Sunday, December 29, 2013

Why I'll Never Compile A Bucket List

Okay, it looks like my previous post was not the final one of 2013 after all…

Happy New Year, everyone! Have you compiled your respective lists of New Year’s resolutions? Yeah, I know, not everyone is a fan of such endeavors. However, to the extent that they help us clarify and actualize the purest of our intentions, then I think they can be a good thing. A bucket list, on the other hand, is something that I’ll never compile. Why not? I am so glad you asked that question! Let me begin with what I find appealing about resolutions.

Resolutions tend to act as guideposts in the back of our minds, subconsciously or unconsciously shaping our outward behavior: toward eating or living more healthfully, for instance, toward acting with greater patience or mindfulness, perhaps, toward spending more time with friends and family or engaged in spiritual practice, etc. Sure, they can veer towards end goals from time to time, such as when we vow to lose ten pounds, or quit smoking, or find a new job. For the most part, though, resolutions seem to me to be about intentionality.

Resolutions also encompass an appropriate time frame – one trip around the sun – a long enough period in which to affect real change, or at least dutifully attempt to do so, but not so long a time that the resolved intention becomes robbed of its immediacy. One year on also serves as an appropriate point of reevaluation. Did I really end up behaving in thus and such way last year? Was it right for me to resolve to do so? Should I renew that resolution and redouble my effort or should I just stop beating myself up over it?

Contrast these attributes of a list of New Year’s resolutions with those of the so-called bucket list. A bucket list is essentially a shopping list that applies to an entire lifespan. I want to do this. I want to accomplish that. I want to go here and see this and experience that. I want, I want, I want… Bucket lists are much more about product than process. But what’s wrong with that? Goals are good, aren’t they? They nudge us in desired directions just as those more process-oriented resolutions do, don’t they? Well…, maybe… But if you were to die before being able to check a single item off of your bucket list, would your life have ended in failure? By what standard?

By what standard? That is the $64,000 question. You see, the bucket list is created by the mind of today as if the mind of today is the same mind that will be present at the moment of “our” passing. The bucket list of today is created by the mind of today and is totally lacking the wisdom of tomorrow. We could spend hour upon hour thoughtfully composing some intricately detailed bucket list only to be diagnosed with a terminal illness the very next day, or to discover that our new-born child has a condition that will require of us every last measure of our energy, or to realize that all of our valuable ‘checking-off’ time is going to be taken up by a spouse or a parent who has been diagnosed with dementia. Perhaps the mind of today that creates the bucket list that rules the rest of our life is, in fact, a shallow, self-centered, and braggadocious mind – something that the mind of tomorrow will recognize if given half a chance. Ah, but still we have to live, don't we? And yet...

The mind of today doesn’t really know the true nature of that which it wishes for:
“Gosh, I always thought that I wanted to bungee jump... But if I’d known that I'd end up with a broken neck, I wouldn’t have risked it!”
True enough, life is risky and things happen. But if I were to end up paralyzed because of some bucket list activity, I would want it to be because the activity itself was what I found so compelling – not merely the idea of telling everybody about my engaging in said activity. Warning! Do not add any item to your bucket list unless you’ve discerned the difference between the two!  

Might it also be the case that the very knowledge that we are engaged in a bucket list experience ends up changing (for the worse) the very experience that we’ve always desired? Hmmm…
“You know, I always wanted to get married, and here I am at the altar. Check! And the honeymoon to Antarctica? Another fat check! Um..., what was that you said, Reverend?”

Similarly, might it be the case that our deluded belief that some bucket list item is what we truly desire actually keeps us from experiencing the reality that we seek right here and right now?
“I always thought that I needed to hang glide in order give myself up to the glorious vastness of the universe, but then I had the very same experience just walking down the bustling street!”
Indeed, we don’t really know what might nudge us toward having a peak experience.

Okay, and since you already know about my Buddhist point of view, I will even go so far as to opine that bucket lists are anathema to the practice of Buddhism itself. Now I’m really throwing down the gauntlet, aren't I? From a Buddhist perspective, though, there is no legitimate reason to differentiate this moment spent picking up trash from the alleyway from that moment spent standing atop Mount Everest. From a Buddhist perspective, the very act of saying that we must accomplish or achieve or experience this in order to be happy or contented or fulfilled is what keeps us forever unhappy and discontented and unfulfilled. From a Buddhist perspective, this "self" that so very much enjoys checking off interesting and exciting things from his or her bucket list is merely an aggregation of phenomena more or less conveniently referred to as “I”.

Yes, a bucket list  is essentially an extension of the "self" that we tend to become so attached to. Not only are "we" this and that and the other thing, but we want to be that and that and THAT. And by crafting our bucket list of desires we somehow have an even more substantial sense of this fragile aggregation that we delude ourselves into thinking has such solidity. Maybe I won't accomplish all of these things, after all, but the being that desires it to be so is my true self - the self that I truly am. Poppycock!

Happy New Year, everyone!

And have yourself one bucket list experience after another without ever even thinking them to be so!

Copyright 2013 by Mark Frank

Saturday, December 21, 2013

The Sublime and the Profane..., Enlightenment and Shit (Part 2 of 2)

Readers of Part 1 might find it interesting as they read on that my unconscious mind was able to construct a far more refined metaphor for practice than the “sitting with a belly full of crap” one that my conscious mind was able to come up with. As you may recall, “sitting with a belly full of crap” refers to the fact that so much of our lives is comprised of situations and circumstances that we would just as soon flush away, if only we could. However, as stated in Part 1: “We can change our mind, we can even change our behavior; but the repercussions of our past mental and physical activity continue until such karma has been exhausted.” And so our practice becomes one of working with and working through our residual negative karma, all the while trying to refrain from creating such negativity anew.

I had a dream one night during sesshin. It began with me flying over a very picturesque city – with many lakes and streams, beautiful buildings and walkways, lush foliage and green spaces. Now, you might be wondering whether I was flying under my own power or not. Oddly, I don’t know the answer to that question. Anyway, I found myself strolling along one of those winding pathways with manicured lawns and trimmed hedges and bushes either side. It was a gorgeous day, and I was feeling very calm and content – so much so that I remained that way even after noticing a lion lying on the grass beside the pathway. He was sunning himself, seeming very calm and content as well. But there was no mistaking it; this was a lion, the real king of beasts, and he was not confined in any way whatsoever. Interestingly, this was more of a curiosity to me than any cause for alarm, and so I kept strolling on. Upon continuing, however, I began noticing lions everywhere I looked, each one just as calm and content as the first one –with just one exception. One of them had gotten up from his place on the grass and begun to follow me!

Oddly, I remained largely unperturbed. Yes, a wild beast was now following me, but there was a building just up ahead and I was confident that there was shelter there to be found. Unfortunately, though, the lion was closing on me, and so I walked a little faster. But as I walked faster, he walked faster; and as I broke into a speed walk, he broke into a trot. Then, just as he was upon me, the carcass of a huge bird – an ostrich, I presume – suddenly appeared on the path at my feet (aren’t dreams fascinating like that?). I picked it up and threw it to the lion, who instantly seemed quite satisfied with it instead of me. Given such a close call, I made haste toward the building, lest my luck should run out. It was a low, circular building with a bank of glass doors and an open courtyard in the middle with lots of sun and grass and plants – just like outside, as a matter of fact. Anyway, I was just about to open the door when I looked through it into that central courtyard where, lying in the middle, there lay yet another of the king of beasts – looking quite calm and content, so far...

Upon waking, I instantly recognized that this was a dream about my mind, although for some reason I was rather slow to realize that its inspiration must have been the statue of the bodhisattva Manjusri sitting atop the lion of his mind that had been staring over my shoulder for the previous few days. A simple enough dream, to be sure, but one whose meaning has continued to unfold for me over the ensuing weeks. (Please see Living With An Untamed Mind for more on the bodhisattva Manjusri and his lion.) Let me try to unpack some of this dream imagery…

Manjusri and Lion on Sanshinji's altar
Perhaps worthy of note to begin with is my lack of “real fear” in this dream. It was not a nightmare by any stretch. Whatever “fear” had me quickening my steps in order to reach the safety of the building was more akin to the kind of fear that we willingly cultivate when we watch a scary movie or enter a “haunted house” on Halloween. Even my realization while standing at the door of my presumed safe abode – that there was no escaping the wild beasts after all – was more of the ‘Aha! The jokes on me!’ variety than the ‘I am really screwed now’ variety.
So, the obvious lesson of the dream is that mind is everywhere; there is no escaping it. We don’t escape the wild beast by entering into meditation. We don’t escape it by saying goodbye to the mundane world and engaging in sesshin for a week. We don’t even escape it by going away to live in a monastery – a presumed utopian environment – for the rest of our lives. No, the wild beast is not one that can be escaped, although it might be assuaged for a time, it can only be met face to face so that it might be tamed. Which brings me to the symbolism of the ostrich carcass…

The wild beast of the mind is awakened by pain; it is awakened by being separated from whatever it is we think will bring us comfort and enjoyment in this moment. As I stated in Part 1, the rigor of sesshin – with its meditation periods one after another after another, day in and day out – nudges us inexorably to the limit of what we can mentally withstand. And the closer we get to our limit, the more desperately our mind seeks escape. Such escape takes the form of allowing ourselves to engage in daydreams and flights of fancy – anything that distracts us from the reality of the present moment. This amounts to throwing a carcass to the wild beast of our mind. It distracts it for a time, but does not tame it. It pushes off into the future that moment when we must really face ourselves. And so it is fitting that the carcass in my dream should be that of an ostrich – the bird that purportedly sticks its head into the sand in order to hide itself from danger!

Let’s return now to my dream’s beginning. As stated, I was flying over the landscape in some unknown manner. Perhaps this flying represents the pure consciousness of being – the ‘observing without attachment’ that accompanies deeper meditative states. Perhaps, commensurate with some belief systems, it represents the “spirit” surveying the manifest world for circumstances appropriate for a future rebirth. Each of these representations involves consciousness with at least one foot in the supramundane world, so to speak, observing the mundane world in which its next “footstep” will fall. Either way, the consciousness of my dream's beginning is one that recognizes the ultimate insubstantiality of appearances. This is the mind that adepts of the Tibetan Buddhist tradition implore us to cultivate in order that we might successfully navigate the bardo realm after the demise of our physical bodies. Thus, wild beasts do not invoke mortal fear, although in my dream they are not wholly ignored, either.

Come to think of it, this is very much like the attitude with which the bodhisattva faces this world of samsara, this world of cyclic death and rebirth – either on a moment-by-moment or a lifetime-by-lifetime basis. The bodhisattva realizes the ultimate insubstantiality of this manifest world, yet he or she does not deny the sufferings of the beings in this manifest world nor turn his or her back on them. Rather, even as the ultimate insubstantiality of the manifest world is recognized, the bodhisattva vows to save all beings “contained therein”. The reader may recall one of my earlier blog series on the Heart Sutra – the sutra related to the teaching that form is emptiness and emptiness form. At the close of the introductory post to that series I noted possible meanings for the fish carved into the mokugyo, the wooden fish drum that is used to keep time during the Heart Sutra’s chanting. The meaning that resonates with me as being most in keeping with Buddhist teaching is the one that says that the fish represent the approach to life that we should aspire to – the ability to navigate this ocean of samsara without drowning. Thus, when we encounter the vicissitudes of life, the suffering and loss that inevitably occur, let’s greet them as the reality of this great ocean in which we swim without allowing them to awaken the wild beast of our mind. And when we encounter others suffering due to the vicissitudes of their life, let’s be there for them in order that we might assuage their suffering in the present moment, and keep suffering from arising in their future. This is the Bodhisattva Way. This is the Middle Way. This is the way involving neither an attachment to, nor a denial of the reality of this world.

Mokugyo - Wooden Fish Drum
This will likely be my last post of this year. I wish everyone a  Happy New Year!  I wish for all of us that we might cultivate the mind that allows us to swim like fish in this ocean of samsara – no matter how “shitty” life might seem at times to have gotten!              

Image Credits

Lion photo courtesy of National Geographic via:

Image of Sanshinji’s altar with statue of Manjusri sitting atop the lion of his mind courtesy of the author.

Mokugyo image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons via:

Copyright 2013 by Mark Frank

Saturday, December 14, 2013

The Sublime and the Profane..., Enlightenment and Shit (Part 1 of 2)

Siddhartha Gautama, after a long and (up until then) unsatisfying quest for ultimate wisdom, is said to have vowed to remain seated under the bodhi tree until either awakening to the true nature of reality or passing away. In between the time of that vow and the time of his awakening, Siddhartha is said to have been visited by many “demons” – demons that we modern contemplatives might best understand as the darker manifestations of Siddhartha Gautama’s mind. As the days and nights progressed these distractions became more and more intense, culminating, it is said, in the future Buddha facing one final but monumental doubt: What right did he have to such profound wisdom? It is said that Siddhartha Gautama then reached down to touch the earth, and as the morning star rose in the sky he realized enlightenment, he became Buddha – Awakened One. Much can be read into the symbolism of touching the earth, but I’m inclined to view it in terms of Siddhartha Gautama having recognized that his consciousness is a manifestation of the earth and all beings that came into being before him and with him, consciousness which would, in turn, set the stage for all beings yet to come.

From the PBS presentation: The Buddha

Zen Buddhists traditionally commemorate and imitate (as best they can, anyway) this important milestone in the development of human consciousness with a period of intense meditation known as rohatsu sesshin. Rohatsu, in Japanese, means “eighth day of the twelfth month”, and sesshin means “collecting” or “touching” the “heart-mind” (Aitken, 1992; Schuhmacher & Woerner, 1994). Rohatsu sesshin, then, commonly refers to a period of intense meditation ending on the eighth day of December, the day that is recognized as the day of the Buddha’s enlightenment – sometimes celebrated as Bodhi Day.

At Sanshinji Temple, rohatsu sesshin consists of six days worth of fourteen 50-minute meditation periods commencing at 4:10 in the morning and continuing until 9:00 in the evening, and a seventh day of sixteen sittings ending at midnight. Perhaps it goes without saying that a week spent in such fashion is intensely difficult and challenging, but the precise nature of the challenge is only revealed as the days pass by and one’s personal karma unfolds within the general milieu of sleep and sensory deprivation, physical pain, and mental duress accompanying the seemingly endless rounds of seated meditation. This is the profane component of the story. The stress of so much sitting tends to bring out all of the ugliness that the mind is capable of generating – and that is actually quite a lot. Don’t say you don’t believe in the Jungian conceptualization of the shadow until you’ve spent some time in meditation in this way! And, yet, the process of watching as the mind reveals its shadows, without identifying with them nor denying them, provides insight into the nature of the self, i.e. its emptiness, its impermanence, its dependence upon causes and conditions. Such insight is truly sublime indeed.    

This story begins on the morning of my third day of sesshin (I arrived at Sanshinji a couple of days late due to my work schedule): Now, some people will contend that sitting zazen is good for digestion due to all of that diaphragmatic breathing gently massaging the lower alimentary canal and all. I suspect that this is probably true, in general. However, it is my experience that the effect on my aging digestive system of all of that deep, rhythmic breathing is to turn it into something more akin to a trash compactor than a conveyer belt…, if you know what I mean. And by the beginning of my third day my little trash compactor had been churning right along with no end in sight!

In a fog of sleepiness, I sketched out a plan for the coming few hours: I would “power through” the pre-dawn sittings without relying on any caffeine. Then, since I was not assigned any post-breakfast cleanup duties that day, I would grab a brief but suitably relaxing catnap – waking in time to brew a pot of coffee and partake in sufficient enough quantity thereof that my system might be nudged into, um…, “activity” prior to the commencement of the next round of five, count ‘em, five sittings.

The plan was going quite well. Breakfast was enjoyable, as always. The catnap was just enough to sweep away the sleepiness of having awakened so early. I watched patiently as the coffee maker gurgled its delightful mantra in the little kitchenette just outside of the zendo. It was going to be dark; it was going to be rich…; and, most importantly, it was going to be “energizing”. Unfortunately, though, that delightful mantra was interrupted by a little hiccup that preceded a muddy mixture of steaming water and coffee grounds overflowing from the brewing receptacle and spilling out onto the counter. What happened next was a flurry of activity that didn’t end until the mess was cleaned up and I’d salvaged as much of the priceless beverage as could be salvaged. All was not lost! My plan was still on track! Sip after quick sip, I partook of the fine brew – enjoying the sensation of it awakening my body and mind. My gut was talking to me again. “Varoom!” it said. Ah, but what’s this activity outside the kitchen door? People are beginning to assemble again for zazen. I looked at the clock. “Shit!” It was time to take my seat once again.

Almost as soon as I’d settled into zazen it occurred to me what a perfect lesson I’d been given – profane as it might be: Much of our karma is like sitting with a belly full of crap that we’d love to get rid of but can’t. Isn’t it the case that we often realize the error of our ways long before we cease experiencing the negative consequences of those ways? Yes, we can change our mind…, we can even change our behavior; but the repercussions of our past mental and physical activity continue until such karma has been exhausted. This playing out of karma is not magic. Think of it in terms of a chronic liar who must be proven truthful time and time again before people return to trusting him, or an alcoholic who must maintain sobriety for months or even years before her family will really believe that she has changed.

Much, or maybe even all, of spiritual practice takes place within the context of “sitting with a belly full of crap”. We want to get rid of so many things! That jerk of a boss, the illness that we’ve contracted, a relationship that’s gone sour, the financial mess we’ve become mired in, the meaninglessness that we feel, the depression that weighs us down, the anxiety that has our heart racing when least we expect it, our grief at the loss of a loved one, the contentiousness that seems to permeate all of our interactions – wouldn’t we love to simply wave our hands and make them all go away? And yet all we can really do is take a really hard look at the causes and conditions that brought these things into existence in our lives, recalibrate our outlook and our intention, adjust our behavior, and maintain patience as the karma that we’ve created plays out.

But here’s the beauty of it all: We don’t have to wait for all of the crap in our lives to get flushed away before realizing awakening. Awakening occurs just as soon as we see our lives as they really are, for what they really are. Flowers sprout from the compost pile if given the opportunity!

Part 2: A wild beast wherever I turn! Please stay tuned…



Aitken, R. (1992). Some words about sesshin for newcomers to Zen practice. Transcription of a lecture given at Sydney Zen Center, accessed via

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


Image Credits

Image of Buddha, Bodhi Tree, and morning star via:

Copyright 2013 by Mark Frank