February 19, 2011

Quiet and commotion

Don't make a mistake.  There's nothing wrong with commotion when it's important to make a commotion. The citizens of Egypt couldn't wait any longer to proclaim their independence.  Similar uprisings seem to be happening in many places:  Bahrain, Libya, Yemen, Algeria, Iran, and Madison, Wisconsin.  No doubt other states in the US will join in soon.  Sometimes making a commotion is what is necessary.

So I was juxtaposing this to a place of utter quiet that I visited recently, right near my house, at the entrance to the cemetery on my regular walk.  Do forgive me for seeming to often be on the subject of cemeteries, bones, and ashes.  It's just part of my current neighborhood.  It can't be helped.  It's part of life.  I'm thinking specifically of the Chapel of Chimes, a massive building that is a columbarium, a structure for holding ashes, cremains.

This California style building was designed by Julia Morgan, the first woman licensed to practice architecture in California.  She is the architect of Hearst Castle among the other 400 or so buildings she designed.  The crematorium had already existed in 1909 when Morgan was commissioned in 1926 to design an expansion of the existing facility.  A week or so ago, I finally entered an open door on my return walk, curious about what the inside of this beautiful building looked like.

As nothing retarded my entrance, no receptionist, no human to question me, I simply walked deeper and deeper into the interior of this remarkable place.  If I could imagine going into the pyramids in Egypt, it would be something like this.  Or a tiny bit the way I felt entering the megalithic tomb at Newgrange in County Meath, Ireland.   I was completely alone on the inside with only light and the sound of my own movements and occasional water features in garden rooms.  Granted, none of the ashes are as old as the Iron Age, but the atmosphere was as sacred and held the stories of our past.

It was like entering an ancient library, with stacks and stacks of ashes placed in thick book-like containers behind glass cases as high as 15 or 20 feet. From the Gregorian cloister entry, I had taken a small staircase that led into various rooms and alcoves, cloisters, small chapels, curved recesses, niches and hallways with moulded doorways. Then there were three levels that held the other mysterious rooms and passageways. All was beautifully lighted by large skylights that kept a soft illumination over all the areas.

Numerous artifacts appear there too.  There's a display of illuminated parchment manuscripts from the 1500s, a lapis lazuli inlaid table with the Medici Crest circa 1500 and other Italian influenced treasures.  The City of Oakland named this Chapel a Distinguished Landmark of the area.

But it was the silence of the place, the space, its careful beauty that struck me; it can't be captured in snapshots.  Thousands of stacks of ashes of those who had thrived in the surrounding hills of California, those who had made a commotion in one way or another, who had made a river of life, a library of events and experience, who had shouted out and demonstrated for or against one thing or another, or some who had remained silent.  I sensed no ghosts, just a feeling of how life continues in all its aspects.  We who acknowledge these shelves of ashes standing in the river of life now, either in the thrumming crowd or solitary, will enter the library at whatever time we do.   This is not sad or morbid, it's just how life is and has always been.     

February 17, 2011

In the Dharma world

While we're at it, I put forward here yet another situation that troubles the Zen Buddhist world: Shambhala Sun Magazine's decision to commission John Tarrant to write a tribute of Aitken Roshi.  Maybe some of you saw it and read it.  I saw it on the news stand and chose not to read it.  The commission was questionable to begin with since Tarrant and Aitken Roshi had been at odds with one another for many years because Tarrant had refused to comply with Aitken Roshi's request that he separate from the Diamond Sangha and/or change his behavior due to Tarrant's alleged professional psychotherapeutic, sexual, and organizational misconduct.  The whole story is detailed in an open letter from Nelson Foster, Dharma heir of Aitken Roshi, and Jack Shoemaker who is Roshi's literary executor.  This open letter has just been sent out over the wires and I copy it here for your education.

It is indeed a complex world we live it, but it's the one we've got.  It's no fun to be saturated with these situations, but if you happened to have read Tarrant's article in The Sun, then it would be well to also read this Open Letter.  Aitken Roshi was a friend of mine and I couldn't imagine doing anything to besmirch his reputation.  His life was one of pure dedication to the Dharma and he deserves our highest gratitude and regard.

An Open Letter on Journalistic Integrity and the Shambhala Sun

We adopt this means, as a last resort, to air a concern about a gross failure of journalistic ethics on the part of the Shambhala Sun. The world of American Buddhist publishing has been relatively small and honorable to date, so such a failure is conspicuous and, we feel, warrants public notice and remedy. Unfortunately, as we'll report in detail below, our efforts to obtain an appropriate correction directly from the Sun came to naught. Thus our recourse to this posting.

Before proceeding to specifics, we need to make clear that, by its actions, the Sun besmirched the memory of a man we hold very dear, our late teacher, friend, and collaborator, Robert Aitken Roshi. We've pursued the matter in part out of loyalty to him, feeling an obligation to correct the worst errors of fact in the Sun article. But Aitken Roshi's reputation is probably as secure as anything in this 'burning house' can be, and what's at stake here -- integrity in Buddhist journalism -- is both larger and more imminently perishable.

The problem began with the Sun commissioning an article about Aitken Roshi from a writer who had an axe to grind, a long-alienated Dharma successor named John Tarrant. When the article was published last year in its November issue, we expressed our concerns to Sun editor-in-chief Melvin McLeod, who responded, "Of course we were aware that we were treading into dangerous territory in asking John to do this homage, and we did sound out some people to ask whether they felt it would be resented by current students of Aitken Roshi's." We have no idea whom Mr. McLeod and his staff consulted or how seriously they took the process of consultation, but we do know that they didn't speak with the people most likely to be offended and also best positioned to gauge potential negative reactions -- those of us who remained close to Aitken Roshi at the end of his life and who represent the tradition that he and his wife established, the Diamond Sangha. 

Despite awareness of the risk involved, the Sun commissioned the article from Dr. Tarrant and published it without any indication of concern and without disclosing the author's estrangement from Aitken Roshi. This is the error that troubles us most. While Mr. McLeod is certainly free to choose who writes for his magazine, journalistic ethics require that periodicals disclose personal history that might compromise their writers' fairness. Lacking such information, unsuspecting readers are ill-equipped to assess the reliability of what they read.

If the Sun maintained these professional standards, it would have needed to acknowledge that Dr. Tarrant's relationship with Aitken Roshi ruptured in the late 1990s and never recovered. Concerned that Dr. Tarrant's approach to Zen had gone seriously awry, for a year Aitken Roshi discreetly pressed him to pull his group out of the Diamond Sangha. This unhappy separation finally took place in 1999 but turned out to be a prelude to an even more painful break: when repeated and persuasive allegations of misconduct on Dr. Tarrant's part -- professional (in his work as a psychotherapist), sexual, and organizational -- came to light, after private efforts to encourage resolution proved unsuccessful, Aitken Roshi and ten other Diamond Sangha teachers issued an open letter, urging their former colleague to mend his ways. Dr. Tarrant reacted angrily. Communication between the two men came to an end.

Dr. Tarrant's desire to gloss over these facts in his article is understandable, but in agreeing to write about Aitken Roshi for the Buddhist public, he forfeited the option of concealing them. Since he chose not to disclose them himself, it was incumbent on the Sun to do so, and the resulting article makes the reason for this apparent. Although the Sun advertised the story on its cover as an "homage" to Aitken Roshi and Dr. Tarrant termed it a "tribute," it bore abundant signs that its author was still hurt and angry and had seized the opportunity to take revenge on his old teacher. 

It's certainly peculiar for a tribute to a Zen master to feature the assertion that he "never stopped wondering if he had indeed ever had an enlightenment experience. . . . Sometimes he was quite sure he hadn't." Even more unusual is to couple a disparaging assessment of the master's realization with a triumphant rehearsal of one's own. How could the Sun serve this up as neutral and trustworthy reporting? Dr. Tarrant tells its readers Aitken Roshi "put down other teachers, out of a kind of embarrassed competitiveness," but somehow neither he nor the Sun seems to have noticed that he was trashing his own dead teacher -- not in private conversation but publicly, in print.

Just for the record, Aitken Roshi was appropriately humble about his awakening, but he spoke of it candidly as occasion required and wrote about it openly, too. Rather than relying on Dr. Tarrant's account, we suggest that readers look up "Willy-Nilly Zen," an autobiographical piece that Aitken Roshi prepared at his teacher's behest in 1971 and later published as an appendix to his well-known book Taking the Path of Zen. As his own telling makes clear, it wasn't a big-bang experience of the sort Dr. Tarrant trumpets, but it began a process of widening insight that ultimately made him a wise, compassionate, skillful, and upright teacher. Unfortunately, a big-bang realization doesn't ensure such a result.

The Sun story is as peculiar for what it omits as for its belittlement of Aitken Roshi's awakening. An homage can ordinarily be expected to stress its subject's strengths, but Dr. Tarrant and his editor managed to overlook a characteristic absolutely central to Aitken Roshi's nature and to his teaching and writing: his emphasis on the precepts and on living out the Dharma in all its ethical dimensions. This is the contribution to Western Buddhism for which he surely was best known and will be best remembered. How Dr. Tarrant and the Sun could neglect it we can't fathom.

Altogether, the Sun "homage" bears only intermittent resemblance to the person we knew. When Mr. McLeod received our letter-to-the-editor objecting to the article's inaccuracies and taking the Sun to task for not disclosing Dr. Tarrant's broken relationship with his subject, he promptly engaged us in revising our letter for publication in the Sun. This entailed tempering the "tone" of our comments and finding adequate ways to make our point while respecting the magazine's "pretty strong policy . . . not to get into detailed public discussions of possible misconduct." (Note: the text of our original letter is attached, below.)

We tolerated this extraordinary intrusion in the content of our letter, feeling it would be worthwhile to place even a watered-down critique before Sun subscribers. Accepting as sincere Mr. McLeod's assurance, "I think you're doing the right thing in writing this, and if there's fault it's mine for putting you in this spot," we went back and forth with him by phone and e-mail, working out a text he'd be willing to print. After we acceded to his final suggestion, Mr. McLeod volunteered his satisfaction with both our collaboration and its result, so we were astounded when he wrote again, five days later, declaring that he wouldn't use our letter after all.

Instead, he proposed that we start over, taking a different tack -- "to focus the letter exclusively on how you feel John [Tarrant]'s portrayal of Aitken Roshi was not accurate, and to offer your own view of him." In this fashion, he suggested, the letter could "become a completely positive contribution, in itself an homage to and celebration of Aitken Roshi." Maybe so, but it wouldn't be our letter anymore and, in its complete positivity, would let the Sun off the hook on the point we consider most crucial: its failure to adhere to a basic principle of fairness in journalism.

In making a case for this change of direction, Mr. McLeod advanced an argument that we find untenable, to put it mildly: "we have tried not to wash the Buddhist world's dirty laundry in public -- to avoid getting into detail about difficulties and divisions within Buddhist sanghas. This is particularly important in the Sun, with a substantial non-Buddhist or beginning Buddhist audience." To the degree that this policy represents refusal to indulge in back-biting and gossip-mongering, we enthusiastically applaud it; otherwise, it seems to us that it infantilizes readers and may protect them from information that beginners actually need to be attuned to in exploring the profusion of Buddhist paths, organizations, and teachers on offer in North America today. How he applied the policy in the present instance seems utterly indefensible, for while it has shielded his readers from awareness of Dr. Tarrant's misconduct and removal from the Diamond Sangha, it hasn't spared them his biased "tribute" impugning the wisdom and character of a widely respected teacher.

Needless to say, perhaps, we declined Mr. McLeod's request, and we counterproposed that he, as editor-in-chief, publish a statement acknowledging the error of printing Dr. Tarrant's article without divulging the fact and the causes of his bitter, ten-year alienation from Aitken Roshi. Mr. McLeod subsequently negotiated and ran (in the March issue) a letter from the Honolulu Diamond Sangha board of directors that politely laments his choice of author and corrects a few of the piece's numerous misstatements. Nowhere, however, has the Sun publicly acknowledged, and taken responsibility for, the editorial failures outlined above.

We feel that these failures are serious enough to cast doubt on the journalistic integrity of the Sun, and we urge other members of the American Buddhist community to register any concerns they may have on this subject, in the hope that Mr. McLeod and his staff will remember their mishandling of this story and exercise increased care when ethical questions arise in the future. If that were to happen, in the long run this sad incident might actually have beneficial results.

Nelson Foster
Ring of Bone Zendo and East Rock Sangha
Dharma heir of Aitken Roshi 

Jack Shoemaker
Editorial director, Counterpoint Press
Literary Executor for Robert Aitken 

Original letter, e-mailed to Melvin McLeod on October 20, 2010:

To the Editor:

In publishing John Tarrant's demeaning "tribute" to Robert Aitken Roshi, the Shambhala Sun has done a disservice not only to our late friend and teacher but also to its readers and the author himself. He professes surprise at discovering he had "any strong reaction" to Aitken Roshi's death, but his feelings have a long history, and anyone familiar with that history can understand how his deep-seated hurt and anger might have lingered. Sadly, they also have twisted an ostensibly warm reminiscence of his "Old Man" into a covert or perhaps unconscious score-settling. We wish Sun editors had spared everyone this beautifully crafted but badly distorted account.

Now that it's in print, readers deserve information that enables them to put it in context. Although Dr. Tarrant did enjoy a close and trusting relationship with his teacher for some time, by 1998 his approach to Zen had departed so seriously from that of the Diamond Sangha as a whole that, for the better part of a year, Aitken Roshi pressed him and his group to withdraw. After their withdrawal, in response to convincing reports of misconduct on Dr. Tarrant's part -- professional (as a psychotherapist), sexual, and organizational -- Aitken Roshi and ten other Diamond Sangha teachers issued an open letter calling on him to mend his ways. Communication between the two men ceased at that time, more than a decade ago.

Dr. Tarrant's reluctance to publicize these unhappy facts is understandable, and we take no pleasure in mentioning them, but journalistic ethics require that they be disclosed, if not by the writer himself then by the Sun. It's apparent to us that hard feelings significantly affected his portrait of his former teacher, for it bears a dim resemblance to the man we knew, each of us for longer than Dr. Tarrant did.

While faulting Aitken Roshi for "put[ting] down other teachers, out of a kind of embarrassed competitiveness," Dr. Tarrant has indulged in that vice himself, though seemingly without embarrassment. He manages to combine a glowing account of his own awakening with a disparaging account of his teacher's, even claiming that "Bob never stopped wondering if he had ever had" one. Horsefeathers. Aitken Roshi was appropriately modest about his experience, but he spoke about it publicly when circumstances warranted and wrote about it, too. Any reader who cares to look it up will find his own description of the experience and its subsequent unfolding in "Willy-Nilly Zen," an autobiographical piece he prepared in 1971 and published as an appendix to Taking the Path of Zen. Twenty-four years later, he repeated the tale at the request of a reporter in Bangkok! 

We find it galling to see Aitken Roshi's humility and candor turned against him, not only in this matter but also with respect to his early uncertainties as a Zen teacher. These predate Dr. Tarrant's arrival from Australia, so he, like many others, heard about them after the fact, precisely because Aitken Roshi spoke openly about them, expressing profound gratitude for the guidance and encouragement he received from Maezumi Roshi. Anne Aitken used to lament that her husband had "no carapace," no protective covering, a trait that left him vulnerable to misrepresentation and mockery in life, as in death. It also made him approachable and inspiring, however, a man who showed by example how insight and character may mature over decades of practice. Dr. Tarrant's characterization of him as "timid and anxious" will astonish people who saw him teach confidently before large audiences in the 1980s and '90s.

Other errors of fact and interpretation we will set aside here, but we cannot close without noting a curious omission from this remembrance: it leaves utterly unmentioned the contribution to Western Buddhism for which Aitken Roshi is most widely known -- his attention to the ethical implications of practice and realization and his stress on embodying them in the social, economic, political, and environmental conditions of our day. He certainly had his share of failings, but he had greater and more important virtues than this account admits. We hope Sun readers will seek out less jaundiced appraisals of his life and work.

Nelson Foster
Ring of Bone Zendo
Dharma heir of Aitken Roshi 

Jack Shoemaker
Editorial director, Counterpoint Press
Literary Executor for Robert Aitken 


February 14, 2011

"The world is too much with us..."

This is the opening line of a poem by Wordsworth in which he decries materialism and says that we haven't aligned ourselves deeply enough with Nature where the true spirit is to be found.  The line comes to me right now, not as Wordsworth intended, but because there are so many things going on in this difficult world, I sometimes feel I can't deal with any more.  This is the feeling I get when there are reports concerning the sexual transgressions of Zen priests.  Maybe some of you feel this way when you read of yet another disclosure of youths who were abused by Catholic priests.  At the same time that we don't want to hear any more, we also feel that the problem has to be completely addressed until we have faced into it, aired it out completely, given the problem its full emptying.

The latest discussion concerns Dennis Genpo Merzel, the founder of the Big Mind workshops and abbot of Kanzeon Zen Center in Salt Lake City.  Merzel's resignation from his teaching duties and from the White Plum Asangha, that is the turning in of his robes and his affiliation within the Maezumi lineage, was published in the latest edition of Tricycle Magazine.  He has owned up to years of sexual misconduct, pledged to take up therapy, and full examination of his actions.  At the same time, he has decided to continue his teaching of Big Mind which is a copyrighted program, ($50,000 per, I heard) that promises to give people an awakening experience, of some kind, or something like that.  Some have suggested that the fee exploitation along with spurious claims as to the enlightenment outcome is what we should be upset about and not the sexual impropriety.

An even larger picture is the sadness that this activity has been permitted over a long period of time while many people have known about it.  Merezel's Dharma brothers and sisters have not done enough to require accountability of one another.  He is certainly not the only one to have been challenged by his own body and I'm sure he'll not be the last.  The problem is how the larger Sangha holds the transgressor accountable because his actions injure, not only particular people, but the integrity of the Three Treasures - The Buddha, The Dharma, The Sangha.

The function of Sangha is to look out for one another and not permit one's Dharma sisters and brothers to make mistakes in Buddhism.  But, this is all a messy business.  Members of the Kanzeon Sangha in Salt Lake City are calling on the national priests to speak out against Merzel's actions.  At the same time, Keido Les Kaye has written a letter to the Kanzeon Sangha demonstrating that an attempt was made years ago to ask Maezumi to withdraw Merzel's teaching authorization, but the request was refused.  You can read the letter from Kaye in its entirety on the Sweeping Zen site so you can see for yourself how complicated and messy things can get over sexual misconduct.  Letters from other priests speaking out on the issue are also found on this site.  All of this, if you care to be bothered with it.  At some level it's tiresome business.  On another, if you succumb to gossip, it's a juicy read.


I feel tired for us all.  I discuss this sad business so we can be fully in the open, unlike the years of subterfuge and deception that has taken place in the Catholic church.  The issues of misconduct with Zen priests has, so far, been among adults, but this doesn't lessen the unethical nature of the activity.  So far, men have been the "perpetrators" and women the "victims" if we are to use these popular words, but perhaps it's a matter of time before women fall prey to the lure of sexual intrigue in the dokusan room.  Frankly, most women Zen teachers I know are too damn old to be interested, and what I think is that women are far too practical for such nonsense.  We're not that desperate.  Not to make light of it all, bottom line is that people have been injured, not only those who were party to the behavior, but entire Sanghas far and wide have been torn apart.  This is abuse of the Three Treasures, the field of Dharma that we all share.  In times past, when the Sangha was abused by unethical behavior of a priest, the Buddha ousted them from the monastic community.  The same was true of Sangha members.  The Buddha removed them from the Sangha for certain offenses.  Of course, we have the matter of religious freedom in the US and anyone, even if they have been removed from their religious affiliation, can rise again independently to promote themselves in the marketplace and take advantage of unsuspecting and vulnerable seekers.  This is the great privilege of living in America.

You'll all be glad to know that it is raining in the Bay Area today and the pouring down is forecast throughout the week.  A right climate for the mood.  Happy Valentine's Day!  

February 11, 2011

In its heyday...

Oakland City Hall
The City of Oakland, south of Berkeley and across the bay from San Francisco, became the gateway to the gold country in 1849 after gold was discovered at Sutter's Mill in Coloma, California.  Horses and wagons loaded with supplies would begin from this point, cross through the Sacramento Valley and reach the foothills of the Sierra Nevada in the dry brown hills on the south fork of the American River.  It's familiar to me because Coloma was where I went camping in summer when my children were young.  Panning for gold was grueling, backbreaking work and few actually found any nuggets to speak of.  Those who worked mines and sluices made out better, but those who stood in the water and hoped something would land in their pans eventually gave up, or died trying.

Oakland very quickly became a settlement and incorporated as a city in 1852.  Previously, of course, the land had been inhabited by the Ohlone peoples who were displaced by the Spanish in the 18th and 19th centuries.  Then Russia began to lay claim to the land moving in from Alaska.  Then in 1849, American troops conquered the territory mostly influenced by the discovery of gold.   In the late 1860s, the Transcontinental Railroad completed its western journey at Oakland and the city became an important port for the delivery of supplies to the western cities.

Downtown building for offices and condos
It was also a resort area for people fleeing the cold winds of San Francisco.  Ferry boats brought people across the Bay to the warmer climate and they built lovely summer homes and estates in the hill country overlooking the water and beyond the fog region that locks San Francisco into its grip in summer.  After the big San Francisco earthquake in 1906, many people moved to the East Bay and it further developed.

Numerous immigrants moved to Oakland during World War II and the city became a center for industries supporting the war effort.  Consequently, it has a very high ethnic diversity.  While the San Andreas earthquake fault line runs through San Francisco, the equally treacherous Hayward fault runs right through Oakland.  The surrounding hills make it a gorgeous place.  It has a difficult reputation since there is a high level of unemployment, poverty, and crime.  Although those social issues are present, it isn't the complete story as the city is also balanced by thriving neighborhoods, excellent public transportation, rich cultural opportunities, museums, music and superb regional parks.  In many ways, the reputation is undeserved.

I was downtown on Thursday to have lunch with my daughter.  Since I went by bus, I could enjoy a look at the magnificent buildings and architecture that grace the downtown region.  I can't help feeling this is an up and coming city that will be restored to a deeper safety and will overcome its hardships.  Jerry Brown was once mayor of Oakland and is now governor of the state.  I have to admit he's one of a kind.  The other day he needed to fly from Sacramento to Los Angeles.  He demonstrates what a politician should demonstrate.  He flew coach on a standard flight and sat with the real people having conversations with everyone listening to what they had to say.  I suspect that's how he'll continue to travel throughout the state.  He has a soft spot for Oakland and still keeps his condo at Jack London Square.  He's my kind of governor. 

Celebration in Egypt

Who could stay dry eyed listening to the exultation and seeing the joy in the hearts of Egyptians as they heard the news that they had succeeded in bringing change to their country and in such a wonderful way!  What a relief it was to know that there would not be further bloodshed or violence in their determination to stand firm.  Everyone is praying that the transition of government will be done with maturity, balance, and wisdom.  What a great historic moment!  What a great cosmic moment!

February 06, 2011

Sunset and the green flash

Sunset as seen from my apartment
Years ago while I was visiting in San Francisco, my brother and I wandered down to the beach to watch the sunset.  We sat on the top of sand dunes at the city beach straight down from the Sunset District, along with many others who had come to see the day close.  It was a cool evening but not so very windy; the air was crystal clear.  At the very second that the sun fell beneath the horizon, we saw the "green flash" and everyone on the beach gasped and then applauded.  This is a rare moment and a rare thing to actually see because the conditions have be right for it to occur.  The "green flash" is a phenomenon caused by refraction of light in the atmosphere.  The fact that so many saw it together was clear evidence for all of us that we hadn't faked or imagined it.  The phenomenon lasts only for about one second.

Angel contemplating the arrival of Spring.
From my apartment I'm seeing great sunsets, predictors of the warm weather to come.  Even brilliant California doesn't usually have this kind of nearly summer weather in the middle of winter.  It's somewhat disconcerting, but everyone is out celebrating.  You just can't help it.  But I'm also realizing, as I have for many years, that I haven't regularly seen a sunset for about 15 years.  The late afternoon and evening sky is completely blocked by trees at Olympia Zen Center.  Even when the light holds on until 10 p.m. there is no wide view of the sky.  There may be an occasional reflection of pink, which makes me think, oh, there must be a nice sunset,  but I don't actually see it.  Times when I've been to the ocean, it has clouded over or rained.

My mother always thought sunset was the saddest point of the day.  She felt lonely when the light began to leave.  Perhaps it meant to her that life was moving along quickly and her children were growing up and growing away from her.  She was affected by nature and she felt a nostalgia that nature can bring.  Although she didn't express it artistically, she certainly appreciated the art that others created having been inspired by nature.
Ryokan would feel nostalgia about the elements:

Dark melancholy
Invades my heart in autumn,
When I sit alone,
Hearing a cold shower pour
Down upon rustling bamboos.

I doubt that many people who witnessed the green flash that night in San Francisco ran home to paint it or write poems about it.  But, we all knew we had received something unusual, perhaps a once in a lifetime experience of it that connected us more deeply to natural life, and something larger than we are alone.  We all clearly celebrated the phenomenon.  I know I will never forget it, but then, I tend to feel that nature is a part of my whole being and I'm thoroughly noticing and enjoying the sunsets here.  As with many, I too feel the importance of natural things such as noticing the sky, the way light falls on trees, the activity of squirrels in the garden, how trees bend and sing in the wind, and how on a gorgeous morning it moves us to say hello with a smile when we pass on the sidewalk.  Ryokan writes:

On the autumn moor,
Glowing with the setting sun,
Amid late flowers
Let me stay with butterflies,
Rapt in a dream of one night.


February 04, 2011

..of one sort or another

Birds Begging at the Wharf
There is a great deal of volatile tension in the world, and much need everywhere.  Even here where there is an abundance of comfort, intellect, goods, habitats, beauty, still there is the intermingling of obvious need.  Riding the bus its easy to see people who are struggling.  If public transportation doesn't serve to save the environment, it should serve to teach us about one another and to stay in touch with humanity.

One striking aspect of THE ODYSSEY, a reading assignment for the course I'm taking, is Homer's attention to the care of beggars.  There are numerous times when Athena turns Odysseus into the guise of a beggar and he goes about the community asking for help.  In ancient Greek hospitality, beggars are not denied their fair share of the banquet, and they are not turned away. The beggar may represent homelessness, powerlessness, some kind of need within that is begging for attention.  When we see a beggar and are repulsed, we might be turning away from some truth about ourselves, not wanting to admit we feel we are lacking something within.

It reminds of a story of one student who was scornful of my having taken visiting students to a discount shopping store for their food rather than to one of the upscale places.  It said a lot about the nature of class, money and snobbery which is also about the nature of lack.  If we have money, we can easily avoid mingling with beggars and needy people.  We can shop at high level stores.  We can stay in our cars and not use public transportation.  We can avoid mixing with minorities.  But, as Zen students, and particularly as students of Ryokan, we should be able to go anywhere and not notice anything other than humanity and how to be hospitable to everyone.  This includes noticing in ourselves whether we are harboring a sense of lack or something begging for attention.  If we are, we can turn it into spiritual activity by seeing it for what it is and recognizing there are times when we are all beggars of one sort or another.

February 02, 2011

Steinbeck Country

Rolling hills along the way
John Steinbeck was born in the Salinas Valley and this area, the San Joaquin and the Monterey Bay area are all referred to as "Steinbeck Country."  I can't go there without recalling the literature that Steinbeck produced which has enriched my experience: Tortilla Flat; The Grapes of Wrath; Of Mice and Men; Cannery Row; East of Eden; Log From the Sea of Cortez, etc.  Just being in Monterey for the day on Tuesday to see some friends, makes me want to reread Steinbeck, maybe not all, but some of the works that influenced me, the kind of books one never forgets.
First glimpse of ocean from the car 

Restaurant at Monterey Wharf
You don't see cactus growing outside
like this in the Pacific Northwest
Because the terrain is unique, you feel truly rooted in a sense of place which Steinbeck brought to his work.  The hot, dry farmland of the Salinas Valley brings out a nostalgia in me since I was reading Steinbeck when I first moved to California and was changed by its beauty and strength.  Steinbeck's subjects are often the problems of migrant workers, immigrants, the
Dust Bowl, plots set in the Great Depression.  During summer and fall if you drive through the Salinas Valley and you see farm workers bent over rows and rows of crops in hot sun, you feel the echoes of Steinbeck and the workers become people who touch you with whole lives who feel and sweat and cry and sing.  Because they do that backbreaking, stinging work, we can eat.

Fishermen at Monterey Bay
The route from Oakland to Monterey also follows the Mission Trail and passes by San Jose de Guadelupe, Santa Clara de Asis, and San Juan Bautista all beautiful places however much they remind of a difficult history.  I didn't take the time to stop on this journey, only that I remembered where they were and recall the many times I stopped to experience the surroundings.