on the quality of the work. Pay attention to the process and let the product be what it will be. Devote heart and mind and body so completely to the work that it becomes an offering of devotion.

It’s interesting how similar such a focus is to what is now so commonly referred to as mindfulness practice, cultivating awareness, or being present. A mindfulness practitioner refrains from dwelling in the past or living for the future. He refrains from wishing that the present moment would be anything other than what it is. For many, this is the key to liberation. For instance, Shunryu Suzuki is quoted in his biography as saying that “as long as you seek for something, you will get the shadow of reality and not reality itself” (Chadwick, 1999, p. 233). It is this shadow world that ensnares us and results in our suffering.

It’s easy to be pulled into this shadow world. I remember well the beginning of the so-called Great Recession. Of course, that’s what we call it now, but back in 2008 we didn’t know that it was only a recession. For all we knew at the time we were descending into another depression that might have been worse than even the Great Depression. What was worse, for me anyway, was that my marriage was breaking up at exactly the same time, and in the midst of a big home-remodeling project to boot!

Would I requalify for a loan in order to buy out my ex and hang onto the house that I’d lived in for years? If I had to leave, would I at least be able to afford to finish that remodeling project to a point that I might recoup my investment? Would we just end up selling the house as-is for it to be torn down and replaced with one of those McMansions that had begun to pop up like mushrooms here and there in the neighborhood? Would all of my handiwork be for naught? Would all of the little details that I’d pondered and sweated over just end up being smashed into oblivion by one of the backhoes that visited our neighborhood from time to time?

In fact, the backhoes had just finished visiting one such disposable home as soon as old age compelled its owners to take up other quarters. A deep, deep basement was dug for high-ceilinged quarters downstairs, and upstairs a beautiful floorplan began to take shape – with spacious openness, and a dramatic stairway. I know because I snuck in for a peak from time to time as the construction dragged on and on and on.

I happened to meet the builder one day, one rather incongruously matched to the task of building a half million dollar home. We chatted for a while and then I finally asked him why the project was taking so long. As it turned out, “John” was a software engineer by trade who’d jumped into the construction boom that preceded the Great Recession. His investment partner had bailed out on him when the economy began to tank, leaving John to work nights and weekends all by himself whenever his cash flow allowed. And so it was that the project was taking so long. Things took yet another turn for the worse when a huge rain flooded the almost finished basement and added even more work onto the already seemingly endless project.

We moved in different circles, but I could certainly understand what John was going through. Our respective karma had ensnared us. We were each toiling away, and we were each wondering what would become of it. What would become of us? What would be the fruits of our labor?

Sometime later, as I was walking past John’s project one evening, I noticed some new paperwork tacked next to the front door. It was a notice of condemnation. Maybe John had simply walked away from his investment, having decided not to throw any more good money after bad. Maybe the city had finally lost all patience with the slow pace of his progress. Regardless, I never saw John after that. His brand new construction was bulldozed into oblivion. The lot was graded over and seeded with grass. All of his hard work had come to naught.

“The world is imprisoned in its own activity, except when actions are performed as worship of God. Therefore you must perform every action sacramentally, and be free from all attachments to results.” It’s hard to be free from all attachment to results, isn’t it? It’s hard not to think in terms of what we stand to gain or lose. How else do we decide what to do, where to focus our energy, how to invest our resources? Thinking in terms of gain and loss is largely what guides us as we navigate through time and space. Did I absolutely need to take on the home repairs that I’m presently working on? Well, no. It wasn’t like I was getting rained on, or cited by the city for a dilapidated property. Things were just beginning to look a little bit “tired” – something that any prospective buyer would certainly notice if I were to put it on the market in that state.

“As long as you seek for something, you will get the shadow of reality and not reality itself.” Do I seek return on my investment of time and money? In a word, yes. I can do nothing else but admit to hoping that my home repair handiwork is valued by some future buyer should I ever need to sell it. Most of all, though, I hope that someone enjoys living here after I’m gone, as opposed to it being razed for the sake of some new construction.

All the same, Suzuki’s words do ring true to me. I can watch as my longings tug me out of the daylight and into the shadowed forest. And I know what it’s like to wander there, lost and lonely. For the most part, though, practice allows me to live a little bit more solidly within the grace of the present moment, unperturbed by regrets of the past or worries of the future, unconcerned with gain or loss. I understand that I will one day have to say goodbye to all that I’ve worked for and hold dear. We all say goodbye to everything and everyone, including ourselves. But if we can bring that realization to whatever work we decide to do, we make it holy, we make it a gift, we experience grace as we perform it. And sometimes, when I’m able to lose myself completely in the samadhi of my labor, I’m able to experience it precisely as it is: labor without any laborer in sight, action without an actor, as far as the eye can see.  

Chadwick, D. (1999). Crooked Cucumber – The life and Zen teachings of Shunryu Suzuki. Broadway Books.
Prabhavananda (1964). The song of God: Bhagavad-gita. (Prabhavananda, tr.) Published by The New American Library.

Burrowing owl by Mick Thompson via:

Copyright 2015 by Mark Frank

Wednesday, June 17, 2015

Zen Outside the Box

Where there is carrion lying, meat-eating birds circle and descend. Life and death are two. The living attack the dead, to their own profit. The dead lose nothing by it. They gain too, by being disposed of. Or they seem to, if you must think in terms of gain and loss. Do you then approach the study of Zen with the idea that there is something to be gained by it? This question is not intended as an implicit accusation. But it is, nevertheless, a serious question. Where there is a lot of fuss about “spirituality,” “enlightenment” or just “turning on,” it is often because there are buzzards hovering around a corpse. This hovering, this circling, this descending, this celebration of victory, are not what is meant by the Study of Zen—even though they may be a highly useful exercise in other contexts. And they enrich the birds of appetite.
Zen enriches no one. There is no body to be found. The birds may come and circle for a while in the place where it is thought to be. But they soon go elsewhere. When they are gone, the “nothing,” the “no-body” that was there, suddenly appears. That is Zen. It was there all the time but the scavengers missed it, because it was not their kind of prey. – Thomas Merton

So reads the author’s note to Zen and the Birds of Appetite – one which for years now I’ve assumed I would one day work into a blog post. It’s rather harsh, isn’t it? Who are those scavengers? Am I one of them?

I think it’s safe to say that, for any given individual, Zen practice is an ever-changing dynamic. During my tenure helping out with the instruction of beginners, it was quite common to find people hoping to gain something, whether it be refuge, meaning, knowledge, enlightenment, peace of mind, community, an escape from the chaos of modernity, or a means to cope with pain, grief, anxiety, depression and substance abuse. And how could I possibly claim exemption from a good number of those!

Ox-herding Picture Number 9

As practice progresses, however, (toward what?) one begins to realize change. But what exactly has changed? If anything, what is gained via Zen practice amounts to addition by subtraction – a dropping off of ideas, concepts, beliefs, expectations, unnecessary stuff and unnecessary activity. But what happens when we begin to drop off huge chunks of what we once thought Zen practice was all about?

In another century I might have been one of those monks who heads off into the mountains to live as a hermit up above some little village. But even as my mind is such, the life that I am living includes a house, a job, a partner, and so many other predictable worldly connections.    

My practice these days is a solitary one. I have a zendo set up in my living room where I sit in meditation daily, most often alone. On the other hand, it’s difficult to say that my practice is truly solitary when I’m sitting with the entire world each time that I do – not unlike that monk up in the mountains practicing for the sake of all of the townspeople down below and the world all around.

Now, some might say that I need a teacher. But, in fact, I have many. The entire world is my teacher. Some might say that I need a community to practice with. In fact, I have one. The entire world is my community. Such ideas have gotten me labeled individualistic, arrogant, egotistical, and delusional. More often than not, though, such labels are assigned to me whenever I refuse to stay inside the box that has been created for me by the mind of another.
Zen student to teacher: "I come seeking liberation."
Zen teacher to student: "Who has enslaved you? Show me your chains!" +
Indeed. Did the student need to hear even a single additional word?

This past week, while driving home from Colorado, my partner and I listened to a series of lectures by Ram Das packaged together as Experiments in Truth. Somewhere along the way, Ram Das suggested that the ideal method for becoming free would be one that self-destructs once it is no longer needed. In other words, the method frees the self from clinging even as it leaves nothing behind to cling to. Of course, this is not necessarily an original idea. The Buddha himself remarked that once you’ve used the raft of the teachings to reach the other side it no longer makes much sense to go around carrying that raft on your back. The following is an excerpt of what the Buddha reportedly said:
There is the case where the man, having crossed over, would think, 'How useful this raft has been to me! For it was in dependence on this raft that, making an effort with my hands & feet, I have crossed over to safety on the further shore. Why don't I, having dragged it on dry land or sinking it in the water, go wherever I like?' In doing this, he would be doing what should be done with the raft. In the same way, monks, I have taught the Dhamma compared to a raft, for the purpose of crossing over, not for the purpose of holding onto. Understanding the Dhamma as taught compared to a raft, you should let go even of Dhammas, to say nothing of non-Dhammas. (MN 22)

What does the Buddha mean by “crossing over”? Some will say that he is referring to anuttara samyak sambodhi, unsurpassed right awakening. But such a person – with the understanding of a Buddha – would not need to be told what to do with the raft at that point, would she? I tend to think, then, that he is referring to ordinary monks, with ordinary understanding. He is telling us the attitude we should have toward the very method that leads to our liberation.

There is a scene in the remade film version of Somerset Maugham’s The Razor’s Edge in which Bill Murray’s character is sitting reading at the entrance to a cave high up in the snow-packed Himalayas. He sits in lotus posture, dutifully reading the words of some holy book, no doubt. His fire burns low, and he is starting to shiver. He has no fuel left to burn – save for the book in his hands, and the stack of others at his side. Slowly, with a half-smile on his face it seems, he begins to tear pages from his book and throw them on the fire. The words of others can only take us so far. At some point we have to stand on our own two feet, so to speak, and look our very existence right in the eye that we might finally resolve the “great matter.” At such time the words of another will mean not a whit.

A skilled psychotherapist will have a client convey his story just enough to be able to guide him beyond it to greater psychological health. On the other hand, an unskilled therapist will have a client mired in his story, mired in the telling of his story, and mired in a perceived need to have the psychotherapist hear his story. Bad psychotherapy, then, involves an endless rehashing of stories of victimhood or brokenness to the point where those stories have more power over the individual than the actual experience(s) of harm ever did.

So, have we become attached to our deluded nature, our suffering self, our need for dependency on a teacher, our teacher’s need for our dependency on her, our need for a parental figure to guide us, our need to associate with others just like us, our journey toward some presumed perfect way of seeing and being, the retelling of our story, etc., etc.? Are we like the birds of appetite that Merton speaks of – always circling, always ready to dive in and snatch a morsel that never seems to satisfy our insatiable hunger?  

Dogen resolved the “great matter” to his satisfaction and then went on to teach so many others – including me. The man depicted in the Ox-herding Pictures found his mind and walked off back to the marketplace. How much more do you need to know in order to enjoy the freedom of your birthright? The answer will come to you. In the meantime, I’ll be sitting quietly in meditation and looking for you out in the marketplace!

Ox-herding Picture Number 10

+ I’ve stumbled across variations on this dialogue numerous times with the only attribution being “Zen Story” or something to that effect. One possible early Western source is a transcribed lecture by Alan Watts from the 1970s. See references below. The version here has been adapted for the sake of brevity and impact.  

Ox-herding Pictures 9 & 10 via:


Majjhima Nikaya 22 (MN 22). Alagaddupama sutta: the water-snake simile (Thanissaro Bhikkhu, Tr.). Access to Insight (Legacy Edition), 17 December 2013,
Merton, T. (1968) Zen and the birds of appetite. Published by New Directions.
Watts, A. (1996) Myth and religion: The edited transcripts. Charles E. Tuttle Company, Inc.

Copyright 2015 by Mark Frank

Friday, June 5, 2015

This Moment is Sublime... Wish I Were Here

It’s a postcard cliché: The beach is gorgeous! Wish you were here… The weather is magnificent! Wish you were here… The skiing is fabulous! Wish you were here… Isn’t everything gorgeous, magnificent and fabulous when we’re off in some exotic locale without any responsibility other than to enjoy ourselves each and every moment of every single day?

It’s easy to “live in the moment” when we’re off on vacation. It’s easy to “live in the now” when everything is new and interesting, carefree and pleasurable. It’s easy to “be present” when where we’re at is just so very enjoyable! Yes, a really good vacation takes our mind far away from the concerns and drudgery of our workaday world. It gives us time and permission to watch the sunset, to walk in the woods, to relax on the beach, to dine in fine restaurants, to take in new sights, or simply to cease our endless doing. But even as our mind is far, far away from our ordinary life, our body is right there with it! We are totally present for our life!

That’s quite the opposite of how we often live – with our body right here and our mind far, far away: Our body is getting a report together, but our mind (a large chunk of it anyway) is thinking about the weekend. Our body is doing the household chores, but our mind is off daydreaming or thinking about how monotonous our work is. Our body is eating lunch, but our mind is thinking about what a jerk so-and-so was. We’re not really “here” for much of our lives, are we?

We wouldn’t really need mindfulness training if we simply lived each moment as if we were on the best vacation we’ve ever had, would we? Unfortunately, ordinary life seems to lack specialness. It tends to seem boring. It’s not always much fun. And so our mind wanders off in order to find something more interesting – and it does. But how is it that our lives lose their specialness in the first place? We’ve only so many moments. Why do we let ourselves fall into the trap of squandering them so willy-nilly?

Talk to someone who’s been brought face-to-face with their own mortality and you’ll likely find someone who has regained an appreciation of the specialness of each moment – no matter how “ordinary” that moment may be. Waiting in line, driving to work, making our way through our inbox, mopping the floor – no matter how mundane the task, we are always the universe observing the universe. Is that not special enough?

Early Buddhists sometimes meditated in the charnel ground, with dead and decaying bodies lying about, in order that they might fully comprehend the impermanent nature of existence. Being in such close proximity to death has a way of focusing the mind. On the other hand, we affluent Westerners have insulated ourselves so completely from death, disease, poverty and hardship that it quite often takes something personally drastic or life-threatening for us to wake up to our reality once again.

It needn’t be this way, however. If we so choose we can live each moment as if we’re away on a great vacation. We just have to slow down and stop running away from our life. We just need to breathe and pay attention. This moment is sublime! Wish you were here!

Lido Beach postcard from the collection of Boston Public Library via:

Copyright 2015 by Mark Frank