Saturday, June 29, 2013

Neither Disturb Nor Be Disturbed


I was out at Sanshinji earlier this month for another sesshin. I usually end up missing the orientation periods due to the travel time involved between St. Louis and Bloomington. This time, however, I was able to be there from the beginning. For the most part it was a “nuts and bolts” sort of meeting during which one of the monks touched on such things as who we should approach about any issues that might arise, when we should be in position for the first period of zazen, how we would be taking our meals, etc. After a round of questions and comments, Reverend Okumura spoke very briefly, closing with a comment that I’ve been savoring on and off ever since: “Please, do not disturb others, and, please, do not be disturbed by others.” We can orient our entire spiritual practice around such an intention, can’t we? Especially if we allow it to encompass acts of charity, i.e., not disturbing others with our indifference.


Please, do not disturb others. When we’re engaged in communal practice – living together in close quarters for a period of time – we endeavor to give each other the supportive gift of our presence and our practice, even as we endeavor to stay out of everyone’s way so that their practice can be as deep as it can possibly be. But even with a rigorous schedule like the one at Sanshinji during the Antaiji-style sesshins, there is still plenty of opportunity for individual idiosyncrasies to arise. Some need regular stretching or bathroom breaks in between sittings, some don’t; some need to adjust their posture frequently during sittings, while some sit stoically from bell to bell; some sleep solidly and snore as they do, even as their bunkmates sleep lightly and hear every snort and sputter. The simple fact is, no matter how much we might intend to honor and support others with our comportment, we will still disturb them in some way, large or small, by the very fact that we exist in the unique form in which we exist. And that brings us to the other part of Okumura’s closing comment…

Please, do not be disturbed by others. This seems to be the primary focus of a great many spiritual books, Buddhist and other. Quite often the goal of beginning practitioners is that of surviving in a world that is too loud, too fast, too violent, too shallow, too meaningless, etc. The world is a disturbing place, in large part because others are disturbing to us. However, there is a well-known truism that is pertinent to this discussion: it is easier to wear shoes than to carpet the whole world. And so it is that a good part of spiritual practice relates to learning to put on shoes. Can we exist in a world, no, can we thrive in a world in which our neighbor fidgets, our bunkmate snores, and that dude is blocking the hallway yet again stretching out his tight quadriceps? Can we thrive in a world in which mass culture berates us at every turn, those wacked out religious fundamentalists are at it again, and yet another special interest group is squawking about a pet issue that we simply don’t find deserving?

It was the last day of sesshin and even though I’d fairly settled into its routine I was still being worn down by its rigor. I settled into the library to take a nap after breakfast, taking care to set the alarm on my watch to wake me up just before the next scheduled sitting. It was unseasonably cool and the breeze wafting in through the windows began to feel a little bit chilly. I reached for a spare zabuton (sitting mattress) and pulled it over me like a blanket, then to settle into corpselike repose. Unfortunately, the thick zabuton muffled the sound of my beeping wristwatch and I ended up sleeping right through its alarm, and the beginning of zazen. “Oh, well,” my mind thought after waking up and realizing what had transpired, “I’ll use the rest of the time to take a nice shower.”

It was in between sittings an hour or so later that I ran into the monk who’d presided over the orientation period as we were passing in the hallway.

“FYI,” he said quietly, “there’s no showering during zazen.”

“Oh, no!” I exclaimed in a hushed voice. “I did not know that. Was it that loud?”

“It’s okay,” he replied with a smile, conveying at once that indeed it was, but that I should just let it go. Yes, disturbing others comes easily enough, even when we are very much trying to refrain from doing so.

A couple of hours after that a wave of people needing to use the restroom swept out of the zendo at the beginning of kinhin (walking meditation) – leaving the door wide open in their wake. “Surely someone’s going to realize that they left the door open,” my mind thought as the thunderous sound of urine streaming into a toilet bowl filtered into where the rest of us were watching our breath, and our minds, half-step by half-step. Momentarily, the doan bowed and made his way to the door. “He’s going to close it,” my mind thought, but he kept on walking, and the sound of urine kept on streaming. “Gosh, I hope my showering wasn’t this loud,” my mind thought, and then it settled back into simply watching what was happening, and not being disturbed by others.

Please, do not disturb others, and, please, do not be disturbed by others. When that “jerk” cuts us off on the highway and our mind rushes in to label it a selfish or disrespectful or inconsiderate act, perhaps we can leave open the possibility that they didn’t even realize we were there. And when we accidentally steer our car into the path of another and have to listen to them lean on their horn for far longer than it actually takes to simply remind us that we should take greater care, perhaps we can leave open the possibility that we scared the bejesus out of them and their anger is really an expression of that fear. Please, do not disturb others, and, please, do not be disturbed by others. If we pay attention we can find myriad moments each day in which the honoring of this intention allows the interconnectedness of our lives to unfold with much greater ease and peace and calm. I’m working on it, anyway!



Copyright 2013 by Mark Frank

Sunday, June 16, 2013

Roots and Branches


“I don’t know,” I said, when it came time for me to speak, “I guess I feel like I’m kind of drifting – as if my practice is lacking in direction or something...” My gaze left Ginny’s face and refocused on the tree branches outside the window just behind where she was sitting with a small group of us. It was the third residential retreat that I’d done with her since the breakup of my marriage and she was probably in a better position than anybody else to know what I’d been going through. “Whenever I’ve been here in the past,” I continued, “I’ve felt so much more focused. Maybe it’s kind of like that tree out there. It used to be that I was like the roots – going deeper and deeper, pushing through the soil, making my way down to where the water is… But now I feel like that branch – just hanging there out in the open, not really doing anything…” My eyes refocused on Ginny’s. There was nothing more that I could say to describe what I was feeling.

“It sounds like peace,” Ginny replied with a slight nod.

Now, having been trained in counseling psychology, I was familiar with the reframe – taking the proverbial lemon and pointing out the potential for great lemonade. I was also familiar with how an inappropriate reframe can come off as shallow, treacly and dismissive of the underlying emotion. Such a reframe can make or break a counseling relationship – either demonstrating that the counselor has a clear grasp of the client’s situation or revealing that he or she is uncomfortable with difficult emotion and wants to move the conversation into Happy Land as quickly as possible.

“Hmmph,” I grunted in acknowledgment, and over the course of the grunt’s inception somewhere deep inside my belly and its release into the room I came to recognize the truth that Ginny had just revealed to me. I held my hands together in gassho and bowed.

 

We often describe things in terms of peaks and valleys, but I think that meditation practice can also be described in terms of roots and branches. At various times either the pain of the sitting itself, or the busyness of our minds, or the difficulty of the emotions with which we are sitting become the soil in which our practice takes root. Almost palpable, these phenomena provide soil against which our effort and intention might push in order to nudge our way deeper and deeper. A little adversity can be good in this regard. It ultimately gives our practice stability – like a tree rooting itself deeply and solidly into the earth.

 
But let’s not lose track of the other activity of the tree – holding out its branches, swaying in the breeze, feeling the gentle rains and the warmth of the sun… Let’s not get so caught up in ourselves and the activity of putting down roots that we mistake these feelings of peace and wellbeing for a lack of focus or direction.

 
Yes, there is a time for the reassessment of “where our practice is going,” either because we’ve gotten complacent or because we’ve wandered away from our truest intention. But let’s also consider yet another option: that we might just be at peace!

 

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. – from Dogen’s Genjokoan, as translated in Okumura (2010)

 

For other recollections of Ginny Morgan, please see May Their Compassion Embrace Us.


 
 
      

References
 

Okumura, S. (2010). Realizing genjokoan: The key to Dogen’s shobogenzo. Wisdom Publications. p.2. (Original work published 1233)

 

Image Credits
 

Tree of Life image courtesy of VisibleMind via:


 
 

Copyright 2013 by Mark Frank

Tuesday, June 4, 2013

The Mind of God


God's first language is silence. – St. John of the Cross
 

Mathematics is the language with which God has written the universe. – Galileo
 

This post is not intended for the believers of the world. There is probably little that I or anyone can say to a believer that might change what he or she thinks of God. Rather, this post is intended for the seekers and questioners and doubters of the world, for it is you who have not yet forged a case-hardened steel conceptualization of what God is or is not – whether in reality or in the minds of humans. So, please bear with me for a bit – even if we’d have a difficult time getting you to admit that maybe, just maybe, something of what others call ‘God’ resides for you in the nooks and crannies of the mystery or unknowability that you experience from time to time; even if ‘God’ for you is merely a construct that is of interest precisely because so many other people so immensely overvalue it; even if ‘God’ for you is like a stain on your psyche that you’d much prefer to be rid of once and for all, if only you could throw it in the wash with a cupful of bleach.
 

 
 
 
 
Regardless of what you might think about God it is nonetheless safe to say that the man of God, St. John, and the man of science, Galileo, do not necessarily contradict each other above. Perhaps silence is indeed God’s first language, mathematics being a secondary one – an outgrowth of the act of creation, if you will, or the blueprint for it. But just as human language is inadequate with respect to revealing the totality of the human mind, so these posited ‘languages of God’ might seem woefully inadequate with respect to revealing the so-called mind of God.

 
What, then, is the mind of God? Might it be that St. John was only partly right, and that silence, rather than merely being the language of God, is the very mind of God? But if that were so, then what are we to make of all the rest of this reality that we experience? Maybe the Neo-Platonists such as St. Augustine are more correct in saying that this world in which we arise and through which we navigate is the mind of God. We are the mind of God! Ah, but maybe we’re fooling ourselves to even think that we can know the mind of God. How would we even know it as other than our very own mind if it should come to pass that we suspect we are experiencing it? Maybe then we should follow the lead of Albert Einstein as quoted in Isaacson (2007):

Try and penetrate with our limited means the secrets of nature and you will find that, behind all the discernible laws and connections, there remains something subtle, intangible and inexplicable. Veneration for this force beyond anything that we can comprehend is my religion. To that extent I am, in fact, religious.

 
But might that “subtle, intangible and inexplicable” something be the very silence spoken of above? Maybe in stillness and silence we access our potential to transcend the usual realm of human consciousness for the sake of consciousness of a higher order. Perhaps silence is, in Immanuel Kant’s way of thinking about such things, a means by which to access another form of intellect. As Burnham (2001) states:

Kant… raises the possibility of another form of intellect, the ‘intellectus archetypus’, or cognition directly through the original. In such a case, there would be no distinction between perceiving a thing, understanding a thing, and the thing existing. This is as close as our finite minds can get to understanding the mind of God.

 
Hmmm…, how different is this “cognition directly through the original” from the non-dualistic, non-conceptual seeing that is spoken of by the Eastern adepts? I’m not going to answer that question – not that I could at the present time. But the very fact that I’m asking it is because I’m wondering whether East and West might both harbor visionaries capable of glimpsing the very same thing – the so-called mind of God. Please ponder that possibility along with me as I introduce a passage from my (hopefully) soon to be published novel entitled – you guessed it – Crossing Nebraska.

 
From Crossing Nebraska, Chapter 1

Grandpa mopped up the puddle of gravy with his last corner of bread and searched the tray as if for something that he’d misplaced. With the thick fingers of an old ironworker he fumbled to open the packets of jam that he found hidden beneath his napkin and proceeded to eat their ruby red contents with a spoon. Silence then seemed to fall over the room as he pushed aside the tray and looked at Alex once again. It was then that Alex noticed the uncharacteristic tension in his body and a look of unease upon his face – more like that of an injured bird than the indomitable man that had loomed over him in his childhood. And deep in the cloudy pools of his eyes was the unmistakable and totally uncharacteristic glint of fear. But why? He’d accomplished so much in his eighty odd years – more than Alex could ever hope to accomplish. He’d come to a new country and built a home with his very own hands. He’d raised children who’d gone on to have children and even grandchildren of their own. And, anyway, didn’t he believe that death would offer blessed reunion with Grandma and the rest of his family from the Old Country? Perhaps he didn’t believe that after all. Perhaps that was the one area in which he’d accomplished far less than Alex. Sure, he’d built a house, planted an orchard, tilled a garden, and sweated and froze his way to a union pension – all to provide a comfortable life for his family – but perhaps he’d not yet prepared a place for his mind to be at ease as life itself began to slip away.

 
Of course, such a place was precisely what Alex had been seeking for nearly the entirety of his life, and having cultivated a Christian fire for more than a few of those years he now sifted through its ashes – from the parables to the apocalypse – hoping that some Phoenix might rise up to soar from his lips and light upon his grandfather's ears. Ah, but how could he expect such words to soar from his lips when they didn’t even limp about in his heart. Sure, he’d tried to be a good Christian. He’d tried to set aside all those questions that couldn't be answered by platitudes dribbling from the mouths of those who smile unreal smiles even as they convey their absolute assurance of things for which there can be no assurance. No, it seemed to Alex that such people merely acted out their unexamined faith with fervor enough to convince their conscious minds by driving all doubt into the darkest recesses of their beings. He wanted no part of such self-deception.

 
For a time the disparate realms of poetry and mathematics filled the void left behind by the collapse of what meager faith had once sustained him. Mathematics must be the language of God, Alex reasoned – the only language that can describe the behavior of the smallest of subatomic particles and the largest of black holes, the nature of light and the curvature of space through which it travels. Surely those beautifully succinct equations of energy, gravity, and light must be amongst the first sentences ever composed, with those yet undiscovered lying like Dead Sea Scrolls just beyond our evolving human understanding. It would be through an understanding of mathematics that he would apprehend the world’s truths. Poetry, on the other hand, is the language of the human mind. The human mind makes too many leaps across quantum divides to ever be described with the succinctness with which mathematics describes the natural world. Only poetry can convey the discontinuities of human consciousness and plumb the depths of meaning. Only poetry, with its ability to touch the heart as well as the mind, can convey the truth of human existence.

 
But even poetry and mathematics have their limits, Alex would come to realize. His poems were more like baskets, after all, loosely woven and capable of holding meaning’s coarser nature even as its subtler essence slipped away. Oh, sure, there were better poets whose baskets were of such finely woven quality as to capture meaning more completely. More complete was still light years away from actually being there, however, and Alex was concerned with absolutes. In time it became all too apparent just how distant words are from the reality giving rise to them. After all, it’s only after reality gives rise to sensation and sensation to perception, perception to emotion and emotion to thought that words finally begin to arise. Even more troubling than that, however, was the implication regarding the limits of mathematics, for just as words are incapable of conveying the true nature of human existence, mathematics is incapable of taking us back to before the Big Bang in order to explain how it all began, and why. Indeed, that would require knowing the mind of God and not merely the language spoken. Nonetheless, he soldiered on, until that fateful day when his study of mathematics brought him face to face with Gödel’s Incompleteness Theorem and the realization of how correct his hunch had been. No matter how much we know there will always be something that we don’t know – that we can’t know. The map is not the terrain. The mind of God cannot be known, at least not through mathematics, anyway.

 
It was then that his gaze turned eastward to where the sages seemed to have a much clearer understanding of those hinterlands where language cannot reach. Alex yearned to explore those lands, to travel to the farthest reaches that the human mind can go, perhaps to find the mind of God there – if not to dwell within it, then at least to glimpse it, and with that glimpse perhaps be transformed. He learned to meditate using whatever books he could get his hands on, and with each fleeting glimpse of stillness that he experienced his mind opened wider and wider to new ways of being. As a thick fog dissipates with the rising of the sun, so the heavy darkness of heaven and hell and judgment began to lift, leaving a bright expanse of mystery stretching clear to the horizon. Where was the justice and compassion in a system in which souls are condemned to eternal damnation for such offenses as his own inability to believe in things too fantastical to believe! Certainly reincarnation made so much more sense than that.

 
The more he meditated, however, the clearer it became that his criteria for determining the so-called justness of any particular metaphysical system was grounded in prevailing conceptualizations of the self as an independent entity existing for all time. But maybe it isn’t so much a matter of this life and that life, Alex pondered. Perhaps it is only a matter of life – Life, if you will – the continuous totality of all life flourishing within an ever-changing present. Within that context, the how and why of his apparently individual existence began to matter less and less. What really mattered was how his actions helped nourish Life’s expression. What then should he do with his seemingly separate existence in order to nurture Life itself?

 
Yes, and that was the one question that he still struggled with as he sat there looking into his grandfather’s eyes for what he knew would be the very last time. He recalled how on one of Grandma’s darkest days he and his cousins were herded into the kitchen where they sat mortified as she cried out from her bed for a pill that would put her out of her misery. The minister was even there that time; that was how bad off she was. But the gulf was far too wide even for him and all of his prayers. Alex remembered thinking that she should just let herself die. She should just let go of whatever slender thread of life she still held onto. Yes, he’d known that she was dying. He’d even wished for death to come. Not for her sake, though, he realized only later, but for his. His father, too, had been dying for a long, long time, but he’d said nothing. And, even now, even as an adult, even after years of contemplation and meditation, he still had nothing to say.

 
So how could he speak about matters of life and death when his own sense of meaning still lay so far beyond his grasp? He felt as though he was twelve years old again and peering across a gulf so vast and deep as to seem unbridgeable. Yes, death would soon separate them for all time, but instead of speaking of anything meaningful like life and death and love they merely made small talk about sports and food and how damned hot it was outside. And all the while the television kept the silence in between those snippets of conversation from growing too loud – just as the coffee percolator had done with its hissing and gurgling so many years ago – just like the old oscillating fan droning loud and then soft, loud and then soft – just like the cars slipping past on the roadway in front of the house. One Mississippi, two Mississippi….

 
Thank you. Your thoughts on Crossing Nebraska – the blog or the book – are greatly appreciated. Your thoughts on the mind of God are appreciated as well!

 

 

References

 

Burnham, D. (2001) Kant’s aesthetics. Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy. http://www.iep.utm.edu/kantaest/

Frank, M. (unpublished manuscript). Crossing Nebraska.

Isaacson, W. (2007). Einstein and the mind of God. The Washington Post. http://newsweek.washingtonpost.com/onfaith/guestvoices/2007/04/einstein_and_the_mind_of_god.html

 


Image Credits



Omega Nebula courtesy of Hubble Space Telescope and NASA via:






Copyright 2013 by Mark Frank