Tuesday, June 26, 2012


Lately I’ve been doing a lot of reading on my Kindle e-book. Being a frugal sort, I generally download books that are either free or that cost less than five dollars. However, when I saw a new book by one of my favorite writers, Pico Iyer, priced at thirteen dollars, I tossed aside my miserly nature and ordered it.

          People who know me might consider such action a miracle.

          According to the dictionary, a miracle is an event that appears unexplainable by the laws of nature, and so is held to be supernatural in origin or an act of God.

All so-called sacred books tell of miracles. Donkeys speak, men rise from the dead, and lepers are made well. Other miracles involve mystical appearances and disappearances, and even individuals walking on water.

          You may know the story about the Jewish rabbi and the Catholic priest who were good fishing buddies.

          One day the two of them were out on a lake in their skiff when a storm blew up. The rabbi tightened his prayer shawl, mumbled some words in Hebrew, stepped out of the boat, and proceeded to walk to land.

          The priest watched open-mouth and thought it’s a miracle. Well, if he can do it, so can I.

          So the priest straightened his clerical collar, said three Hail Marys, and stepped out of the boat.

          He promptly sank.

          When he came up for air he heard the rabbi shouting.
          “Step on the rocks! Step on the rocks!”

In Pico Iyer’s book he tells of his Indian mother saying that being kind to others is the greatest miracle of all. 

She related a story about Ananda once questioning the Buddha about miracles. What is the greatest miracle? Ananda asked. Is it walking on water, or conjuring jewels out of thin air, or changing one’s body temperature through mediation, or sitting alone in a cave or a mountain top?

The Buddha said, “. . . The greatest miracle is touching the heart of another human being. Being kind to others is the greatest miracle of all.”

          That’s good advice, but before you are able to be kind to others you must learn to be kind to yourself.

          At one point when I worked for a West Coast publisher I had a temporary boss I’ll call Jim, which was not his real name. Jim was very good at juggling schedules, adjusting budgets, and handling other administrative matters. However, he was not skilled in personal relations.

          One day I entered Jim’s office to discuss some editorial issue, and noticed that he seemed to be worried, grimmer than usual, even downright sad. Hoping to cheer him up, I said, perkily, “Good morning, Jim. You look a little down in the mouth. Anything I can do to lighten your day?”

          Jim snarled and said, “I’ll thank you to mind your own business, Mr. McDowell.”

          Now some people might think, in response to such an outburst, All right, asshole. Catch me trying to be friendly.

          But I smiled and thought, All right, asshole. Catch me trying to be friendly.

I turned around and left Jim’s office.

          I guess the moral of that story is some people exemplify the fabled pearls-before-swine model. You know, knowledge should not be put in front of people who do not appreciate its value.

Some people turn their backs on a kind word.

We can’t count on anything.

No matter how good life is, there are no guarantees. Take, or don’t take, individuals for what they are. You can’t expect individuals to be how you would like them to be.

As much as holy books tell us, there is no absolute right or wrong. No unconditional good or bad. A kindly mother may drown her children. A man of the cloth, or a politician, or a sports coach may be a child molester.

One of my high school classmates was a fellow named William Heirens. He was a brainy student, but so unassuming and so quiet we nicknamed him “Wild Bill.”

A couple of years after I graduated, Chicago newspapers will filled with lurid stories about a serial murderer on the loose who preyed on female nurses. Having murdered and dismembering at least three women, the killer wrote a note in lipstick that said, “Catch me before I kill more.”

In good American fashion, that phrase has been picked up and used as a title for songs, bands, books, and electronic games.

In time the slayer was captured, and he served a prison life sentence, dying in March 2012.

The lipstick murderer was my classmate “Wild Bill Heirens.”

Pico Iyer wrote: “Our destinies can unravel even as we think we’re writing them.”

Tuesday, June 19, 2012


Over the past few months we have discussed some of the principles of Zen. A few more need to be addressed, and today I would like to talk about some of them.

          As ever, there will be duplications, even some contradictions in what I say. Life is full of inconsistencies and repetition. That’s the way of life, and that’s the way of Zen.

All things change.

Security is an invention of the human mind. Freedom from change does not exist in nature.

When I lived out in the country I spent many pleasant hours in the spring watching a pair of cardinals build a nest in a dogwood tree close to my house. The two birds carried twigs, bits of fuzz, and cedar shavings to make the nest a comfortable and cozy home. It was sited in a place that was safe from my cat and out of sight of crows and hawks. It seemed a perfect nest for raising a family.

The female laid a clutch of eggs while the male gathered food to bring home. Eventually the eggs hatched. Both parents took turns collecting bugs and worms to feed the babies, and they took turns keeping the chicks warm and protected.

The hatchlings sprouted feathers, and one day they were almost ready to take their first flight.

Then a fierce storm—one of our typical spring gales—tore the branch that held the nest off the dogwood. The nest was destroyed, and the infant birds were crushed.

          A sad story? Yes.

Did the cardinal parents grieve? We don’t know.

We can be sure that the parents did not blame anyone or anything for what happened.

What happened was the way of nature, and the way of nature is change.

          The cardinals didn’t build another nest that spring. It was too late in the season. But the next year the same cardinals put up another nest and started a family all over again.

          We humans feel comfortable fastening ourselves to one thing or another. To another person, to a home, to a computer, to a truck. In Zen talk, this is called attachment.

One word does a fair job of describing Zen Buddhism. That word is non-attachment.

          All of the Buddha’s teachings and all of the teachings of the Buddha’s followers can be summed up in the word non-attachment.

          We have earlier mentioned the difference between detachment and attachment. To be detached is to get away from a problem, to escape from it. It means that one sees a potential problem and makes an effort to cut oneself off from it.

          Life is like a flowing stream. However, instead of allowing life to flow, we too-often align ourselves with favorable conditions, or else we fight against unfavorable conditions.

          Non-attachment is altogether different. Non-attachment means to neither fight against nor join with a problem but to recognize the problem and become one with it.

When humans experience a disaster they continue to torment themselves about it. Humans try to explain happenings—whether happy or unhappy—as the will of god, or as the fault of someone, or as the result of a vindictive Mother Nature.

We rant and rave that someone or something has it in for us. We think we’ve been made a scapegoat, so we try to find a reason.

Reason doesn’t exist in nature. Ornithologists claim that bird’s bones are hollow and lightweight in order to allow birds to fly. Nonsense. Birds fly. Period. Birds have hollow bones. Period. If birds had solid bones they would probably fly anyway. There is no reason, no purpose, at work.

In nature there is no such thing as rationalism—that is, reliance on reason as the best guide for belief and action. There is only empiricism—experience of the senses.

In life, things happen, and only human beings feel the need to assign a reason.  When individuals assign a reason they feel better because that shifts responsibility away from them. Humans create the concepts of good and bad. If they can’t find an external reason for a “bad” happening, they are bothered. Of course, if they experience a “good” happening they take credit for it.

Thus they create, and revel in, a world of good and bad. To humans, life and its happening must be either one or the other.

However, what is, is. And change is foremost among what is. As much as humans like to believe they are immune from change, it just is not so.

You know the saying. Two things are certain in life: taxes and death. I’ll add a third certainty: change.

Change is a transformation or transition from one state, condition, or phase to another. Change is inevitable, unavoidable, and inescapable.

Get used to change. It is here to stay.

Change does not change.

Death is the end.

Life has a beginning and an end. The beginning is birth, the end is death.

Zen does not have a beginning or an end. Zen is a circle. There is no start, no finish to Zen. Like a flowing stream, Zen goes on and on.

We get one and only one shot at this life, and as far as we know there is no other, so we should make the very best of now.
In Zen there is no sorrow about death. No fear of death.

A Zen master was nearly a hundred years old and was dying. All of a sudden he sat up in his bed and started laughing.

“Why are you laughing?” The solemn mourners asked.

“Why are you not laughing?” The master answered.

When one is empty of the judgments and assumptions that have been acquired over the years, one comes close to original nature (sometimes called original face) and is capable of conceiving original ideas.

One Zen koan asks, “What was your face before you were born?” Like all koans this is perplexing, even inexplicable. How can one possibly have a face before being born?

          Well, I’m going to cheat and partially interpret this koan. Face-before-being-born refers to one’s true nature before it has been altered by opinions, prejudices, judgments.

Zen is a way of life.

Zen is not something that is turned on and turned off, like a water faucet, on a certain day of the week or at a certain time of the day.

          Zen deals with life by living it. Zen points to the essence of life we all live. Zen is understood through one’s experience. Zen is everyday life. To learn Zen is to learn oneself.

Finally, the last principle of Zen.

When we perceive the inconsistencies of life, all we can do is laugh.