Archive | January 2014

Simplicity and Independence

“Because simplicity is the choice to live lightly in the world, it forgoes the use of resources, which then become available to help meet the needs of others. Non-use of material things is an indirect but extremely effective way of sharing that is within the immediate power of every individual. Living in material simplicity also frees time and energy that otherwise would have been devoted to the acquisition, maintenance and disposal of possessions. One is at liberty to take pleasure in life, friendships, and in pursuing goals that are intrinsically rewarding.” Affluenza, Dharma Discourse by John Daido Loori Roshi, True Dharma Eye, Case 36, Deshan’s “Assembly on Vulture Peak”, Featured in Mountain Record 26.3, Spring 2008

 Simplicity and independence are two sides of the same coin. It’s tough to pay off debt if one insists on owning the finest of everything. I know people that feel they have to drive a nice car and dress nicely so they can be taken seriously in their profession. That is back ass-wards.

 To have integrity requires aligning one’s behavior with one’s values. To feel forced to dress in a certain manner and drive a nicer car than one can afford bespeaks a career I want no part of. Don’t get me wrong. I try to dress “professionally,” which for me means blouses and mid- to maxi-length skirts. It does not mean fine jewelry, like my friend feels pressured to wear. Physical appearance takes a back seat to how one carries oneself and character. To always put on a show encourages compartmentalization of one’s life, the exact opposite of integrity. It is one of the reasons I stopped going to church. Everything I did for church, I didn’t do the rest of the week: I wore different clothes, pretended to feel things I didn’t feel, and was forced into exhibiting “traditional, Orthodox” mannerisms that felt phonier by the day, just to get along and not stick out like a sore thumb. I was losing self-respect quickly as time went on. I had a lot invested emotionally and spiritually, so leaving was hard, but not half as hard as staying would have been.

I don’t want to be forced to buy differing wardrobes for every different aspect of my life. To have one’s life sliced and diced into so many competing aspects is the very essence of “dissipation.”

Buying stuff is unavoidable in this world, but becoming something one doesn’t want to be is totally avoidable.

Bad Bodhisattva

“The hermit continues, and poses the next question, a courageous question: “In the end, how is it?” What end? With complete ease, placing the staff across his shoulders, he responds, “Completely unconcerned for people, I head into the myriad peaks.” What is it like in the end? There is ease. There is a very clear relationship with everything. And there is the unfolding journey—the journey of complete awareness, of that cool availability to all beings. Complete presence and complete unreachability. Complete caring without an iota of attachment. Unfolding of the myriad peaks.

“The evolution of our spiritual practice invariably takes us across the landscape of Mahayana history, from self-concern and a possibility of solitary accomplishment to discovery of our inherent connection, or rather, identity with the universe. This personal transition is necessary because it reflects how things are. We are always evolving from seeing spiritual practice as some sort of self-centered, self-improving journey into an embodiment of interconnectedness as expressed by our dedication to give ourselves up for the sake of all beings.” Using Reality to Teach Reality, Dharma Discourse by Konrad Ryushin Marchaj, Sensei
Blue Cliff Record, Case 25, The Hermit of Lotus Flower Peak Holds up His Staff, Featured in Mountain Record 29.4, Summer 2011

The ego is rough. When injured, it cries out, “But what about me?!!” The challenge is to find environments where we can practice understanding others, but that also understand us and our foibles in return. People cannot change for the better when they don’t feel safe; they shut down.

Ours is a messed-up world, but it doesn’t improve when people feel condemned. Even axe-murderers need a safe space to talk about their impulses in. The challenge is to find a group of fellow (but ex-) axe-murderers that can help the offender understand him-/herself and be available when the urges are strong. To abandon the person is to make all of society vulnerable to their uncontrolled urges.

People need spaces where they feel accepted. Sadly, I have discovered that few churches qualify. Some Buddhist groups qualify, if they are not overly-bound by their Asian, conformist heritage. “Our dedication to give ourselves up for the sake of all beings” cannot come from being emotionally beaten into submission. If it’s not voluntary, it’s worthless. It’s just low self-esteem.

How do you care without attachment? I feel like I have had inklings as to the answer, but am not there yet. One of the reasons I left my church (besides huge theological doubts) was the one-sided-ness of it. The people were more than willing to have you help—as long as you did everything their way, with absolutely no variation whatsoever. The priest demanded the respect of a father-figure without the willingness to have anything even slightly resembling a relationship with his flock.  As long as I gave and gave—and demanded zilch in return—I got along great with everyone. In the end, I felt like going was simply a form of masochistic self-abuse. I kept asking myself. “Why do I keep coming here?” Eventually I had no good answer. It was time to go.

I am at a point in my life where I have the nerve to expect something in return for an arrangement in my life to qualify as a “relationship.” Perhaps I suck at being a bodhisattva, but I feel like maintaining such “relationships” is nothing but enabling dysfunctional systems to continue their abusive ways without consequences. I am done being the good, little victim. I am taking responsibility for my life, not waiting and expecting anyone or anything (including Uncle Sugar) to take care of me.

How long can I keep holding on?

How long can I hold on, here in Michigan? Maybe I’m a bad Buddhist, but living here is depressing. This has been a wickedly cold winter, unrelenting and dark. There is no sun, no warmth, no jobs, and now one of my best friends is leaving. She is leaving before the crack of dawn on Monday.

I’ve done a lot of shoveling. I had my vehicle towed simply to unstick it from my driveway. My vehicle started to get stuck earlier this week, so I asked Barry to give me a push. He complied, and promptly fell on his keister. Does this mean that I just basically can’t expect any help from him whatsoever? I guess.

This stress has made me susceptible to a never-ending cold.

Why blame Michigan? It could just as well be Minnesota (as far as cold is concerned), were I living there. Combine the cold with the lack of jobs, forcing my friend to move east, and the lake-effect snow and you end up with a snow-bound nightmare that just never seems to end.

I’m not sure how many more winters here I can take. It sounds horrible, but I hope to move next fall, whether that means Barry dying or being put in a nursing home. Maybe I’ll feel better come spring, but this is how I feel now.

Not Needing Help?

“If you want to help the world, you must be beyond the need of help. Then, all your doing, as well as not doing, will help the world most effectively.”–Nisargadatta Maharaj

I don’t know if I will ever be beyond the need of help, but I do understand the gist of the quote. You can’t give someone something you do not possess yourself. Also, emotional investment is not always the best idea.

If you want to help people, you need to have some space or margin in your life. If you are crazy busy, it is impossible to be available for others. If you are on the verge of bankruptcy, it can be tough to buy a cup of coffee for a friend. You can’t be taxed on all sides and help others.

I feel a need to create space for others, to help others sort things out. I don’t believe that I need to solve people’s problems, but I can help be/provide the safe space for others to see their issues. How many opportunities do we miss because we are too overwhelmed to notice anything beyond our limited ways of coping?

Not Waiting

Sometimes, I don’t have much to say. So I wait until something bugs me enough or motivates me sufficiently to post my rant. I look for an issue that seems urgent and pervasive in my life and perhaps in others’ as well, something that affects more than one area of my life.

I found one: waiting. To me, the opposite of waiting is taking responsibility and action.

One of my best friends is leaving the state to find work. She simply cannot make her house payment on her current income. Period. She and I have both looked for jobs for her in-state to no avail. She held on as long as she could, but eventually had to cut her losses and give notice at work. She has even explained to her co-workers that every day she spends in Michigan is costing her opportunities on the East Coast.

You see, many people in Michigan are waiting for the economy to turn around. They are waiting for the low-skill, good-paying jobs to come back. What they don’t comprehend is that Michigan has undergone a fundamental, structural change in its economy, from one of manufacturing, middle-class jobs to one of food-stamp-eligible, minimum-wage, tourism and big-box jobs. You cannot wait out a cycle that has completed its course and is never coming back. Those with skills and confidence, such as my friend, are simply leaving. It doesn’t matter if there are a million more jobs in Michigan, if working at them full-time still qualifies you for food stamps. This is the distinction between quantity and quality. This is what Republican state officials haven’t figured out yet, but that doesn’t mean that the rest of us haven’t. Ghost towns out west have a 0% unemployment rate: no jobs, but also nobody looking for employment. Sometimes a decrease in the unemployment rate is just a reflection of people giving up looking for jobs and/or leaving the state to find employment elsewhere. It is no indication whatsoever of a growing middle class.

My friend will attend an Orthodox church in Maryland. She has more hope for the local church in Lansing (that I quit attending) than I do. She sees a whole cadre of people that are waiting for the current leadership to leave, die, step aside, or whatever. Those people do exist. I have met some of them.

To me, this is another variation on the waiting theme: once the current leadership is out of power, there can be a renaissance. What she doesn’t understand is that the people waiting in the wings to return are ageing, moving, and dying off as time goes by. It would not surprise me if she found a few of them in Maryland, if only because they could not find enough work in Michigan for them to keep their houses, either.

She tells me that there are many wonderful, giving people at Holy Trinity in Lansing. I agree. However, it doesn’t matter how wonderful the 99% are if the intransigent 1% are running the show and the 99% are not taken seriously or listened to in any way. Been there, done that. As Edward Demming once said: it’s always the system. Individuals that want to be part of the system must adapt to its culture, even if that involves selling baklava to the poor while the local economy collapses so they can fix the parking lot.

This is a major problem that I have had with many Christians: they wait instead of taking responsibility for the issues they face. They are waiting for a sign, for God to move, for Jesus to return, or to win the lottery and then their life will be so much better. I’ve lost all respect for that attitude. People, do something! Even if it is wrong, you can still learn from it. The alternative is to watch your backside grow while the world passes you by.

I think about all the people that are waiting for their supervisor to retire, die, or whatever, so they can get promoted. What happens if that person is still there 20 years from now? What if they leave and management decides to not replace them because there just isn’t the money in the money in the budget? Or your supervisor’s nephew, without one day’s experience, is given the job? Then what? How many genuine job opportunities got ignored while waiting?

Why am I still in Michigan? Because I won’t take my sick husband away from seeing his grandsons. I am not staying here for me. I have even told him that if the day comes that he requires a nursing home, we’re moving because there isn’t anything special about nursing homes in Michigan. Two things keep me here: my husband and selling the house. That’s it.

How much of your life are you willing to spend waiting? Others are not waiting. They are taking responsibility for their lives. If you are waiting, you are being left behind.

Mirror Perception

“I have found that a good way of maintaining this perspective is to liken sitting to looking in a mirror. When you sit down on your cushion, the state of your mind and body automatically appears to you, the way your face instantly appears in a mirror. The mirror does all the work. …When we first look into a mirror, we naturally focus on our own face and how we think we look to ourselves and others. But if we look longer, and gradually become less preoccupied with how we look, we may start to notice that the rest of the room behind us is also reflected in the mirror. Maybe there is even a window in the room, and the world outside is also glimpsed in our mirror.” “Practice: You Can’t Do It Wrong,” by Barry Magid

(From the “Going It Alone: Making It Work as an Unaffiliated Buddhist” section of the Spring 2010 issue of Buddhadharma.)

I used to think there was an objective “reality” out there, somewhere. I stopped being so convinced over the years as my eyes “played tricks” on me. I would swear I saw something, only to realize that nobody else was seeing the same thing. How I put the pieces of perception together has been very different than how others do.

That doesn’t mean my perceptions have been wrong. Quite to the contrary: my perceptions have been repeatedly validated in the long-run. People don’t believe what I say when I speak, but then find out, the hard way, that my perceptions were accurate.

That’s why people need to listen to the weird people out there. Sometimes, we weird ones are the only ones paying attention.

Those folks that are outside the window, looking into our mirror, have their own perspectives, live their own lives, and vote.

Perhaps we should clean the mirror or lens of our perception. We might see more.


Listening Space

“At a certain point you say to the woods, to the sea, to the mountains, the world, Now I am ready. Now I will stop and be wholly attentive. You empty yourself and wait, listening. After a time you hear it: there is nothing there. There is nothing but those things only, those created objects, discrete, growing or holding, or swaying, being rained on or raining, held, flooding or ebbing, standing or spread. You feel the world’s word as a tension, a hum, a single chorused note everywhere the same. This is it: this hum is the silence. Nature does utter a peep—just this one. The birds and insects, the meadows and swamps and rivers and stones and mountains and clouds: they all do it; they all don’t do it. There is a vibrancy to the silence, a suppression, as if someone were gagging the world. But you wait, you give your life’s length to listening, and nothing happens. The ice rolls up, the ice rolls back, and still that single note obtains. The tension, or lack of it, is intolerable. The silence is not actually suppression; instead, it is all there is.” Annie Dillard, Teaching a Stone to Talk, in Mountain Record: The Zen Practitioner’s Journal, Winter 2013/2014

I’ve been in this space, this intolerable space, before. You listen, but for what? I’m unsure how much of this space is available anymore. Such listening would be seen as unproductive and irresponsible today.

And yet our world desperately needs us to listen. Things and people do not speak to us unless they feel safe. Their inner worlds remain mysterious to us. We are not paid attention to; we are marketed to. Worse yet, only the marketers seem to care what we think about anything, and only for their own benefit. Communication seldom occurs, only propaganda.

To listen and be listened to, aren’t these things the essence of relationship?

I didn’t find it in church. All I found was a hierarchy interested in self-preservation at the expense of the local collapsing economy. They demanded that everyone obey them, while listening to no one. Their out-of-touch-ness made their edicts weirdly irrelevant to local Mid-Michiganders.

So I listen to myself. Perhaps I am solipsistic now, but I am operating from a deficit of being taken seriously. I am the sacred space I have been seeking.

Brain Space

“The Heart Sutra is an encapsulated dose of the space that all of training and practice are pointing us toward. You can carry it with you….If things are starting to get too tight, too convincing in their reality, the Heart Sutra can allow us to infuse space into our reality, into our body and mind.” Purify Your Ordinary Bones, Dharma Discourse bu Konrad Ryushin Marchaj Sensei, Mountain Record, Winter 2013/2014

Isn’t this what all of us want, space? It doesn’t matter what kind of resolution a person makes, if they feel claustrophobic and stifled. When you are constantly struggling to move at all, let alone forward, goals lose some of their meaning.

Everyone I know feels overwhelmed. It comes out in different ways with various people, but the bottom line is the same: they’re just trying to survive the demands placed upon them.

The Buddha sometimes referred to himself as the “tathagata”, which translates into something akin to “one thus gone.”

The Heart Sutra talks about being gone, gone, completely gone. Form is emptiness; emptiness is form. To me, part of what it means is to not take one’s perceptions quite so seriously. Things can seem one way and be the opposite in reality. It just depends on what we were expecting to see.

The space needed is between our thoughts. If your heart cannot get a word in edgewise because the mind won’t shut up, misery becomes our constant companion. It follows us everywhere because it is us. We cannot stop our own brain. However, meditation does help to slow it down so thoughts can be examined.

But we can stop taking what it says so seriously. Think of an annoying family member that talks incessantly. You can just sit there and nod and go ahead and do what your heart says anyhow. Such a mind is dull, not sharp. A knife continuously used gets dull quickly. A sharp knife may seldom get used, but when it is, it gets a lot done in a very compact amount of time. It is tough to know how much of what the mind thinks is useful if it never stops.

Insight comes after incubation, which is a period of seeming dormancy. Even the brain needs space or to be given a break sometimes. I want to help people and organizations to build in space for their people so that people can be useful and not burn out. But that means building space into  my own life. I’m getting there.

5S and Functionality

I’ve been trying to get more organized this year. I have had some success. Throwing away things is always a good start.

My problem so far has simply been the weather and my health. I am almost recovered from the bad cold I got after the ice storm in December. The snow storm a couple weeks ago prevented recovery. I have been doing a lot of sleeping and riding the couch. It has only been in the past week that I have really felt a lot better.

Whenever I think of organizing, I think of the Japanese 5S system: sort, straighten, shine, standardize, and sustain. It works for Toyota because it is simple and just plain good management. It also dovetails with Zen. Any lack of perfection can be attributed to wabi-sabi.

Absolute adherence is not essential, but its results are addictive. When you make something simple and efficient, it is amazing how quickly you lose patience with inefficiency and hunting for things.

Perfection has never been my goal; having a functional life has been. Now that I am basically Barry’s caretaker and not so much a wife, my organizational skills have implications for both of us. When you live on a fixed income, you cannot afford to look for things you know you have somewhere or buy new versions of things you might already have. The money just isn’t there.

Last year I got rid of a lot of books, printers, school supplies, and that kind of thing. That gave me something: space. Also, when you dig through one layer, you start to see what’s underneath. This new space I am in has forced me to think about who and what I wish to be. Then, leaving church freed my brain to think independently. I now have the physical and emotional space to think clearly. There is no substitute for that.


“Support from without is sometimes too strong, sometimes too weak, sometimes only partial, and sometimes harmful to other parts. The operation must be successful and in addition the patient must survive.

“The important point is to arrange ourselves from inside. Orientation from our inmost nature is wanted. The problem is how to make use of our civilization and not be ruined by it. The solution to this problem is Zazen; by sitting we have to resume to our own nature and by Great Activity we should acquire absolute freedom.” Shunryu Suzuki, Blue Cliff Record #20


I have lived the truth of it. Support from others can be random. People mean well, but they are confused. What they offer may not be what is actually needed. People can only give you what they have. They cannot help you put your life in order if theirs is a mess, for example. A tutor can only help someone with a lower understanding level. “Help” often isn’t very helpful. I’m not sure what to do about it. Sometimes I really need help and no human assistance can be found or what is being offered doesn’t fit the need.

One thing I’ve been doing is asking for help from more cosmic realms, angelic-type. When I do that, I do often get assistance, but it is seldom what I am looking for. The timing is impeccable, but the means seem random. I go around saying, “Uh…Thank you.”

Still, the goal needs to be to arrange ourselves from the inside. Meditation helps. Getting organized helps. Since the problem is internal, the solution must necessarily be primarily internal. External help is a Band-Aid when the issue is out-of-control thoughts. Internal discipline is mandatory. Other people can only suggest various means of developing the essential discipline. The ultimate solution must always come from within.H