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Dear friends, The essay below was written by one of our Zen students “behind the fence.” He has been a long time student and friend of mine.  I hope you will be enlightened by Jakuho’s writing, passion, and understanding of the teachings of Zen Buddhism.  I hope, as well, that you will take his sage advice in the last paragraph it could change your life forever.

In gassho, Shokai

gassho

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I am reading from the book you sent me, titled, “What is Zen?.”   My simple answer is that Zen is Zen Buddhism, an Asian religion now practiced all over the world.  Broadly, there are three forms of Buddhism: Theravada, which emphasizes the earliest scriptures that seems be mostly about individual liberation; Mahayana Buddhism, which emphasizes compassion and social concern as much or more than individual liberation; and Vajrayana Buddhism (the Buddhism of Tibet), which adds detailed, esoteric, ritualistic practices.   

Zazen is very much a physical practice: the body is never an insignificant detail, as if meditation were a matter of mind and spirit apart from body.  Why do we walk so slowly during kinhin?  So slow that I often feel I will lose my balance?  The point is to pay close attention to body, breath, and mind when you are walking just as when you are sitting.    

Can you tell when a person is “more spiritually developed”?   Does it show?   I guess I have just defined an enlightened person as someone with wisdom and a good heart.   Wisdom in Zen means the capacity to see that “form is emptiness, emptiness is form,” as the Heart Sutra teaches.   What would this “wisdom ad good heart” look like?   Probably like the spiritual qualities that all our great traditions have always prized: humility, kindness love, patience, forgiveness, understanding.  

The important thing about the teaching of rebirth, the part that seems true and that matters a great deal is that life continues.   That is, there is more to our lives than the little span of time between birth and death.   The teaching of rebirth tells us that our life and death are significant beyond their appearances, more significant than we know. 

To most Zen students, at first the teachings might seem odd or nonsensical though also at the same time intriguing, because you sense that there is something to them, but after you have practiced and studied a while, they do make sense, and you can discuss and think about them reasonably.   Our lives include many paradoxical and contradictory elements.   Things are usually not just one way, they are many ways at once.

How will Zen practice affect my family relationship?  My work relationships?   The effectiveness of your practice will show up at home.  I believe and have seen much corroborating evidence, that Zen practice makes you a better husband or wife, father, or mother.   It makes you more attuned emotionally, kinder, more patient, more caring and loving, more able to be present, even when the going gets tough, even when you have an impulse not to be.

Why does Zen have such a close connection to various art forms, like haiku and flower arranging, for example?   As Zen developed in China, it co-evolved with Taoism and the Chinese arts, most notably calligraphy, painting, and poetry.   Zen priests always wrote poetry and did calligraphy.   Some experts claim that in the West, art depicts the external, while in Asia, art evokes the inner sense of things, their spirit or soul.

Doshin, I am finishing this book.   There is much work to do about the tremendous suffering in this world: poverty, social injustice, war, environmental destruction.   Isn’t it selfish to spend a lot of time just sitting and staring at the wall without helping anybody else?    Thank you for sending me this book and for your compassion, kindness, and love.   

In gassho, Jakuho

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one-world-family-logo-jpgAfter watching the news this morning and seeing all the “un-peace” going on in the world I decided to add another chapter to my blog on peace.  As I looked around my office, I could see my two little doggies sound asleep in their beds with visions of supper soon to appear.  Suddenly Bubbles the barker heard the sound of the cat in the other room using the kitty liter and up she jumped barking and trying to run to where she heard the noise.  My peace and hers had been interrupted with the simple sound of a cat in the other room.  Has some simple thing, or words, or newscast interrupted your peace today? Mine has and I’m writing a series on peace! Yikes…

I began to wonder how some of my favorite authors have dealt with the subject and so I looked on my bookshelf and found this wonderful book by a Zen Buddhist teacher and writer, Jan Chozen Bays, MD, entitled The Vow-Powered Life A Simple Method for Living with Purpose.  I quickly found the word peace in the index on page 140.  Here is part of what she wrote:

I asked myself, how can I work for world peace when I see it to be unattainable? Then I realized that the power of anger, greed, ignorance, and their resulting violence is so strong it is like entropy.  If we do not work against it, if we do not work actively for peace, everything will inevitably run downhill, and then peace, even a piece of peace, will be impossible.

Thus, in full realization that it was impossible, I renewed my vow to work for peace.  I began at home. The only world I can bring to peace is my own inner world.  My motto became, “If I am a little more at peace, the entire world is more at peace.’”[1] (emphasis mine)

If we all take Dr. Bays’ advice and take up her motto and use it every day whenever and wherever we can imagine how much more peaceful our individual lives would be.  And just like a common cold that spreads with a sneeze around the house or the office we could spread peace with a simple affirmation in our homes, at work, in the grocery store, or at the gas pump!

Work to change your life and when someone tries to “un-peace” you don’t let them.  Keep your peace because it is always with you.  Sometimes it’s hidden behind a wall of fear, anger, or despair but it is there if we open our hearts and minds to it and let it back in.  Let’s recite our affirmation and hold to the truth that life with peace is worth living and without it–it’s an unnecessary struggle and burden.

 

[1] Bays, J. C. (2015) The Vow-Powered Life A Simple Method for Living with Purpose. Shambhala: Boston

Entropy: A doctrine of inevitable social decline and degeneration. (Dictionary.com)

 

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PlanetHood book cover Ferencz and KeyesI am one of the luckiest people on the earth.  My neighbor is Benjamin B. Ferencz the last living prosecutor from the Nuremberg war crimes trials and I have a copy of a book that he co-authored with Ken Keys, Jr. the author of The Hundredth Monkey entitled PlanetHood The Key to Your Survival and Prosperity written in 1988.

They begin the 7th Step with these thoughts:

“We have seen that after the horrors of each world war, nations recognized—at least for a brief time—that change was necessary to create a peaceful world order. The truth is that our political leaders simply did not dare enough—or care enough.  We, the public, did not do enough. We all let each other down (page 127).”[1]

It has been 31 years and not a single thing has been done about wars on planet Earth.  Ben and Ken quote Robert Muller former U.N. Assistant Secretary-General and author of A Planet of Hope with these words.

“We need first and foremost a world democracy, a government of this planet for the people and by the people.  But the problem is so colossal and unprecedented that few political thinkers even dare to consider it.  They feel more at ease discussing the number and strength of missiles needed to protect specific national corrals. Since government and institutions are so slow and reluctant to do it, we must build the world community through individual commitment and action (page 127).” (Emphasis is mine.)

Zen and Peace!  If only more people could be involved in the principles and practices of sitting meditation, chanting, and living a life of peace, love, and compassion our wars would soon end, our jails would be empty, and our earth would be safe from global warming and its eventual demise.

They write, “Remember if the people lead the leaders will follow. Better active today than radioactive tomorrow (page 128).[2] You would think that this book was written yesterday!  So, here is their suggestions today for us.

“We suggest that you pledge to yourself and the world to do a daily deed: a daily action that will make world peace one step closer when the law of force is replaced by the force of law. Such a Peace Patriot pledge need not be burdensome. Depending upon your time and money available, you can live out your pledge with integrity each day on either a maximum or a minimum basis—something in between.  For example, as a daily deed you could write a letter to a friend about U.N. reform. Or donate money to an organization working for planethood. (page 128).”

Now think of other ways you can help before our children and grandchildren don’t have a planet to live on.  Why do you thing Jeff Bezos, Elon Musk, and Richard Branson are leading the commercial race to space?

Ron Epstein, lecturer for the Global Peace Studies Program in San Francisco State University wrote:

Buddhism teaches that whether we have global peace or global war is up to us at every moment.  The situation is not hopeless and out of our hands.  If we don’t do anything, who will? Peace or war is our decision.  The fundamental goal of Buddhism is peace, not only peace in this world but peace in all worlds. The Buddha taught that peaceful minds lead to peaceful speech and peaceful actions.” [3]

I hope you’ll join me and Ron and Ken and Ben before it’s too late…

 

[1] Ferencz, B. Keyes, K. (1988) PlanetHood The Key to Your Survival and Prosperity. Vision Books: Coos Bay, OR

[2] Ibid.

[3] http://online.sfsu.edu/rone/Buddhism/BUDDHIST%20IDEAS%20FOR%20ATTAINING%20WORLD%20PEACE.htm

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  1. Sit early in the morning before you begin your day. It will set your mood and tone bhante-gunaratanaand can open your mind to great ideas and solutions for a situation that you are dealing with.
  2. Find a quiet place even if the only place is the bathroom with the door locked.
  3. Sit in a way where you are comfortable be it in a chair, or on the floor with a cushion in half or full lotus, on a meditation bench, sitting up in bed with your pillows behind your back, outside in your garden, on the veranda, on the back porch, or in the tub in a bubble bath. Regardless of where you sit make it a priority and sit on a regular basis in the same place, if at all possible.
  4. Set a specific amount of time, start slow and work your up to longer and longer times. I suggest 5 minutes at first and when 5 minutes feels like it flew by like a jet airplane, move to 10 and then 20 minutes. Simply focus your attention on your breath, in and out, when your mind wanders bring it back to your in breath and out breath.
  5. Some days are better then others when sitting. Thus, if you have a day that you can’t seem to quiet your mind don’t get mad and put yourself down.  Just know that everything takes time to learn, including meditation.  Remember growing up when you tried to learn how to ride a bike, or ice skate, or roller skate, or play baseball, or dance. You did not lace up those skates and fly around the ice like an Olympic skater! You started and stopped and fell down, and got up with help, and started again.  Before long you were skating with your friends with ease and grace or dancing with your favorite partner at the school dance.  Such is life and sitting in meditation.
  6. Finally, start by setting a goal such as I will do this for one month and if nothing happens and I don’t feel any difference in my life then I will stop. But to be sure that you really did or did not feel any changes you might want to keep a little notebook by your sitting place and jot down a note after your time sitting.  Write down both good and bad experiences.  During the day you might even notice something that you’ll want to add to your notebook such as “I really was calm at work today as I worked on a very difficult project.  In the past I would have gotten upset and angry at myself or taken my anger or frustration out on my co-workers or my family.”
  7. Finally, after all that I hope you’ll continue sitting and meditating and living a life of peace, love, and compassion for self and others. Try it I think you’ll like it and so will the people around you in your daily life!  They will love the new you!

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Father Leo Booth in his book Meditations for Compulsive People writes these words about love: “So many of us love our pets not because they speak of unconditional love, but becauAnnie and Bubbles at doorse they live it (page 135)!”[1]  And yet you’ll see so many times on the news about the police shutting down a puppy mill or rescuing animals left out in the yard during a blizzard.  I have a wonderful book, Dogs Don’t Bite When a Growl Will Do, in it I read a story about a German shepherd who ran in front of a taxi cab driver and refused to move.  He got the driver to follow him to a poodle lying nearly frozen in the snow.  Oddly enough the cab driver had just recently given up looking for the dog for one of his customers.

The author continues by writing: “Those feelings—concerns, empathy, and distress—led the dog to perform an act of kindness and compassion (page 271).”  Yes, the dog!  He goes on to write, “The world is full of opportunities for all of us to demonstrate our compassion.  I believe that when we learn to match the compassion shown by our canine companions—or for that matter, unknown German shepherds and anonymous drivers who encounter stray dogs on the road—then the world will be a far better place to live (page272).”[2]

You cannot separate the word peace from unconditional love.  Peace and love are like vanilla ice cream and apple pie, or peanut butter and jelly they are inseparable and delicious and necessary for a world to be a peaceful and safe place to live. Pema Chodron in her book Awakening Loving Kindness writes, “It isn’t a sin that we are in the dark room.  It’s just an innocent situation, but how fortunate that someone shows us where the light switch is. It brightens up our life considerably (page 25).”[3]  Even if that someone is a most unusual team: a German shepherd and a cab driver.

You cannot have peace without love and you can’t have love without peace. You don’t have to be a rocket scientist to know that this is true.  You don’t have to be anything but a human being who cares about others and puts them first and NOT twenty first.  As Father Booth so aptly describes in these words about Winston:

“There was a time when I abused him.
Gave him a dog’s Life!
In my drinking days when I was lost in self-pity;
Lonely,
Afraid,
Miserable,
Confused,
Angry,
I was hurting. So, I hurt others.
 
I abused my family.
Disappointed the congregation.
Angered the bishop.
And kicked the dog.
Yes, I kicked my dog—
When I really wanted to kick the bishop?
I can still see those large eyes staring at me.
Winston. Please forgive me.
And I know he did.
Winston watches,
Waits,
Comforts,
And loves in perpetual silence.
A companion and friend.
My dog.
It may seem odd, but I see God in Winston.
Something in that selfless love is divine.
In his silence I am healed
In his play, I am revitalized.
In his expression, I am accepted.
My dog.
His example taught me how to let go of resentments;
Enjoy serenity,
Live humility.
My dog became my mentor (page 136-7).”[4]

And peace arrived…when Annie and Bubbles entered my home.

[1] L. Booth (1995) Meditations for Compulsive People. SPC Limited: Long Beach, CA
[2] M Weinstein, L Barber. (2003) Dog’s Don’t Bite When a Growl Will Do. Perigee: NY, NY
[3] P. Chodron. (1996) Awakening Loving-Kindness. Shambhala: Boston & London
[4] L. Booth (1995) Meditations for Compulsive People. SPC Limited: Long Beach, CA

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This post is dedicated to those who lived and died. Especially, on this day, those who died in the name of politics, fear, and hatred of the other.

My dear friend and mentor Father John McNeill told me a story about being in the war and when he tried to give food to a starving so-called “enemy” he was chastised and punished heavily and tagged an enemy of the state.  But it never deterred him from being the kind and loving man he was. Thus, for me he was the epitome of peace, love, and compassion on planet Earth.  If only all people treated each other as Father John did there would be NO wars, hatred, or killing.

My fiancé Dennis Cama died in Viet Nam he too was a kind and loving man who was forced to kill and die for the politicians of the world.  May they both be in peace on this Memorial Day 2019. My mom and dad both served in the Army Air Corp during WWII and dad earned the Silver Star as a belly gunner on a B17 bomber.

More thoughts on the passing of my mentor and friend: Father John J. McNeill

Wednesday September 22, 2015 Father John J. McNeill went to meet his friend and guide, Jesus.  When I heard the news I thought it was just what Father John would have wanted—to make his transition the day that Pope Francis was in the country voicing his support for the LGBT community around the world.  Good going John!

Father John was silenced, sanctioned, and finally asked to leave the Jesuit Order by the former Pope Ratzinger because of his support for the LGBT community and for living a life of truth and compassion as a gay man with a wonderful supportive and loving partner Charles Chiarelli.

Father John has written many books and counseled many people in and out of the LGBT community.  He was my mentor and friend for many years as I worked as an associate pastor at Sunshine Cathedral in Fort Lauderdale, FL and as a hospice chaplain.  As one of the founders of an interfaith clergy group for those serving congregations in the Broward, Dade, and Palm Beach Counties I had the pleasure of picking Father John up for our meetings and events when he needed a ride.

To be with him and hear him talk was an amazing thing.  It did not matter what topic he was speaking about or even if it was just a causal conversation about life–I was blessed simply by being in his presence.  If you have not had the opportunity to read any of his books I recommend them highly.  His knowledge of scripture and Christianity was amazing.  Two of my favorite books by Father John are Both Feet Firmly Planted in Midair: My Spiritual Journey and Sex as God Intended.gassho

In memory of Father John, Dennis, my Dad and Mom and all those who have died in war I would like to leave you all with this poem by Kuan Hsiu, Zen Buddhist monk and master poet who lived from 832-912.

This is for you my dear friends…

So, say my way differs from yours,
We both have old men’s hair and beards.
They say words can kill faith.
I like to arrange spring blossoms in a rough old
  funeral jar.
In gassho, Shokai

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light-and-dark-poem-mushinIn the wonderful book A Guide to the Buddhist Path Sangharakshita writes about peace in such a beautiful way. In Pali there is a word “Upeksa which is tranquility or, more simply, peace.” He writes:

“We usually think of peace as something negative, as just the absence of noise or disturbance, as when we say, ‘I wish they would leave me in peace.’ But really peace is a very positive thing.  It is no less positive than love, compassion, or joy—indeed even more so, according to Buddhist tradition, Upeksa, is not simply the absence of something else, but a quality and a state of its own right.  It is a positive, vibrant state which is much nearer to the state of bliss than it is to our usual conception of peace (page 162).”[1]

And yet most of us have never experienced “bliss” itself.  Sometimes we can feel something similar with help from drugs or alcohol but that is not the Buddhist idea of “bliss” for sure.   But we all have experienced the idea of peace. What would the world be like if every morning every person on the planet woke up filled with peace, joy, and compassion for self and all others?  No one would go hungry because if we had one piece of bread–we’d share it with someone who had none.  There is a very powerful saying, “I cried because I had no shoes until I met a man who had no feet.”  I cried because I had no peace until I met a family who lived in a war zone, or walked thousands of miles with their children to leave gangs and death, rape, and poverty.

The author goes on to write, “We shall have to regard ourselves as citizens of the world in a more concrete sense than before, and rid ourselves of even the faintest vestige of nationalism.  We shall have to identify ourselves more closely with all living things and love them with a more ardent and selfless love.  We shall have to be a louder and clearer voice of sanity and compassion in the world (page 132).”[2]

If it’s to be it’s up to me!  I must be it, live it, and honor it in all that I do, and think, and say.  I must be the example of peace and love and not to just the nice lady down the street, or the kind man who held the door for me when my hands were full of packages.  Not just when the person agrees with me.  There is a great story attributed to Mahatma Gandhi and told by Chuan Zhi in 2003.

“When we achieve true restorative balance within ourselves, we are happy and content and can live without regret, remorse, or guilt. We are at peace. The enlightened approach is to always be vigilant, to guard against committing sins—those violations of our Buddhist Precepts.  But when we slip and fall into error, we must go that extra mile into positive areas and not only make restitution and correct the damage, but we must also correct ourselves.”

Chuan Zhi goes on to write:

Gandhi is near death from starvation when a crazed man, a Hindu, arrives with food that he insists Gandhi must eat. He demands, “Here! Eat! Eat! Eat! I’m going to hell—but not with your death on my soul!” Gandhi replies, “Only God decides who goes to hell.”  “I killed a child!” the man confesses.  “I smashed his head again a wall!” Gandhi asks, “Why?”

“Because they killed our son…my boy! The Muslims killed my son!” Gandhi sees the man’s unbearable grief and remorse.  He gently tells him, “I know a way out of hell. Find a child, a child whose mother and father have been killed—a little boy- and raise him as your own.  Only be sure that he is a Muslim…”

And thus, came peace in the heart of the man and the child that he raised.  What do you need to do to find peace in your heart?  Now go do it….

[1] Sangharakshita, A Guide to the Buddhist Path, Windhorse Publications: Birmingham England

[2] Ibid.

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