Wednesday, May 20, 2009


The other day I went into a supermarket and, after some deliberation, I picked out a film-wrapped fillet of fresh salmon. It was a hearty chunk of fish, and it would make a fine meal. When I took my selection to the cash register the checkout person—a pleasant-faced young woman—inspected it solemnly.

“What is it?” she asked.

What is it? I wondered if she was presenting a koan, but I responded graciously. “It’s a fish,” I said. “A salmon fish.”

“But where are its eyes?” she wanted to know.

Her direct question threw me off. “I mean it’s a salmon fish steak.”

She looked puzzled.

“You’ve never tasted salmon?” I asked, wondering if she had recently wandered out of the Ozarks hills after having been weaned on chitlins and redeye gravy. I leaned over the counter to see if she was wearing shoes.

“Salmon is delicious,” I said. “It’s a salt water fish.”

She looked at me intently. “Are you a sailor?” she asked.

Another straightforward question.

Fish … water … sailor. I presumed she was making some sort of association. Or maybe she was posing a spiritual problem. Perhaps she was demonstrating truth directly, without recourse to logic or reason. I reflected on her words.

“Not just now,” I said. “But I have been.”

Fish in hand, she gazed at me and I readied myself to launch into a collection of salty yarns from my days before the mast.

“Well, you look like one,” she said. I assumed she meant sailor, not fish.

As Pogo Possum used to say, reason reeled. I was wearing black shorts and a green T-shirt. I wondered what sort of seafaring books she’d been reading.

The nymph and I stood there for a long moment, both of us calmly regarding the salmon. After a while she rang up my purchase, slipped it into a plastic bag, and handed it to me.

“Well, have a nice day sailing,” she said.

I thanked her.

“And enjoy your whatever,” she added.

Rationalism had fled. “Plum tree in the garden,” I answered.

Intellect and logic had been blown out of the water. Was I having a spasm of awakening? I remembered a story.

Once a fish asked another fish, “I’ve always heard of ocean, but what is ocean?”

The other fish answered, “You are surrounded by ocean. You move, live, and have your being in ocean. Ocean is all around you. Ocean is within you.”

The first fish looked confused, so the other fish went on.

“You are ocean.”

“Huh?” the first fish said.

“You originated in ocean, and you will end in ocean. You and ocean are one.”

Now the first fish was really bewildered.

“You’ve given me no answer at all,” it said. “I’ll have to go somewhere else for an answer.”

The other fish said, “The only real answer is the one you find in yourself.”

I carried my fish to the car and sat there for a few minutes, trying to find a real answer in myself. All I came up with was another question.

Why, I wondered, do I attract such weird moments?

After a while the world settled into place, so I headed for home.

That night I broiled the whatever with dill butter and served it with a baked potato and a side of corn pudding.

The meal was delicious, and I became one with it.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009


Every being has life force. Life force is an indescribable something that makes a being what it is, identifies its individuality, and relates it to all other beings. Some people call life force “spirit.” Some call it “soul.” Some call it “essence.”

Unfortunately, the term “soul” is often limited to humans. But why should humans be considered more significant than a sparrow, or a stalk of bamboo, or a grain of sand? Why should a human be hyped over a mouse?

A being is defined as the state or quality of having existence.

Every entity—whether it thinks, or breathes, or eats, or simply is—has a life force. That life force is that thing’s being. Consider this: If what we call a pebble did not have some special, unique being, would that pebble cease to exist?

Life forces are countless, just as the creatures that supposedly tramped onto Noah’s ark two by two were numberless. The life forces are also distinct. Each has its own basic nature. Still, each basic nature combines with every other basic nature to form a whole.

You are singularly you, and this surf-washed stone with two holes in it is uniquely itself. Still, both of you are one because you and it are part of that unifying, universal life force.

Buddhists, Taoists, Jains, and some others respect individual life forces because each is meaningful in its own right, while being a part of the whole. To injure a being—whether it’s a human or an earthworm—is to do harm to that being. But, worse yet, it does harm to the whole.

That’s why some people don’t swat flies. They believe that not just one being, but all beings, will be harmed.

When I traveled in Nepal, there were few roads in the country. People got to where they wanted to go by walking on age-old footpaths. Twenty-five years ago a couple of roads were being built, but they weren’t being pushed through the mountains with bulldozers. Instead, the passage had to be cut with humans swinging picks. Then the road-bed had to be overlain with rocks. Not rocks, like you see in television commercials, with sport utility vehicles bouncing merrily over them. Big rocks that were uncovered in the digging—and there were plenty of those—had to be converted into little rocks.

With no gutsy power machines available, how do you suppose those big rocks were turned into little rocks?

By hand power.

Hundreds of people sat on the ground hour after hour, day after day, and swung hammers to fracture big rocks into little rocks that were then spread out to form a road-bed.

The work was fascinating to observe. More interesting were clusters of Buddhists who would spread but not split because they believed breaking a rock destroyed the rock’s natural wholeness. These same Buddhists might eat a roasted chicken, but they would not slaughter the chicken. Someone else—a non-Buddhist—had to do the butchering because of the Buddhists’ belief in not altering a life force.

The person who lives intuitively perceives this life force, or spirit, or essence, as the one principle that is independent of everything external. By that I mean it's beyond what we think of as the natural processes such as the motion of the planets. It’s beyond human actions. It is life.

In Hinduism this essence is called That. Taoists call it the Tao. Japanese call it kokoro. Buddhists call it Buddha-mind.

Christians call this essence God and give it human attributes such as goodness and mercy. They personify it, and speak of its divinity, its sacred mystery.

But consider this. If essence is restricted to humans, that means humans are not only separated but elevated to a higher level than all other life. If that were so, this pebble would no longer be my brother.

The essence, the life force, is in us and of us.

When I say “us” I’m not speaking of we humans, because we humans aren’t anything special in the scheme of things. By “us” or “we” I mean flowers, and stones, and trees, and raindrops, and bugs.

Life is existence, and it exists in one form or another at every instant.

Forms may change, but their essence doesn’t change. If I were to crush this pebble to dust and scatter the dust on the wind, I might change the physical structure of the pebble and redistribute it, but I wouldn’t destroy the essence of the pebble, I wouldn’t end its spirit.

That essence, or spirit, lives on, never passing away. When we are dead and gone—ashes to ashes and dust to dust; if the blowflies don’t get you, the maggots must—something of each of us continues on. It’s not soul in the popular sense, as something that goes to a place in the sky, What continues and what never ends is the essence of a person, or the spirit of a cat, or the life force of a pebble.

Finally we come to Nirvana, and by “finally” I’m not referring to ultimately in life but at last in this talk. There’s a mistaken notion among non-Buddhists and non-Zen people that Nirvana is the same as Paradise or Heaven.

Not so.

Nirvana isn’t a district one lifts off to after death. Nirvana has nothing to do with death. It has everything to do with life. It’s a state of being that one achieves during life. It’s the point in life at which one has gained wisdom and compassion, but is not hung up on wisdom and compassion.

Nirvana is the state of one’s mind when that mind is rid of conditioning, attachments, and ambitions. You might ask if Nirvana and Buddhahood are the same, and the answer is “more or less.”

The word Nirvana is often used in Buddhism, but it seldom appears in Zen because of its connection, in many people’s minds, with a better place and a better time. That sort of thinking is way off base. Nirvana is here and now, and things don’t get any better than this.

Nirvana is often referred to as extinction, or a blotting out of the ego. The Belgian Zen scholar, Robert Linssen, refers to Nirvana (Living Zen, page 139) as that point where our mind is stripped of all its false accumulations. When this occurs, Linssen says, our mind is changed into pure intelligence.

The annihilation of a person doesn’t mean one is wiped out or reduced to nothingness. It means absolute realization of the life force that is around one and is part of one. There is no longer the observer and the observed. Both have become one.

Rather, I should say all has become one.

Buddhism cautions against being attached to the idea of Nirvana. If people are fixed on Nirvana, they are attached to something. Remember, to see one’s own true face there must be no attachments to anything.

To attain Nirvana is to go beyond enlightenment.