Friday, March 30, 2012

Practice is Enlightenment

The Missouri Zen Center’s Spring Egg Hunt takes place this Sunday. It’s a takeoff on the traditional Easter egg hunt. However, since we’re a Buddhist organization, no particular overt belief in the Easter Bunny is required. What’s that you say? An egg hunt doesn’t really sound all that Buddhist? Well, to tell you the truth, it doesn’t sound all that Christian either!

For those readers unfamiliar with the modern Easter egg hunt, it generally involves putting candy or chocolate or perhaps coins inside hollow plastic eggs which are then hidden around the garden just as the Easter Bunny would have hidden them in days gone by. Children seem to love it – the exception being those occasions when the older ones find ten times more eggs than any of the hapless and uninitiated toddlers in their midst.

About this time last year a few of us were standing around after meditation and chatting about the upcoming event. “What do you put inside the eggs?” somebody asked. “Well, we’re Buddhist,” someone deadpanned, “so, of course, they’re empty!” Ba dum bump… No, no, no, they’re not really empty; at least not on the level of mundane reality, anyway. We Buddhists are generally not cruel people. There’ll be something inside, I’m sure – perhaps some edamame, or a little wad of sea vegetable, or maybe even a nugget of granola. Hey, I’m teasing!

We do tend to think of our spiritual practice in terms of an Easter egg hunt sometimes, don’t we? We search through the world’s greatest literature. We comb through the writings of the wisest of teachers. We travel hither and yon to practice and pray and ponder; refine, reflect, and retreat. Now, come on, be honest here… isn’t there just a teensy part of us that half expects to stumble upon a little Easter egg somewhere along the line that’ll crack wide open and overjoy us with – voila! – infinite acceptance, absolute release…, choirs of heavenly angels, a life of unending ease…, enlightenment, Truth, transcendence…, communion with the saints…, supreme wisdom, perfection, nirvana…, oneness with all things…, grace, the face of God, ecstatic union with godhead…, our True Self, heaven, on and on, ad infinitum.

When Buddhist’s speak of emptiness, we are speaking of the ultimate nature of reality – reality beyond individual existence, beyond the duality of self and other, beyond time and space (both of which are predicated on the existence of “things”). But if this is the ultimate nature of reality, then what are we to make of our usual way of thinking about practice as some sort of gradual perfection of our “self” until such time as enlightenment is “attained”. This way of thinking, of course, requires the existence of selves that are at this time deluded but which will at some future time become enlightened. Needless to say this is a very dualistic way of thinking about practice, the self, and the world. It must have been just such a predicament that prompted Dogen Zenji to conclude that practice IS enlightenment. Hmmm…, perhaps we should savor that for a moment. Practice IS enlightenment. Nothing is “attained”.

So, if reading this post has prompted you to conclude that you’ve been on something of an Easter egg hunt – good. But don’t necessarily stop what you’re doing. Simply devote yourself wholeheartedly to your “search” (practice) without anticipating that you’ll ever find that egg. Oh, and if you do happen to find an egg – don’t expect anything but emptiness to be contained therein!

Let me close with three translations of a poem by Dogen which, for me, beautifully conveys the nature of wholehearted practice. The first is from Tanahashi (1985, p. 214); the second is from Heine (1997, p. 117); and the third is from Yoshida (1999, p. 76). I'm also inspired to offer another take on this poem based upon these three versions and my own understanding of the essence of what Dogen is saying. I would be honored if it were to be considered worthy of being called a fourth translation. I'll call this version Practice:

Bowing Formally

A snowy heron

on the snowfield

where winter grass is unseen

hides itself

in its own figure.


A white heron

Hiding itself

In the snowy field,

Where even the winter grass

Cannot be seen.


No winter-grass being seen

A white heron in snowfield

Hides itself in

Its own form.


A white heron

On a snowy field

Loses itself within

The vastness of being.


Heine, S. (1997). The Zen poetry of Dogen: Verses from the Mountain of Eternal Peace. Charles E. Tuttle Co., Inc.

Tanahashi, K. (1985). Moon in a dewdrop: Writings of Zen master Dogen. (Tanahashi, K. ed.) North Point Press; Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, New York.

Yoshida, R. (1999). Limitless life, Dogen’s world: Translation of Shushogi, Goroku, Doei. The Missouri Zen Center.

Image Credits

Red and Blue Easter Eggs by Pål Berge via:

Broken Egg by Nuttapong via:

Copyright 2012 by Maku Mark Frank

Friday, March 23, 2012

The Nature of Humans

Human is a human is a human is a human.

Clearly, I’m riffing on Gertrude Stein’s “Rose is a rose is a rose is a rose”…, not to mention my previous post! My question, however, is a serious one. Whereas I previously pondered the nature of things – their roseness, suchness, emptiness, the two levels of truth regarding their independent existence, and so forth – here I will ponder humanness. Now, the astute reader might already be questioning why this post is even necessary given the fact that we and the rose are of the same “stuff” of ultimate reality, given the fact that humanness and roseness alike are but worldly manifestations of the suchness spoken of in The Nature of Things. Well, since I’ve already got your attention, how about staying with me for just a little bit longer, anyway?

In The Nature of Things I stated that “what I am calling roseness… is something that the rose can’t help but actualize, but which we, with our incessantly conceptualizing minds, so easily miss.” Indeed, is it also true that humanness is something that we can’t help but actualize, but which we, with our incessantly conceptualizing minds, so easily miss? What does it mean, anyway, to actualize humanness? Have we already descended into the realm of incessant conceptualization just by asking the question – there to miss out entirely on the experience of actualizing humanness – or are we failing to actualize that very humanness if we do not? Well, for what it’s worth, Socrates declared the unexamined life to be unworthy of living; Dogen likened the study of the Awakened Way to the study of the self. I’ll presume, then, that we’re in good company as we continue exploring the question.

Perhaps we can further this exploration of humanness by taking a step back and examining more closely the nature of what I am calling roseness. Yes, it is true that the plant that we call the rose can’t help but actualize roseness. With soil of appropriate quality, and warmth, water, and sunlight of appropriate quantity, the plant that we call the rose will flourish and ultimately blossom into the glorious reality of roseness. But even if the soil is poor, or the temperature, water, and light are less than adequate; even if the plant that we call the rose barely ekes out an existence, offering up the most stunted of blossoms, or none at all; even if it withers and dies without ever having revealed the redness, or scentedness, or anything else that we humans conceptualize as comprising the beauty of roseness; still, it has actualized the glorious reality of roseness. I say this because the plant that we call the rose carries within it the DNA of billions of years of evolution which defines what it needs, and determines the parameters of what it can become given the conditions that arise along with it. This karmic heritage dictates unequivocally that it manifest roseness in whatever dry and scraggly or moist and fleshy gloriousness that conditions allow. It has no choice in the matter. And that is why I say that the rose can’t help but actualize roseness. Likewise, we humans can’t help but actualize “our” humanness, and yet we can miss it all the same. How is that?

Call it free will or simply the capacity for metacognition, but we humans have something that the rose does not – the potential to transcend the dictates of our karma. It’s rather ironic, isn’t it, that our karmic heritage has brought us to a place where we might attain freedom from its dictates? Does that mean that it’s our karma to transcend our karma?! Indeed, it would seem so sometimes; for whereas the rose has neither the ability to work harder (or smarter) in order to manifest roseness in a way that might better please us humans, nor the option of putting forth less effort in order to enjoy whatever rose-like leisure it might be capable of enjoying, we humans seem to have unlimited choice as to when and how to expend our energy. Whereas the rose has neither the freedom to pick up and move to a more hospitable place, nor the ability to make its place of residence any more conducive to its growth, we humans are eminently capable of accomplishing both. Yes, it would seem that the nature of humans is our seemingly unlimited capacity to transcend our karma and actualize humanness as we see fit. Or is it?

Engraved Plaque on Pioneer 10 Revealing Its Creators and Its Origin

There might still be a few determinists in our midst who will deny the very existence of this thing we call free will, and while I generally don’t agree with their position, I am inclined to think that we are far more beholden to our karma than we would like to admit. We often choose our work based upon the work that our family has done or the values that have been instilled in us: to make the most money that we can make, to be respected or powerful within the community, to make our families as secure as we can make them, etc. Certainly basing our choice of work on such factors is about as tangled up in karma as we can be. But even when we pursue that which is our supreme love, our unique talent, that which we seem to have been put on this earth to do, is that not also the manifestation of our karmic propensities? When are we really free from karma? When we choose a spouse? When we decide what to do for recreation? When we choose a book to read or certain music to listen to? Isn’t this all simply a matter of acting in accord with our attraction to this and our aversion to that – our karma? Where does our supposed free will come into play? As we go about building our lives can we really be so certain that we are exhibiting any more free will than the bower bird constructing its nest in the hopes of attracting a suitable mate so as to push its genetic material, its karmic heritage, into the future? Of course, we are so much more complicated behaviorally than the bower bird, but are we really any less entangled within our karmic web?

Bower Bird Nest Decorated With Found Items Deemed to be Attractive to a Mate

Yes, we cannot help but actualize our humanness, and yet not every human blossoms as a rose will sometimes blossom. The Japanese Zen monk, Dogen, addressed this reality in the following poem translated by Steven Heine (1997, p. 101):

Becoming Enlightened Upon Seeing the Peach Blossoms

Petals of the peach blossom
Unfolding in the spring breeze,
Sweeping aside all doubts
Amid the distractions of
Leaves and branches.

Most of our lives take place within the thicket of leaves and branches – the tangle of our karmic heritage. This tangle, too, is humanness. This cannot be denied. Just as the plant that we call the rose can’t help but actualize roseness in whatever dry and scraggly, or moist and fleshy form that that might take, so each of us will actualize our humanness as best “we” can. Ah, but the one who can lift up his or her consciousness to unfold with perfect awareness – like the petals of the peach blossom unfolding in the spring breeze – now that is a rare human, indeed!

Let me close by quoting Dogen Zenji once again, this time from his most well known of passages in the Shobogenzo’s Genjokoan (as translated in Okumura, 2010):

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.


Heine, S. (1997). The Zen poetry of Dogen: Verses from the Mountain of Eternal Peace. Charles E. Tuttle Co., Inc.
Okumura, S. (2010). Realizing genjokoan: The key to Dogen’s shobogenzo. Wisdom Publications. p.2. (Original work published 1233)

Image Credits

Image of young Muslim woman in the Thar Desert near Jaisalmer, India by Paulrudd via:

Small Red Rose via:

Pioneer 10 plaque designed by Carl Sagan & Frank Drake, artistically executed by Linda Salzman Sagan, and photographed by NASA via:

Bower Bird’s bower, Brown Mountain, Australia by Pengo via:

Peach Blossom Close-up by Nkp911m500 via:

Copyright 2012 by Maku Mark Frank

Saturday, March 10, 2012

The Nature Of Things

Rose is a rose is a rose is a rose.

What are we to make of such a statement? On one hand we might be inclined to interpret it from a post-modern, image-saturated perspective such as: “if you’ve seen one rose you’ve seen them all.” Ah, but would a poet really endeavor to convey such a jaded sentiment? Quite to the contrary, I think that Gertrude Stein is striving with this line in Sacred Emily to deepen our understanding of the nature of the rose, its essence of being, its roseness. The rose is what it is, fully and completely. It is not like anything. It is not like something red; it is red. It is not like something beautifully scented; it is beautifully scented. It is not like something that is pleasing in form, or delicate, or fleeting; it simply is all of those things. But to say that a rose is all of those things might tend to imply that it is simply a collection of attributes, the totality of which somehow add up to roseness. No, roseness precedes and transcends any definition of its attributes. Rose is a rose is a rose is a rose.

Furthermore, to say that one rose is like another is to miss seeing the rose altogether. To even say that one is looking at a rose is to miss seeing it altogether. To call a rose a rose, after all, is to compare what one is seeing with a memory of something previously seen; and once comparison has begun true seeing has ceased. Thus, the very act of calling a rose a rose removes us from the experience of roseness. What I am calling roseness, then, is something that the rose can’t help but actualize, but which we, with our incessantly conceptualizing minds, so easily miss. What I am calling roseness can only be experienced by one who has either never seen a flower before or one who has trained the mind to see only what is – without associations and conceptualizations.

This ‘seeing without associations and conceptualizations’ is of utmost importance to Zen practitioners (and all Buddhists for that matter), and can perhaps be most easily conveyed by discussing the Japanese word, nen, meaning “thought impulse” (Sekida, 1985, p. 257). Cognition is comprised of either first, second, or third nen activity, or combinations thereof. Sekida (1985) expounds upon these three nen by discussing what happens as one’s hand comes into contact with a cup sitting on the table:

In pure cognition [first nen] there is no subjectivity and no objectivity. Think of the moment your hand touches the cup: there is only touch. The next moment you recognize that you felt the touch [second nen]…. Then there arise subjectivity and objectivity [third nen], and one says, “There is a cup on the table.” (p. 176)

Sojun Mel Weitzman (2000) similarly states:

There are different kinds or degrees of nen.  There is the nen of this moment and there is the nen, which takes a step back and contemplates. The first nen is one with activity, without reflection, just direct perception. The second nen is when we reflect on something and try to identify it by thought or think about it. And the third nen is taking another step back and developing what the second nen has thought about the first nen. All these nen thoughts are important, but when we sit zazen, we are concentrated in the first nen, just direct perception moment by moment.

And so it is that the experience of roseness is in the realm of first-nen cognition – the realm in which so many of the characters of Zen stories and legends dwell. However, to imply that the experience of roseness merely requires training “your” mind so that “you” can relinquish third and second-nen cognition at will for the sake of utilizing “your” capacity for and powers of pure cognition is to imply that we can experience roseness as we might experience some parlor trick optical illusion. No, the roseness spoken of here is not amenable to such deconstruction. The roseness spoken of here is of infinite depth, encompassing all things, a manifestation of what is commonly referred to as suchness.

According to Schuhmacher and Woerner (1994), suchness is the “central notion of Mahayana [Buddhism] referring to the absolute, the true nature of all things” (p. 364). Suchness is experienced, according to Conze (1959), “when things are seen such as they are, in their bare being, without any distortion” (p. 249). Worthy of noting here is the fact that the Sanskrit word, tathata – which is usually translated as suchness, but which might also be translated as thusness – is related to the term, tathagata, meaning “he who has thus come,” the name by which the Buddha referred to himself (Conze, 1959, p. 249). And so it is that Schuhmacher and Woerner (1994) go on to say that “[t]athata as the thus-being of things and their nonduality is perceived through the realization of the identity of subject and object in the awakening of supreme enlightenment” (p. 364).

Thomas Cleary (1993), in his commentary on the Avatamsaka Sutra, or Flower Ornament Scripture, speaks of thusness and suchness as follows:

The implication of the terms “thus” or “such” [is] that no specific notion can truly define being as it really is; the term “thusness” hence can refer specifically to the inconceivable real nature of things, which is also called “emptiness” to allude to the lack of intrinsic meaning of signs and names by which particular things are discriminated and defined. (p. 1527)

But thusness is not a term that is used only for things “out there”; it can be applied to “in here” as well. Cleary continues:

[T]husness can refer to the pure nature of mind; when the mind is clear and this inherently pure nature is unobscured, reality as it is becomes apparent. (p. 1527)

The Avatamsaka Sutra is one of the most influential of all Mahayana texts, and Fa Tsang (643-712) was one of the foremost teachers during the period in which the insights contained therein were being promulgated. Fa Tsang recommends six kinds of contemplation to anyone seeking to understand the Avatamsaka. As translated by Conze (1980) these are:

1. To look into the serenity of Mind to which all things return;

2. To realize that the world of particulars exists because of the One Mind;

3. To observe the perfect and mysterious interpenetration of all things;

4. To observe that there is nothing but Suchness;

5. To observe that the mirror of Sameness reflects the images of all things, which thereby do not obstruct each other;

6. To observe that, when one particular object is picked up, all the others are picked up with it. (p. 76)

We might be well-served by considering an alternative translation for a couple of these points. D. T. Suzuki (1953) offers us the following:

(4) [T]o observe that there is nothing but Suchness where all the shadowy existences cast their reflections,

(5) [T]o observe that the mirror of identity holds in it images of all things without obstructing others…. (pp. 72-73)

My reading of Fa Tsang’s advice is that he is advocating: 1. Zazen; 2. An understanding of dependent origination; 3. An experience of emptiness, sunyata; and, 4. An experience of that which is being referred to as suchness, one that seems also to be predicated upon the experience of and profound insight into the first three of these points. Fa Tsang’s 5th and 6th points are actually expository points related to the previous ones. Both points can be understood within the context of the Avatamsaka’s metaphor of Indra's Net, an infinite net covering all of space with a perfect crystal or jewel at each knot. Each crystal reflects all other crystals and the movement of any one of them is reflected by all others. 

Now that we have a little bit stronger foundation, let me return to Cleary’s commentary. I have added the underlining for the sake of clarity and the bracketed notes for the sake of integrating it with the previous material:

Thusness is sometimes spoken of as “pure” and “defiled,” or “unchanging” and “going along with conditions;” the first term of each pair refers to the unique real nature which is equal in everything, or emptiness, inconceivability [note the use of the words “sameness” and “identity” in the two translations of Fa Tsang’s aforementioned 5th point, as well as the fact that each crystal of Indra’s Net is of the same “stuff”], while the second refers to apparent reality, the realm of myriad differentiations [recall the two levels of truth]. Thusness is also equated with “Buddha-nature” and the “realm of reality,” which includes both absolute and ordinary reality. (p. 1527)

Let me close this post of many flower references by recalling a “talk” that the Buddha is purported to have given which has come to be known as the Flower Sermon. It is said that a group of followers of the Buddha had gathered to hear him speak. Rather than actually speak, though, the Buddha simply held up a lotus flower. As the story goes, there was only one other individual present, Kasyapa, who, by smiling, conveyed his understanding of this most profound of teachings – presumably related in some way to the experience of this thing we’ve been calling suchness. (See Albert Welter (1996) The Disputed Place of "A Special Transmission Outside the Scriptures" in Ch’an if you’d like to place this story within a scholarly context.)

Rose is a rose is a rose is a rose.

It is difficult to know precisely what Gertrude Stein meant when she uttered these words. I hope that she would approve of this interpretation, but even if she were to disapprove I am deeply indebted to her regardless for having provided such a perfect vehicle for the introduction of that which I have called roseness and that which is referred to as suchness. Roseness, then, is suchness manifested within the realm of ordinary reality, a single crystal of Indra’s Net reflecting everything in the universe even as it transcends “thingness” altogether (and we along with it) and allows “us” to see directly into the seamlessness of ultimate reality.


Cleary, T. (1993). The Flower Ornament Scripture: A translation of the Avatamsaka Sutra. Shambhala Publications, Inc.

Conze, E. (1959). Buddhist scriptures. Penguin Books.

Conze, E. (1980). Buddhism: a short history. A Oneworld Publication, Oxford.

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

Sekida, K. (1985). Zen training: methods and philosophy. Published by Weatherhill, Inc.

Suzuki, D. T. (1971). Essays in Zen Buddhism: Third series. Rider and Company, London  (Reprinted in: Sangharakshita (1980). A survey of Buddhism. Shambhala, Boulder, in association with Windhorse, London.)

Weitzman, M. (2000). Commentary on the Enmei Jukko Kannon Gyo. Berkeley Zen Center.

Welter, A. (1996). The disputed place of "a special transmission outside the scriptures" in Ch’an.

Image Credits

Small Red Rose via:

Mahakasyapa image manipulted by Maku using Photoshop. Source image by Joshua Jonathan via:

Roserose by Erixson via:

Copyright 2012 by Maku Mark Frank

Saturday, March 3, 2012

Letting Fall That Which Is Ready To Fall (More Thoughts On Attachment)

Let me begin by mentioning that I’ve added a new section to the blog. You’ll find it below my profile as you scroll down the right hand side. I’m calling it Things I’m Either Doing Or Have Done In Order To Be Kinder To The Earth. My motivation for adding it is three-fold: 1) I’m convinced that human-caused climate change is on the verge of bringing unprecedented suffering to all living beings; 2) Regular readers here will know that I commonly refer to the bodhisattva vow to “save all beings” as one of my guiding principles; and 3) I strive for congruence between the actions that, in totality, make up “my” life and the principles by which I vow to live “my” life.

Now, almost certainly there will be a reader or two or three who will notice that I’m not strictly vegetarian and who will thereby be prompted to wonder about the strength or legitimacy of my vow to “save all beings” given the fact that I can’t even keep myself from eating them from time to time! Believe me, this is a matter that I do not take lightly. In fact, since my teen years my diet has varied amongst more and less strict variants of vegetarianism. Always, though, my motivation has been to balance appropriately the needs of this organism with those of others. Oh, and lest any reader be inclined to take comfort in his or her ‘stricter than thou’ dietary guidelines, I simply ask that you reflect upon what happens to all of the wildlife that has no place left to live after their woodland or grassland home is denuded of trees or vegetation, plowed under, and planted with a monoculture of corn, wheat, or soybeans. I simply ask that you consider how the burning of fuel in order to ship your favorite fruits and vegetables from all over the world to your local grocer is further increasing the average temperature of the earth and acidifying the oceans with dissolved carbon dioxide – thereby causing untold suffering. In other words, we all have blood on our hands. The only question is how much.

Some years ago I was mentoring a Northwest Earth Institute Voluntary Simplicity discussion group when one of the participants raised quite a ruckus by actually admitting to not recycling her soft drink cans! Anyway, once I’d finally managed to escort everyone to their various neutral corners we discovered that this woman bought her favorite beverage one six-pack at a time and ended up drinking on the order of just one can of it each week. Contrast that with someone slurping his or her way through a case per week – religiously recycling every single can. Who is treading more lightly on the planet? Hey, does anyone else remember the comedian who deadpanned: “Every time I go to a recycling center I just get all choked up with emotion…. I wish I could give more”?

We all have bad habits and weaknesses, inconsistent quirks and idiosyncrasies. Oh, yeah, and we all have attachments, don’t we? Have you ever tried to give up something that you really, really enjoyed – even if it wasn’t all that good for you? Isn’t it quite often the case that that which we try the hardest to throw away (figuratively speaking) just ends up sticking ever more tightly to our hands? Believe it or not, I was a smoker in my young adult years – a habit that became a seemingly indispensible part of my life over the course of some five years or so. I tried weaning myself off of them. I tried quitting cold turkey. In the end, though, it was the realization that they were standing in the way of where I really wanted to be that gave me the impetus to quit them once and for all. You see, I’d begun to go for an occasional run by then and I simply couldn’t enjoy it as much if I’d been hanging out in a bar drinking and smoking a pack of cigarettes that previous Saturday night. I couldn’t run as far. I coughed and hacked along the way. I simply didn’t feel as free as I knew I would if I just gave it up altogether. And so I did. In other words, I came to see with my very own being that the person that I aspired to be did not and could not have the habits of the person that, indeed, I was. I didn’t need a doctor or psychologist or teacher or loved one to tell me that. I didn’t need to read in some religious book that “attachments are bad” and should be relinquished. No, I simply moved in the direction that my inner compass was telling me to go, and along the way I let fall that which was ready to fall.

We all know how we try on different personae during our formative years, don’t we? So, let’s say I’m eighteen years old again and thinking about becoming a Buddhist... From what I can gather, most Buddhists believe in reincarnation, which is cool because I’m sick of all of that hell and damnation kind of talk. Besides, I think I must have been King Ashoka in a previous life – building Buddhist statues all over my kingdom. Yeah, and they’re vegetarian, too, and that’s cool, because animals are people too. And I like the minimalist aesthetic – the “Zen look”, the shaved head and all. Maybe I’ll get a little yin-yang symbol or the kanji for ‘wisdom’ or something tattooed on my neck so that everyone will know that I didn’t just shave my head because I’m going prematurely bald. And I’ll walk around slowly, and move with great deliberation; and I’ll pause uncomfortably long before I respond to any question or comment so as to appear as though I am pondering the myriad ways that truth will be revealed by my next utterance…

I suspect that we all begin spiritual practice with an abundance of ideas and concepts and preconceived notions that we’ve become attached to along the way for reasons unique to our own accumulated karma. The question, however, is how long we will cling to them. Will our spiritual practice eventually bring us to a place where the very ideas that brought us there are seen for what they are – simplistic ideas regarding who we are and what we’re doing – or will we remain for the rest of our lives in the tidy little box that we’ve constructed for ourselves?

“We shall not cease from exploration,
And at the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.” – T. S. Eliot


Knowing Our Karma Well, and Working With It Wisely

In this section I’d like to follow up on some thoughts from my Attachment, Sexuality, and Spirituality posts that didn’t make the final cut at the time. I’ll examine sexuality and spirituality from a number of different vantage points – no one of which will provide a perfect view of the many issues involved. However, I do hope that by considering them in total, and any others out there that I might have missed, the reader will have a clearer understanding of how to address this and other issues of attachment in his or her own life.

Vantage Point #1  Is our sexuality really standing in the way of our spiritual growth or are we just listening to what somebody else has to say about how we should live our lives? Might the areas of intimacy, giving, receiving, vulnerability, letting go, openness, becoming known, etc. be precisely the areas in which we have the most room to grow? Might a perceived need for celibacy really just be a protective strategy to keep one from having to work on those areas of human interaction that can be the most fearful? Yes, it’s good to question ourselves, but it’s good to question others as well.

Vantage Point #2  Take care of the low-hanging fruit first. Our sexuality is, of course, amongst the most deeply rooted of all of our karmic urges. Perhaps at some point in our lives celibacy will rightly appear as a natural next step in the direction of spiritual growth. Are we really there yet? Have we really made all the progress we can make in other areas where spiritual growth might have an even bigger impact?

I once worked as a counselor in an inpatient behavioral health facility that attempted to be smoke-free. Now, given that anxiety is a major component of many mental illnesses it might seem less than a good idea to consider going nicotine-free at the same time that you’re having a major mental health crisis. Think about how difficult it is to try to tease apart how much of the anxiety being exhibited by someone, or yourself, is due to a dosage issue (too much, too little, wrong medication) and how much is simply nicotine withdrawal?

Vantage Point #3  Taking care of others includes taking care of yourself. Maybe we’re influenced by the paradigm of celibacy allowing us to devote our entire being to something – the church, a cause, spiritual growth, saving all beings. Having worked in the fields of education and counseling, however, both high burn-out professions, I’ve come to know well the value of taking care of ourselves lest our efforts come to naught for our having lost the ability to truly care, to act wisely, to act with commitment and energy. The following quote from Thomas Merton’s Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander speaks to me in that regard:

To allow oneself to be carried away by a multitude of conflicting concerns, to surrender to too many demands, to commit to too many projects, to want to help everyone in everything is itself to succumb to the violence of our times. Frenzy destroys our inner capacity for peace. It destroys the fruitfulness of our work, because it kills the root of inner wisdom which makes work fruitful.

Thus, even those who devote their lives to service, even those who take vows to save all beings might better serve the world, might save all beings with greater efficacy, by considering themselves worthy as well of being saved.

Vantage Point #4  Addressing needs and urges openly takes from them the power to influence behavior in less straightforward and perhaps negative ways. This, of course, is a big problem in the helping professions where getting sexually involved with clients is rightfully considered an egregious ethical lapse. Professional relationships notwithstanding, however, consider how our lack of awareness with respect to how our actions are shaped by unmet sexual urges can lead us toward behavior of a less than spiritual nature. Thus, it does nobody any favors to don a cloak of celibacy when the body that the cloak conceals still rages with desire and longing.

Vantage Point #5  Dealing with sexuality in a straightforward way actually frees up energy which can then be more wholeheartedly devoted to spiritual practice. Probably everyone who has ever meditated for appreciable lengths of time knows how the mind can race down paths of fantasy and daydream quite literally for hours. Of course, you might also know that many of those flights of fantasy and daydream can be of an all-consuming sexual nature. However, when one has a reasonable degree of confidence that these unfulfilled “needs” will be addressed within a reasonable time frame they can be let go of with greater ease. They do not hover like the dark clouds of an existential storm; they are merely hunger pangs that speak of what the human body is like. Yes, my stomach is growling, but lunch will be coming soon enough. Yes, I’m feeling thirsty, but I can get a drink of water when we break for walking meditation. Yes, my most carnal urges are raging, but I’m confident that my lover will still want me when I return.


In closing, I’d like to revisit the number line way of thinking about aversion, attachment, and the equanimity between the two.

Aversion Extends to the Left, Attachment to the Right, Equanimity is the Zero Point

It seems to me that some strategies of dealing with attachment involve setting up an aversion to it of such strength as to yield the appearance of equanimity. Alas, this is not equanimity; this is merely keeping up appearances.

There is an oft-repeated story that deserves retelling here. I’ll do my best to convey its essence from memory:

Two monks are traveling when they come to a raging stream that appears quite treacherous to cross. A young maiden stands beside it clearly pondering how she will get to the other side.

“Can you help me cross this dangerous river?” she enquires of the monks as they approach.

Without further contemplation, one of the monks picks up the maiden and wades with her safely to the other side – an action that leaves the other monk fuming. The two of them walk for many miles without speaking.

“What troubles you, friend,” the monk who had carried the maiden across the stream finally asks of his companion.

“It is my understanding that we are not to have such contact with women as you had with that maiden at the river,” the companion responds.

“My friend, I put the maiden down some time ago! You, however, are carrying her still!”

Is there something in your life that stands just on the verge of falling? Is there some idea or concept or attitude, some material object or ritual, a harmful relationship or an outmoded sense of meaning that, if only you would just step away for a moment, would end up toppling of its own dead weight? Sometimes no action at all needs to be taken except to stop what it is that we're doing and let all the karmic energy dissipate that has been propping something up. When we see an attachment fall under such conditions we know that there's no turning back. We know that it's gone for good, without any second thoughts or regrets.
Okay, how about one more quote; this one from Dogen’s Genjokoan as translated in Yoshida (1982):

To learn the awakened (buddha) way is to learn the self.
 To learn the self is to forget the self.
 To forget the self is to be verified by all dharmas


Yoshida, R., Eilers, J., Ganio, K. (1982). Gaku-do-yojin-shu: Collection of cautions about learning the Way. Missouri Zen Center. (Genjokoan originally published 1233)

Image Credits

Balancing Rocks in Matopos National Park, Zimbabwe – by Susan Adams via:

Arches National Park with Balancing Rock – by Dschwen via:

Copyright 2012 by Maku Mark Frank