Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Loving Again (For The Very First Time)

“Well, this will just make room in your life for someone better to come along.” Those words closed around my heart like a fist. Better? Better than the woman I love? Better than my wife? Yes, I felt deeply hurt, and, yes, I felt more incredibly betrayed than I think I could possibly feel, but a love that’s real is not blown away by such winds of circumstance, is it? What did “better” even mean, anyway? Do we have some mental checklist of criteria, both conscious and unconscious, the satisfactory completion of which signifies love – with more checked boxes corresponding to a “better” love, and “best” corresponding to some theoretically perfect love in which all possible criteria are checked? If that were so then love would merely reside in the mundane realm of convenient transactions: I love you as long as your actions please me. I love you as long as you give me what I desire. I love you as long as you continue to fulfill my needs. If that is the true nature of love, I pondered, then it hardly seemed worthy of honoring above all other human potentials. And what was to be made, then, of the oft-repeated aphorism, “God is love”?

“What do you think you’d do if something ever happened to me?” my wife once asked me. “Oh…,” I paused for a moment to reflect on how difficult it had been to find someone to really love as I really loved her, and how it seemed very nearly impossible to accomplish such a feat more than once in a lifetime, “I suppose I’d probably wind up in a monastery somewhere.” Yes, and that was the “destiny” that hovered in the back of my mind for a good two years after she'd left.

A Brief Clinical Examination of Grief

J. William Worden’s Grief Counseling and Grief Therapy outlines a grief process encompassing what he refers to as “tasks of mourning” (2002, p. 27). Though some might take issue with the implied universality of these tasks, and while my own description of grief as a bardo realm that must be navigated on the way to some future rebirth resonates with me more completely (see The Bardo Realm of Grief), I do find merit in considering the four tasks that Worden (2002) describes:

1.      To accept the reality of the loss.

2.      To work through the pain of grief.

3.      To adjust to an environment in which the deceased is missing.

4.      To emotionally relocate the deceased and move on with life. (pp. 26-27)

Now, the four tasks that Worden enumerates are largely rooted in attachment theory, i.e. accepting the brokenness of the attachment, working through the pain related to that brokenness, withdrawing emotional energy from the attachment figure, and becoming capable again of forming new attachments. It should be noted that Worden sees these tasks as comprising a “fluid process” rather than a “fixed progression.” Furthermore, he notes that “tasks can be revisited and reworked over time” and “various tasks can also be worked on at the same time” (2002, p. 37).

When I described the Bardo Realm of Grief I was describing a reaction to all variety of losses – not only the loss of a loved one – profound enough to constitute a “loss of self.” Thus, I would generalize Worden’s tasks in the following way, combining tasks two, three, and four into just two:

1.      To understand that the self that was no longer exists.

2.      To adequately explore (even if only on an unconscious level) the myriad potential selves that the individual could become.

3.      To begin living the new life chosen during the process of exploration – without preoccupation with a self that is no more.

I would also echo Worden’s thoughts about the fluidity of the process. Though the Bardo Realm of Grief might have been navigated and a new life chosen, that doesn’t mean that past lives are forgotten or that no karmic traces remain. Memories and aspects of past selves can reemerge and prompt new turnings of the “wheel of becoming” (see Dependent Origination - The Wheel of Becoming).

Becoming a Self That Can Love Again

I wondered for a long time whether I would ever again be able to love. Would the sense of betrayal that I had felt forever hang over my relationships and prevent me from ever trusting in a way necessary for the nurturing of true intimacy? Would my “broken heart” scar over and become insensitive to the subtle possibility of love in its vicinity? I knew very well that this might be the karma that I would take into my future life. I wouldn’t know, of course, whether (or how) an inability to trust might affect me in the future, but I did know that I needed to hold in my awareness the possibility of it being so. It is when we proceed without awareness that karma propels us along a path not of “our” choosing.

In the aftermath of traumatic physical abuse it might be the case that extreme physical and emotional reactions are triggered in an individual by them being touched in certain ways that prompt the re-experiencing of the abusive event(s). It is when such triggers remain on the unconscious level that they hold the greatest potential to sabotage a future relationship. A loving caress, for example, rather than being experienced as such, might instead prompt anxious withdrawal as the body/mind is flooded with recalled sensations and perceptions of abuse. Such triggers are extreme examples of how past karma, if not brought into awareness where it can be dealt with openly, remains buried in the depths of our being waiting to become our “puppet master.”

But let’s not assume that we are free of such triggers simply because of our good fortune not to have been the victim of traumatic abuse. Our karma, our habit energy, exists in myriad forms from the subtle to the extreme. For me the question was whether I would ever be able to really trust again or whether my karma would prompt me instead to maintain protective emotional distance in order to forever keep such feelings of betrayal at bay. Sure, I might be forever insulated from such pain, but at what cost?

The fear of losing ourselves, losing control, being known, being hurt, relinquishing options, making mistakes, becoming trapped, complicating life, stepping out of our comfort zones – all of these and many more potentially lurk within us, ever at the ready to sound the alarms and buzzers that send us scurrying back into our protective cocoons, there to remain acceptably safe, but without love. When I wrote of absolute freedom in my blog post of that name, I was primarily focusing on those most profound of existential questions that, without being addressed (if not actually answered), keep us from really experiencing our true nature. The fear that I speak of here, while perhaps not of a truly existential nature, can nonetheless keep us from knowing the freedom to truly love again.

So, if you are wrestling with such fears, I wish for you the strength to embrace them, and in that embrace transcend them, and in that transcendence know the freedom to love again. And if that transcendence of fear has been complete then perhaps you’ll be able to love again as if you’ve never been hurt before – in this life or any other. Perhaps you’ll be able to love again as if for the very first time.  


Worden, J. W. (2002). Grief counseling and grief therapy, 3rd ed. – A handbook for the mental health practitioner. Springer Publishing Company.

Image Credits: 

Copyright 2011 by Maku Mark Frank

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

The Three Conceits (and My Own Subtle Arrogance)

When we’re young and healthy and happy, and flush with the enjoyment of our vigor and our physical and mental prowess, it might be hard to recognize the merits of spiritual practice. Such is the purview of the old and weak, the timid and the sick, and those who for some strange reason choose to focus on the negative aspects of life when the golden ring of youthful pleasure is theirs for the grasping; or so we might think, anyway. The Samiddhi Sutta touches on this issue, among others. It tells of how one of the Buddha’s followers, the youthful Samiddhi, was bathing in a hot spring one morning before going out to beg for his daily meal. A beautiful deva appeared and hovered in the air before him. They bantered for a time in verse, and then she descended and spoke:

You are young, bhikkhu, to have left the world, black-haired, with the bloom of youth. In your youthful prime you do not enjoy the pleasures of the senses. Get your fill, bhikkhu, of human pleasures. Don't reject the present moment to pursue what time will bring. (SN 1.20)

The youthful but already wise, Samiddhi, replied:

I, friend, do not reject the present moment to pursue what time will bring. I reject what time will bring to pursue the present moment. Time's pleasures, friend, as the Blessed One has said, are fraught with pain, fraught with tribulation, leading to greater danger. This Dhamma is here-present, out of time, inviting inspection, leading onward, to be realized by the wise each for himself. (SN 1.20)

The deva was unmoved, however, and kept up her line of questioning. Samiddhi, having reached the limits of his ability to counter the persistent deva, decided to arrange for her to speak with the Buddha himself. And so it was that the Buddha was able to respond to the deva directly, saying:   

Those who go by names, who go by concepts,

Making their abode in names and concepts,

Failing to discern the naming-process,

These are subject to the reign of death,

He who has discerned the naming-process

Does not suppose that one who names exists.

No such case exists for him in truth,

Whereby one could say: "He's this or that"….

"Equal I am, or better, of less degree":

All such idle fancies lead to strife,

Who's unmoved by all these three conceits

Such vain distinctions leaves unmade. (SN 1.20)

If you’re already familiar with the twelve-fold chain of dependent origination you will easily recognize three of its links, in addition to its overarching message, in just the first four lines of the Buddha’s response. Our propensity for subdividing the seamless nature of ultimate reality into myriad things (nama-rupa, name and form) is clearly evident in the very first line: “those who go by names, who go by concepts.” Likewise, our tendency to appropriate various aspects of that seamless reality as our self (upadana) while at the same time excluding everything else and all others is present in the second: “making their abode in names and concepts.” The fact that we do this as a result of our existential ignorance (avijja) is present in the third: “failing to discern the naming-process.” And the fact that this is how suffering arises is conveyed in the fourth: “these are subject to the reign of death.” In other words, as soon as we identify with any particular aspect of the ultimately seamless whole we will surely experience suffering as that which we desire to stay the same inevitably changes, ages, and dies. (Please see Dependent Origination - Past Life and the Twelve-Fold Chain, and the other posts in that series if you’d like to dig deeper into that particular teaching.)

Samiddhi, despite his lack of total confidence in his understanding of the teachings, was essentially on track. “Time’s pleasures,” he says, “are fraught with pain.” The Dhamma, on the other hand, is “here-present, out of time.” Time is measured by the existence of things – by the existence of relationships amongst things. Time's pleasures, then, are predicated on one having appropriated a self – a self that, by its nature, is incessantly measuring things and others and its standing among them – a self that, by its nature, is inevitably subject to the process of aging and death. Samiddhi understood that remaining “here-present, out of time” is to remain in accord with the emptiness, shunyata, of ultimate reality. “‘Equal I am, or better, of less degree’: All such idle fancies lead to strife” – the Buddha’s response to the deva is based upon the nature of this ultimate reality. In shunyata there are no myriad things to be compared and contrasted and judged to be superior or deficient. In shunyata all is a seamlessly integrated whole. (Please see The Heart Sutra and the Nature of Emptiness, and the other posts in that series if you'd like to explore the nature of emptiness further.)

The Three Conceits – a Mundane World Perspective

Let me root this discussion firmly in the mundane realm for the remainder of this post.  In declaring that we are less than someone else we are identifying with a state wherein we are lacking. We have compared ourselves to another or others and have arrived at the conclusion: they are richer than I, stronger than I, more loveable than I, more successful or intelligent or worthy than I. We bring suffering upon ourselves when we make such comparisons – either because our feelings of inadequacy keep us from settling into the peace and joy of contentedness, or because our absolute certainty of our adequacy (our ‘deservedness’) compels us to chase after that which has no bearing on what we most deeply desire (peace and joy and contentedness).

On the other hand, it is also quite often the case that we seek solace in the idea that we are less than another or others. Declaring that we are less than others allows us to avoid responsibility for the hardship and strife in the world. After all, wars are started by those more powerful than us. How can we, powerless as we are, possibly stop them? Peace is the responsibility of our world leaders to initiate. What can we do to help make it flourish? Global warming is a problem that only the most intelligent amongst us can solve. What can we do to resolve it? Thus, the status quo of suffering is perpetuated. Perhaps you will recall the following quote (variously attributed to Edmund Burke or Leo Tolstoy): “All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing.” Now, Buddhists are not so much inclined to think in terms of good and evil, but I think there is wisdom in that sentiment, nonetheless – regardless of who might have said it.

Perhaps we could also look to Edmund Burked for wisdom related to our inclination to think that everyone is the same: “The tyranny of a multitude is a multiplied tyranny.” With our willingness to accept that we are all the same we run roughshod over the needs as well as the strengths of others. We see this in our educational organizations when they fail to address the uniqueness of those who learn differently or those who overwhelm us with their capacity to learn. We see it in the legal and governmental realm, as well, when uniformity is valued over individual circumstances.

Yes, but we also take comfort in uniformity. “Hey, I’m just like everybody else,” we might say. “I’m looking after my own interests.” And so we explain away our self-centeredness and those most base and greedy aspects of ourselves by considering them to simply be the natural order of things.

Okay, do I even need to get into the dangers of the conceit of feeling that we are better than another or others? Do I even need to mention how wars are started over such views, how people are subjugated and enslaved by those holding such views, how families turn into private hells by the holding of such views, how the process of finding solutions to the world’s problems is derailed by the holding of such views? No, I suppose I don’t…. Let’s explore, instead, our more subtle forms of arrogance. No, let’s explore, instead, my subtle arrogance! My subtle arrogance, after all, is so much more important than yours…. {wink}

My Subtle Arrogance

I’ve certainly been thought of as arrogant on occasion – when my comments as to what I feel is appropriate for me are construed as sweeping statements regarding what is appropriate for all, or when my openness in revealing my thoughts on a particular matter is perceived as a belief in their absolute rightness. But that’s not the kind of arrogance that I’m talking about here. The arrogance that I’m talking about is so subtle that another might not even notice it; and I certainly wouldn’t have noticed it myself if grief hadn’t presented it to me as if a specimen on a laboratory table – brightly lit and pinned into place for my leisurely examination. So, here, for the entire world to see, are my subtle arrogances:

  1. Thinking that I have something to say here that you don’t already know on your own. Okay, this one isn’t necessarily grief-related but I thought I’d put it on the table, anyway. Oh, the irony!
  2. Thinking that because I’m a “good” person that nothing “bad” should ever happen to me. After all, life owes me a “cookie” for being “good”, i.e. it should reward me by proceeding with relative calm.
  3. Thinking that because I’m intelligent that life cannot present me with problems that my intellect is incapable of solving.
  4. Thinking that because I maintain a healthy lifestyle on both a physical and mental level that I will somehow be immune from the inherent potential of this body/mind to falter or break down (with the exception, that is, of the effects of old age that begin to set in at around age 95 or so).
  5. Thinking that because I maintain a regular spiritual practice that I will somehow be able to ride out (with a smile on my face and two thumbs in the air) any tsunami of hardship that might inundate me unexpectedly.
  6. Thinking that because I was raised in a “good family” (intact and stable) that I will somehow know just what is required to keep a marriage together through thick and thin.
  7. Thinking that because I treat people with respect and compassion and consider the needs of others that I should never, ever suffer the indignity of being treated otherwise.
  8. Thinking that just because I value a calm and orderly life and strive to keep it that way that chaos will never encroach upon it.
  9. Thinking that because I always strive to be fair in my thinking and actions toward others that life will never deal me an unfair blow.
  10. Thinking that because I matter to myself and others in my life that somehow the universe will never squash me like a bug under the boot of an unwary pedestrian.     

So, is there anyone else out there who thinks (thought) that their intelligence, upbringing, position, mental and physical health, financial well-being, goodness, emotional development, spiritual attainment, and just overall downright specialness will keep them from ever having to suffer from the vicissitudes of existence? Am I (was I) the only one?   


Walshe, M. O. (2010). Samiddhi sutta: Samiddhi, SN 1.20 (tr. Walshe, M. O.). Access to Insight, 14 June 2010. Retrieved on 18 December, 2011. http://www.accesstoinsight.org/tipitaka/sn/sn01/sn01.020.wlsh.html

Photography Credits

Copyright 2011 by Maku Mark Frank

Thursday, December 15, 2011

The Bardo Realm of Grief

Back in my post entitled Dependent Origination - Past Life and the Twelvefold Chain (Part 3 of 5), I stated that “if you are inclined to think of ‘past life’ in terms of reincarnation [as opposed to previous moment of existence], you cannot find a more profoundly beautiful description of the process of its unfolding than in The Tibetan Book of the Dead.” My reason for considering it so beautiful is primarily related to my thinking that it is an incredibly just system in that “[the] process results in the individual actually choosing a subsequent birth that is perfectly tuned to the spiritual progress that they have yet to make – a birth that is commensurate with the nature of their attachment, aversion, and delusion.” In other words, there is no harsh and judging God and there is no eternal damnation. There is always an opportunity for redemption depending upon how we conduct ourselves in subsequent lives and what effort we put forth toward purifying our karma.

The process of choosing the circumstances of one’s future birth unfolds in what are called the Bardo Realms – the “intermediate states” (Evans-Wentz, 1960) or “in-between states” (Schumacher & Woerner, 1994). The descriptions of what takes place in these states are, at once, fascinating and vivid, touching and evocative. I will attempt to provide a brief but suitably accurate synopsis of this process momentarily. First, however, I want to clarify what I mean by the Bardo Realm of Grief.

Grief, as I stated in my previous post, is a reaction to the precipitous, uncontrolled, and undesirable loss of self – as contrasted with the controlled and desirable loss of self that might take place within the context of spiritual practice, or the uncontrolled but desirable loss of self that results within the context of falling in love. The Bardo Realm of Grief is the in-between state wherein whatever yet remains of the self that has been lost as a result of the death of a loved one, injury, disease, divorce, trauma, etc. goes out in search of its next rebirth. (Of course, I am presently using the term ‘rebirth’ in a more figurative way.) Now, whether our rebirth is into a being of greater spiritual advancement or not depends entirely on how we conduct ourselves during the grieving process – the Bardo Realm of Grief. I’ll have more to say about that later. For now, though, let’s get further acquainted with what The Tibetan Book of the Dead is all about.

The Tibetan Book of the Dead

The overarching message of The Tibetan Book of the Dead, The Bardo Thodol, is that one must prepare for death during life, for in death things will be experienced in the Bardo Realms that will not be easy to interpret without adequate training. Ideally, a guide or teacher will be at the bedside of the dying devotee, speaking into his or her ear as to what is happening and how one should conduct himself or herself. The first such event occurs at the precise moment of death as the Primary Clear Light dawns upon the departing individual. According to Evans-Wentz (1960), the guide or teacher speaks into the devotee’s ear just before the onset of death, saying:

O nobly-born (so and so by name), the time hath now come for thee to see the Path [in reality]. Thy breathing is about to cease. Thy guru hath set thee face to face before with the Clear Light; and now thou art about to experience it in its Reality in the Bardo state, wherein all things are like the void and cloudless sky, and the naked, spotless intellect is like unto a transparent vacuum without circumference or centre. At this moment, know thyself; and abide in that state. (p. 91)

If you’ve had the opportunity prior to reading this post to consider the Heart Sutra series and the emptiness of shunyata described therein, then perhaps the nature of the Primary Clear Light will seem just a little bit more familiar. Unfortunately, it takes a very adept practitioner to be able to abide in that state of emptiness at the moment of death and thereby realize liberation forthwith. Further encouragement and guidance will usually be required. If the practitioner has gotten fairly advanced with respect to being able to visualize the Clear Light of Ultimate Reality, then the guide or teacher will keep repeating the instructions related to the “setting-face-to-face with the Clear Light.” If the devotee has been practicing meditations related to a particular deity, then the guide or teacher will remind him or her of this, saying:

O thou of noble-birth, meditate upon thine own tutelary deity – [Here the deity’s name is to be mentioned by the reader.] Do not be distracted. Earnestly concentrate thy mind upon the tutelary deity. Meditate upon him as if he were the reflection of the moon in water, apparent yet inexistent [in itself]. Meditate upon him as if he were a being with a physical body. (p. 99)

Unfortunately, few devotees are of such advanced practice that they can recognize “the secondary clear light seen immediately after death” – even with a teacher sitting by his or her bedside. Thus, the trials of the Chonyid Bardo begin. Apparitions resulting from the devotee’s own karmic accumulation (both good and bad) now begin to arise. At this point it is of utmost importance that these apparitions, whether they be terribly frightening or wonderfully sublime, be recognized by the deceased as merely the projections of his or her own mind. Without such realization the deceased continues slipping toward a lower and lower rebirth, perhaps into human circumstances far less suitable for spiritual practice and future redemption, perhaps into a being not even of human form. The guide or teacher encourages the devotee, saying:

O nobly-born, that which is called death hath now come. Thou are departing from this world, but thou art not the only one; [death] cometh to all. Do not cling, in fondness and weakness, to this life. Even though thou clingest out of weakness, thou hast not the power to remain here. Thou wilt gain nothing more than wandering in this Sangsara. Be not attached [to this world]; be not weak. Remember the Precious Trinity…. (p. 103)

The Precious Trinity is the Buddha, the Dharma, and the Sangha – the Three Jewels.

The guide or teacher continues:

O nobly-born, when thy body and mind were separating, thou must have experienced a glimpse of the Pure Truth, subtle, sparkling, bright, dazzling, glorious, and radiantly awesome, in appearance like a mirage moving across a landscape in spring-time in one continuous stream of vibrations. Be not daunted thereby, nor terrified, nor awed. That is the radiance of thine own true nature. Recognize it. (p. 104)

At this point, the teacher or guide attempts to prepare the deceased for the hallucinatory journey that is about to begin – a journey on which the devotee will first be visited by apparitions of peaceful deities and then by apparitions of those same deities in wrathful form. All are the product of the deceased person’s own mind and must be recognized as such sooner rather than later:

The body which thou hast now is called the thought-body of propensities. Since thou hast not a material body of flesh and blood, whatever may come, – sounds, lights, or rays, – are, all three, unable to harm thee: thou art incapable of dying. It is quite sufficient for thee to know that these apparitions are thine own thought-forms. Recognize this to be the Bardo.

O nobly-born, if thou dost not now recognize thine own thought-forms, whatever of meditation or of devotion thou mayst have performed while in the human world – if thou hast not met with this present teaching – the lights will daunt thee, the sounds will awe thee, and the rays will terrify thee. Shouldst thou not know this all-important key to the teachings, – not being able to recognize the sounds, lights, and rays, – thou wilt have to wander in the Sangsara. (p. 104)

There is no escape at this point, no liberation, the only way out of this nightmare is to choose another living form and begin again the process of cultivating good karma and purifying one’s existing bad karma. Perhaps, then, when death comes yet again the individual will be in a position to recognize the true nature of the dawning of the Primary Clear Light and thereby be liberated forthwith.

The Bardo Realm of Grief

Some moments will always seem as though they happened just yesterday, no matter how much time might pass. And so it is with those moments during which I came to the realization that my marriage was over. I’m sure there is enough fodder there for an entire post someday; suffice it to say for now, however, that this realization was precipitous, utterly unexpected, and absolutely unequivocal. In one fell swoop the self that I had known was obliterated. In one fell swoop I was thrust into the Bardo Realm of Grief.

Not knowing what else to do with myself at the time, I headed out for a long walk. I’d not yet gone even 100 meters when I began to experience what I’ll liken to (not equate with, mind you) the dawning of the Primary Clear Light of the Bardo Thodol described above. With crystal clarity I saw what had up until then been obscured: I saw the ramifications of the choices that I’d made over the years extending all the way back to my childhood. I saw the karmic cause and effect of ten-thousand stones cast here and there into the great lake of my life, their ripples still expanding outward – intersecting and converging with augmented effect. I saw how even our best intended actions can nevertheless come to naught, and how we can think that we know something with certainty when in actuality we know nothing at all. I saw that the universe can sweep aside in an instant all that we’ve been working for, and I saw that everything that I’d come to appropriate as ‘my’ self comprised but the flimsiest of dwellings that I could have possibly constructed given the ferocity of the storms that rage across these Plains. And as all of these realizations dawned on me, I recall looking up into the bright blue sky and almost laughing. What an elaborate setup for just such a punch line! But I get it. Yes, I really, really get it!

And so I walked long into the evening. Like a disembodied spirit, I walked. And as I walked the sky grew dark. And as the sky grew dark the lightness of mind that I’d somehow come to know began to fade and my clarity of vision began shifting further and further out of focus. How quickly the wisdom of that moment slipped away! How quickly did my karma pull me back! Ah, if only I’d had a guru walking beside me all the while, whispering in my ear: “O nobly-born, you have just seen the Primary Clear Light of Ultimate Reality; you have just seen that all things are like the void and cloudless sky. Know this to be thine own true nature. Abide in this state. Abide.” Alas, though, I returned to the home of a stranger whose door key had somehow found its way into my hand, and as the door closed behind me a cold, dark, emptiness suffused my entire being. The hour was late, and the house was as silent as a tomb, even as the wrathful deities began assembling outside my every door and window – waiting for their time.

Grief and the Self

Grief, as I stated above and in my previous post, is a reaction to the precipitous, uncontrolled, and undesirable loss of self. Now, I realize that some readers might be troubled somewhat by my focus here. You might be asking or wondering or declaring: “Why are you so focused on the self?” “What about those instances when you’re grieving for someone?” “You’re making grief sound so selfish – narcissistic even.” Fair enough. But I do hope you’ll read on anyway!

Whether we’ve lost a loved one, been diagnosed with a disease, or been the victim of disaster, accident, or trauma – the self is irreversibly changed. Familial relationships might be forever altered and social connections severed. Activities that were once our raison d'ĂȘtre might now be prohibited by circumstance. The anticipated timeline of our life might be foreshortened, plans derailed, dreams forsaken. Physical and mental abilities might be diminished, skills lost. Our financial well-being might lie in ruins, our life’s work curtailed. All of these involve a loss of our sense of self. But even as important as all of these aspects of life can be, they are still not necessarily central to who we think we are.

That which is most central to who we think we are is that which is most easily overlooked – until trauma brings it into glaring review, that is. Here are a few such aspects of the self that come to mind (please comment with any others that you think I’ve overlooked or that you think are otherwise worthy of inclusion):

Agency – The grieving self has lost its sense of agency. It cannot control external events nor can it control the emotions that now roil unchecked within. Perhaps it can’t even control its own body anymore. It feels helpless – completely and utterly helpless. In large part, the sense of agency that was lost was illusory or immensely overvalued, but that doesn’t make the sudden realization of its absence any easier to accept.

Meaning – Whatever meaning the self had contrived related to its existence has now been ripped from its heart by circumstances beyond its control. “Why did God do this to me?” the grieving self might wonder. “Did I bring this on myself because of my karma?” the grieving self might ask. “What does all of this mean?” “Is life really just an unholy mess of random chaos?” By investing our lives and feelings and activities with meaning we bring order to our existence; we live with the sense that we matter, that what we do matters, that this community that we are building matters. That meaning might now be seen as illusory, or at best a pleasant fairy tale by which we’ve come to live our lives.

Trust – The very deepest trust that the self might have developed is torn asunder: trust in the goodness of life and other people perhaps, trust in its fundamental safety, trust in the fairness of the universe, trust in the loving nature or even the existence of God, trust in its own ability to see things clearly, trust in its own ability to even survive perhaps (see agency). There may no longer remain anything for the grieving self to believe in, or to hold up as sacred or holy.

The grieving self then is cast adrift without landmark or guiding star, perhaps to find itself thrashing about trying to get somewhere else – anywhere else – because to remain in that place without agency, or meaning, or trust is just too excruciatingly painful. And if the grieving self can’t even muster the will or strength to thrash about, then surely the storms raging through this Bardo Realm of Grief will blow it somewhere.

In closing then, grief is the struggle to come to grips with this loss of self – to regain a sense of trust, if possible; to reconstruct a sense of meaning, if it is to be found; to arrive at a revised or renewed sense of agency; to rebuild social connections; to find new work and new life activities; to re-imagine new aspirations and so forth. And that is why I find the comparison of the grieving process to that of wandering the Bardo Realms to be so meaningful. Both are difficult periods during which we must determine who and what we will be in our ‘next life’. Both involve choosing our future rebirth. Will it be a higher one or a lower one? Will we transcend whatever suffering we’ve come to know in order to dwell on a higher spiritual plane, or will we descend into animosity and small-mindedness and bitterness? Clearly it is the case, then, that spiritual practitioners will find much opportunity in their grief – perhaps even liberation!

I am apparently not the first to have likened the grieving process to a bardo realm. Google “grief bardo” and you’ll find other such references. I have purposely not read any of those other sources, however, except to learn of their existence, for the express reason that I did not want to be influenced by them in the writing of this post. The interested reader can determine for himself or herself whether any of those other sources make for worthwhile reading.


Evans-Wentz, W. Y. (1960). The Tibetan book of the dead – the after-death experiences on the bardo plane, according to Lama Kazi Dawa-Samdup’s English rendering (ed. Evans-Wentz, W. Y.). Oxford University Press.

Schuhmacher, S., Woerner, G. (1994). The encyclopedia of Eastern philosophy and religion. Shambhala Publications, Inc.

Copyright 2011 by Maku Mark Frank

Friday, December 9, 2011

Love, Grief, and the Four Kinds of Horses

Wow, it’s hard to believe that almost a year has passed since I first started this blog! It has me feeling just a little bit reflective. Perhaps I should begin by letting you all know what an incredible experience this has been for me. The opportunity to touch people on a deep level all over the world, from perhaps fifty countries or more, (I haven’t actually counted them all) is one for which I am very grateful and humbled. I’d also like to thank you all for following, reading, commenting on, pondering, and sharing these posts. I really, really, deeply appreciate it.

When I first began contemplating the writing of this blog I was just beginning to feel once again the lightness of being that is so easily taken for granted when our lives are proceeding in so-called ‘normal’ fashion. Up until then I’d been navigating a “Bardo realm” of grief after the dissolution of my marriage. You know, really deep grief is something I would not wish on my worst enemy (not that I have any) and yet, as I reflect back on those dark days, I can see that when we experience grief within the context of spiritual practice we open up to the possibility of it propelling us towards a depth of meaning and understanding that we might not reach otherwise. In that regard I must be grateful for the opportunity to grow in ways that I hadn’t even known that I could or needed to grow. Of course, I’m also very grateful that nobody had to die in order for me to open up to such growth. By the way, The Bardo Realm of Grief is almost certainly going to be the title of my next blog post, so if my use of that terminology is bewildering at the present time please be patient for another week.

It is impossible for me to know the totality with which this blog is received by any given individual. Perhaps I have been truer to my original vision than I am able to comprehend. Having said that, part of my original vision was that I would explore deeply the raw, fierce, and excruciating feelings, and the cold, dark, and empty places that the process of grief can drag us through. (Oh and by the way, I’m not speaking of the emptiness of shunyata when I mention those empty places.) In order to do that responsibly I felt that I needed to provide context for such an exploration; I felt that I needed to make accessible to the potentially unprepared reader the ‘equipment’ necessary in order to make such a journey successfully. And so, much of this blog thus far has related to spiritual practice in general, and Buddhist practice in particular. I now feel, however, that the sorting through and inventorying of our equipment is reasonably complete. Sure, we could go through the checklist once again, but perhaps it’s time to simply sling our packs over our shoulders and head off down the road.

Oh, but that’s not all…. Life in all of its wondrous glory is suddenly inestimably enhanced by the fact that I’ve fallen in love once again after all these years! What a wonderful ‘problem’ for a Buddhist to have – one who realizes all too well how suffering is rooted in our clinging and desirous and acquisitive approach to life! And so, long time readers will probably notice a change in the tone and content of the posts that follow. The highest highs of human existence (at least as I experience them) might be accompanied by or followed by the lowest of lows, and vice versa. Perhaps this is as it should be – it suddenly feels so, anyway – that we consider any individual emotion, phase, or stage within the full range of all emotion, phases, and stages just as we consider our individual lives within the context of all life everywhere.

It occurs to me as I write these words that the wonderfully swooning sorts of emotions related to falling in love and the very traumatic ones related to grief are at least somewhat similar in that they both involve a loss of our sense of self. However, whereas in the former we experience a much valued and even longed for transcendence of the self, a willful letting go as we merge with our chosen beloved, in the latter we experience an unwanted and very much feared dissolution into the darkness of the unknown. It has also occurred to me (as a spiritual practitioner who has experienced deep grieving) that spiritual practice is for the most part (with the exception perhaps of the sudden onset of ‘born again’ or kensho or enlightenment sorts of experiences) an individually selected and relatively steady and controlled process of self-transcendence. The grieving process, on the other hand, begins with a precipitous, uncontrolled, and unexpected loss of self – be it from disease, injury, trauma, death of a loved one, etc. So, it is from my own understanding of grief as the unexpected and unwanted loss of our sense of self that I will begin this exploration.

For now, though, let me introduce this new focus with a story related in Dogen’s Shobogenzo – a passage from the fascicle entitled Shime. This translation is courtesy of Hubert Nearman (2007) of Shasta Abbey:

The Buddha once told his monks that there were four kinds of horses. The first, upon seeing the shadow of the riding crop, is startled and forthwith follows the wish of its rider. The second, startled when the crop touches its hair, forthwith follows the wish of its rider. The third is startled after the crop touches its flesh. The fourth is awakened only after the touch of the riding crop is felt in its bones. (p. 1045)

How far along are you in clarifying the great questions of life and death? Are you too busy living in order to contemplate dying? Some amongst us need only to reflect upon the impermanence of our existence in order to be motivated to begin resolving such matters. Others merely need a minor health scare or a close call in some accident in order to be awakened to the reality of our lives. Still others might need to actually experience the loss of a loved in order for impermanence to have any real meaning for them. Lastly, some amongst us only begin to understand the reality of this impermanent existence after being struck down by grave illness or injury – after being delivered a death sentence, figuratively or literally, as the case may be.

Is this a downer? Does contemplating such matters diminish your ability to enjoy life to its fullest? Or might it be the case that not contemplating such matters, blithely waltzing through life as if it will somehow last forever, is what keeps us from really living – keeps us from really appreciating that each moment with our loved ones (and with our practice) is a precious gift – keeps us from knowing that each sunrise, each smile, each breath might be our last.


Nearman, H. (2007). Shobogenzo – The treasure house of the eye of the true teaching, by Eihei Dogen (tr. Nearman, H.). Order of Buddhist Contemplatives Shasta Abbey Press, Mount Shasta, CA. (Original work published 1255)

Copyright 2011 by Maku Mark Frank

Sunday, December 4, 2011

Absolute Freedom

Zen student to teacher: "I come seeking liberation."

Zen teacher to student: "Who has enslaved you? Show me your chains!" +

I’d departed from Shoshoni that morning with 100 miles of ‘rattlesnake country’ to ride through before arriving in Casper, Wyoming – my evening destination. I pedaled slowly, knowing full well that the afternoon would bring the hottest weather that I’d ridden in all year, and my longest ride in many, many a year. And on top of all of that I was tired. I was tired before I’d even begun, still recovering as I was from the sinus infection that had laid me low back in the Tetons, and the long ride from Cody to Thermopolis and then up through the Wind River Canyon – back in time and smack dab into the center of a raging thunderstorm. (See Desire, Aspiration, and Doing What We Can.) But none of that was of any consequence anymore, for there was nothing left to do but ride. Now, it might seem as though having nothing left to do would epitomize an utter lack of freedom, but that is actually not the case. There is great freedom in having nothing left to do – absolute and utter freedom.

We usually think of freedom as being full of options, choices, and variety. Okay, yes, that is freedom – on one level anyway – I’m not going to argue the point. I will say, however, that the freedom of having nothing left to do is the greatest freedom that I have ever known. When there is nothing left to do there is absolutely nothing holding you back. When there is nothing left to do you are free to use every fiber of your entire being without hesitation. When there is nothing left to do not a single trace of psychic energy remains for any path that you’ve not taken or anything else that you might have left behind. When there is nothing left to do not a single trace of psychic energy is spent contemplating anything other than what the universe presents in each and every passing moment. When you awaken to find your house engulfed in flames there is nothing left to do but stumble out into the cool, night air. When you see a child drowning in the river as you take your morning walk there is nothing left to do but kick off your shoes and jump in after him. And when you find yourself miraculously in the arms of a beautiful woman there is nothing left to do but love her – without a trace of hurt or fear. This is absolute and utter freedom.

I’ve left much behind in life: the religion of my birthright…, careers that I’d worked hard to become established in…, ideas regarding what constitutes a good life…, friends and lovers and dreams of what kind of person I would become. I’d watched meaning come and go, and come and go, and come and go. I’d watched love grow and blossom and fade away. I’d clung to things, and yearned for things. I’d clung to ideas of not clinging to anything, and I’d yearned for a time when I wouldn’t yearn for anything. But as I pedaled slowly into that vast and empty space that is the upper reaches of the Wind River watershed, there was only the rhythm of my breathing and the circular motion of my legs propelling me forward. There was only the sweltering heat and the exquisite beauty of mile after mile of empty and desolate rattlesnake country beneath a vast blue dome of sky.

I stopped to rest where a dusty gravel road veered south from the highway, snaking off into the rolling rangeland like a sand colored ribbon on a gray-green, gold tinged fabric. The sky was cloudless, and the sun had baked the road for long enough that it felt much warmer than it had as I rode within my own cool breeze. I dismounted and crunched across the gravel with my bike and leaned it up against a cracking timber fencepost. Barbed wire stretched along the highway in both directions as far as I could see, save for the opening created to allow the gravel road to leave the highway.

This simple entrance into the land beyond was fascinating to me – with fence posts either side lashed in threes and supported with diagonal members in order to withstand the force exerted by the miles and miles of barbed wire pulling them apart. At the base of one of the posts was a pile of empty beer bottles – bringing to mind the image of a couple of ranchers sitting on the tailgate of a pickup truck, talking low and washing the dust of a long day of work from their throats. It seemed like ages since I’d last spoken to anyone. Ah, yes, but it was only just that morning when I’d placed my order with the waitress for a breakfast of pancakes and a scrambled egg; and before that it was with the modern day mountain man come surveyor on the sidewalk on the main street in Thermopolis. “Do yourself a favor,” he’d said to me after admiring my bicycle for a time. “Stop in Shoshoni for the night. There ain’t nothing in between there and Casper but a hundred miles of rattlesnake country.” Indeed.

In between the two fence posts on either side of the gravel road was a cattle guard fashioned from lengths of steel I-beam spaced about four inches apart and oriented perpendicular to the road by welding them to support beams buried into the roadbed. In case you’re unfamiliar with such a gate, the design allows vehicles to pass through unimpeded whereas cattle find it virtually impenetrable. For one, they’d likely be spooked from even trying to cross because of the eerie appearance of the gaps in the steel beams revealing the rocky, shadowed gully underneath. But even if fear did not preempt such a crossing, the massive animals could probably never display the agility necessary to place an unseen hoof solidly enough upon one of the narrow steel beams in order to keep their entire leg from slipping dangerously through the gap; and then do it again, and then again.

Despite such inherent difficulties, it still did not seem outside of the realm of possibility that a nimble enough or motivated enough steer could somehow manage to overcome its apprehension and muster up its full potential for sure-footedness in order to make such a crossing safely. I pictured a huge beast tentatively feeling its way with a front hoof before finally lowering it into place atop one of the steel I-beams. It would shift its weight forward and then another hoof would gradually feel its way to solid placement, and then another, and another. And so it would go for not too very long before the dust and dirt on the other side would feel like a wide open meadow underhoof, whispering sweetly of freedom – absolute and utter freedom. So, in that regard that cattle guard was not an insurmountable impediment at all. It was a gateless barrier.

The Great Way is gateless,

Approached in a thousand ways.

Once past this checkpoint

You stride through the universe.

This verse is contained in the preface to the Mumonkan, as translated by Katsuki Sekida (1977). According to Sekida (1977), the Japanese mu is often translated as nothing or nothingness, mon as gate, and kan as barrier. In combination, then, mumonkan can be translated as “gateless barrier” or “gateless gate” (pp. 27-29). Robert Aitken roshi (1991) opts for “The Gateless Barrier” in his translation of the Mumonkan. The Mumonkan is a collection of forty-eight koans that were used by Mumon Ekai (1183-1260) to train the monks in his charge at Ryushu Temple. As the monks progressed through this collection of koans they dropped off more and more of their conditioned ways of looking at the world and opened up to the truth of ultimate or supramundane reality (Sekida, 1977, pp. 25-29). Such koan practice is largely within the realm of the Rinzai tradition of Zen, but koans are sometimes used by teachers and students in the Soto tradition, as well.

Often, a practitioner’s first koan of contemplation will be, quite simply, mu. In the Mumonkan, however, the first koan is one titled Joshu’s Dog (Chao-chou’s Dog):

Zen student to Joshu: “Has a dog the Buddha Nature?”

Joshu: “Mu.”

Please see Sekida (1977) and Aitken (1991) for full exposition and commentary on this koan. However, if you’ve been following this blog through last month’s Heart Sutra series of posts, you may have a toehold on this one already. Aitken (1991) translates one passage of Mumon’s commentary on this koan as follows:

What is the barrier of the Ancestral Teachers? It is just this one word “Mu” – the one barrier of our faith. We call it the Gateless Barrier of the Zen tradition. When you pass through this barrier, you will not only interview Chao-chou intimately. You will walk hand in hand with all the Ancestral Teachers in the successive generations of our lineage – the hair of your eyebrows entangled with theirs, seeing with the same eyes, hearing with the same ears…. (p. 7)

Recall from the previous post that “all the Buddhas that have ever been or will ever be have awakened to this truth of shunyata – emptiness.” See The Heart Sutra - Compassion and the Cessation of Suffering (Part 5 of 5).

Buddhism’s message is that of our ability to alleviate our suffering by skillful use of our own body/minds without reliance on anything or anyone external to us. In our present mundane state – buffeted as we are by the three poisons of attachment, aversion and delusion – we think that truth and enlightenment lie behind a gate that is locked to us and may never be known. That is not the case. Like all animals, we arise as complex webs of intertwining genetic dispositions and conditioned ideas, beliefs and behaviors. Is the steer completely and absolutely unable to cross the cattle guard due to its innate and natural composition? What is standing in our way? In the words of the Zen teacher at the beginning of this post: "Who has enslaved you? Show me your chains!" + We are our own gateless gates. Says Robert Aitken roshi (1991):

The barrier is Mu, but it always has a personal frame. For some the barrier is “Who am I really?” and that question is resolved through Mu. For others it is “What is death?” and that question too is resolved through Mu. For me it was “What am I doing here?” For many students it is Sakyamuni’s question, “Why should there be suffering in the world?” The discursive words in such questions just take the inquirer around and around in the brain. With Mu – the single word of a single syllable – the agonizing interrogatives “who?” “why?” and “what?” are not answered in any literal sense, but they are certainly resolved. (p. 12)

For Dogen Zenji, the Japanese monk who is often considered the preeminent teacher within the Soto Zen tradition, the question was this: if we are all already endowed with Buddha-nature, why is it that we must practice? His resolution of this personal koan is his teaching regarding cultivation and verification. Cultivate your practice and verify the teachings with your own experience – not with the lifeless words and adopted beliefs of others.

When I’ve found myself in the middle of a multi-day meditation retreat (sesshin), and I’ve broken through the pain and fear that such intense sitting can bring on, and I’ve become positively bored with all of the stories that I keep telling myself over and over again, my own personal koan becomes: “what am I still hanging on to?” The beauty of sesshin is that it is structured in such a way as to afford one absolute and utter freedom to contemplate such questions, and their answer – Mu. Somewhere in the midst of sesshin one realizes that there is nothing left to do but sit.

So, can I open up my mind and know the vastness of the universe in the time it takes my self to drop like a stone into the dry and dusty earth…, in the time it takes a raindrop to be lost within a raging river…, in the time it takes my wisdom eye to blink open into wakefulness? Can I?


To study the Buddha Way is to study the self. To study the self is to forget the self. To forget the self is to be verified by all things. To be verified by all things is to let the body and mind of the self and the body and mind of others drop off. There is a trace of realization that cannot be grasped. We endlessly express this ungraspable trace of realization. (Dogen Zenji in the Genjokoan, as translated by Okumura, 2010)

+ 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.  


Aitken, R. (1991). The gateless barrier – The Wu-men Kuan (Mumonkan). North Point Press. Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, New York.
Okumura, S. (2010). Realizing genjokoan: The key to Dogen’s shobogenzo. Wisdom Publications. p.2. (Original work published 1233)
Sekida, K. (1977). Two Zen classics – Mumonkan and Hekiganroku (ed. Grimstone, A. V.) Weatherhill, Inc.
Watts, A. (1996) Myth and religion: The edited transcripts. Charles E. Tuttle Company, Inc.

Copyright 2011 by Maku Mark Frank