What's in a Name?

Some years ago, with my future entirely up in the air, I loaded my bike and some gear into the back of a rented car and headed west. At the time I had only the sparsest of itineraries and no real time frame to speak of. Yes, I would return the rental car to a certain place on a certain date and, yes, I would then cycle out to the coast before meandering back home. With the exception of those few parameters, however, everything was up in the air. The route that I would take, the challenges and the people that I would meet, the despair and joy and insights that would arise along the way – these were all just aspects of an awesome mystery unfolding moment by moment, and I with it. In my more enlightened moments I’m able to see that all of life is like that, and that realization fills me with great joy. Ah, but in my dark and small-minded moments I manage to forget it all. It’s funny how great truths can so easily be forgotten.

Speaking of great truths… I remember the first time I became aware of Buddhism. I was just a boy when I heard on my parents’ radio about how we suffer because of our desire, and if we would only give more careful regard to that which we desire, then our suffering would come to an end. At least, that was how I recall the truth of Buddhism being summarized. Just why that resonated with me so at such a young age is beyond me, but it did. It was like a glimpse of a great ocean of truth – a beautiful, vast, powerful ocean of truth. I knew it even then, but then I forgot it. Well, no, I didn’t totally forget it. It must have at least hovered about in my unconscious mind – as bodhicitta, if you will, or Way-seeking mind – guiding me first to an interest in reading about Buddhism, and then guiding me to actually put it into practice.

I recalled that first glimpse of Buddhism as I sat on the beach watching the sun set over the Pacific Ocean just a couple of days into my awesome mystery of a journey. I had little more than a bicycle and the clothes on my back, and yet there might as well have been a million miles between me and my home – like the million miles that stood between me and that young boy that I once was. Unlike when I was a boy, however, the truth now lay before me in all of its glory. I was old enough to understand it; I’d read the books and listened to the teachers; I’d put enough time in on the meditation cushion to comprehend it, and yet there still seemed to be something that I was missing. It was still an ocean so vast and deep that it couldn’t quite be comprehended even though it was right there to be gazed upon, and waded into, and tasted. Yes, great truths require great journeys in order to truly understand them, and mine had just begun.

That ocean never did leave my mind, even as I turned away to head back east. Every stream that I encountered reminded me of its truth. Every river and every lake and every cloud was on a journey heading home to it. I was heading home to it. And as I made my way up steep mountains and across broad valleys I was struck by just how much the physical geography of the land coincided with my journey ever deeper into truth. Struggling up those mountains was like struggling to get my posture right through meditation after less-than-comfortable meditation. It was like wrestling with all of those voices saying how wrong I was for doing it, and that I was turning my back on God, and that it was just a waste of time. But, oh, those gorgeous views of sweeping vistas and verdant valleys were sublime! They were the many glimpses of peace along the way: the scent of incense wafting through the stillness of the zendo, those moments when I knew my mind was opening to a brand new freedom, and all those simply joyous times spent sitting with my fellow seekers – simply breathing – simply being. Oh, how I loved those mountains!

Well, you all know enough about the geography of North America to know that after the mountains come the plains, and by the time I was out on the plains those gorgeous views that had sustained me were but memories of views from distant mountaintops. Out on the plains there is no shelter from the fury of the raging storms. Out on the plains the wind will drive you raving mad with all its blowing, blowing, blowing – whistling in your ears and hitting you full on in the face day after day. Out on the plains the sun beats down and the heat is sweltering and there’s barely a twig of shade in which to rest for even a little while. Out on the plains the road is relentless in its sameness – flat and straight – with little for the mind to grasp for comfort. Out on the plains the earth is dry and nothing is ever easy and everything alive must do its utmost just to remain that way. Yes, the plains are where the real truth of our existence comes to the fore. And so it is with Buddhist practice. Emptiness and impermanence and our most fundamental existential questions – the grand and silent ambivalence of the universe – the realization of the fiction that we’ve wrapped around the truth of being here – these are what inevitably come to the fore out on the plains of Buddhist practice. This is what crossing Nebraska is all about.

Don’t get me wrong, I love Nebraska. She grew on me, I guess. And how can you not grow to love a teacher that guides you to the truth so surely? Besides, she’s everywhere! When my marriage ended and left me standing windswept and bewildered, I crossed Nebraska all over again. When the economy melted down and people everywhere thought the world was ending, I saw Nebraska in their eyes. When my friend left for a bike ride an adventure racer and returned the victim of a cardiac arrest, I knew a journey across Nebraska had begun. Crossing Nebraska is the grief that blinds you, or the depression that always seems to find you. Call it the dark night of the soul, or call it suffering and despair of the very deepest form. Me? I’m calling it crossing Nebraska.

Copyright 2011 by Maku Mark Frank


  1. Happened to come across this via a friend. You have a wonderful gift for writing - I'm looking forward to reading more of your posts!

  2. The greatest gift a writer can receive is a reader! Thank you both.

  3. Beautifully written. I look forward to reading more!


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