Author Archives: Monksway

Another Tale of Two Cities, or “I Ain’t No Preacher No More”

There is this famous and powerful trope in Western literature: the two cities. Plato had it; Augustine had it most famously–the City of God and the City of Man; it is hidden within many works of literature and history. But of course there is that marvelous Dickens novel: A Tale of Two Cities. What’s important to remember is that this trope does not primarily refer to actual physical locations or cities but the city is more or less a symbol of a state of mind and a state of heart. Truly, physical cities are very often named here; physical places like Rome, like Paris and London, have an important presence here; but still what matters is something deeper that these different locales merely point to or symbolize in many different layers of significance. So let’s take a look at a couple of these tales of modern vintage.

The words in quotes are a powerful line from a very great American novel: The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck. It was also turned into a remarkable movie by John Ford. Here we are not going to engage in literary criticism or analysis, but I think the novel has some very interesting and important religious aspects, and it is on these that I would like to reflect a bit. A personal note: years ago when we first started to show movies in my monastic community (and I will totally deny any part in such an arrangement–unless someone has some pictures showing me setting up the DVD player), we wondered what would be some good movies to show the community. One time we hit on The Grapes of Wrath, and it was really interesting to see it in the monastic context as it showed the very real struggles of people to hold on to their humanity in a very hostile world. All the little aches and pains of monastic life and all the griping of monks about this or that situation seemed a bit exaggerated.

Overview and summary of the plot: the story is set at the height of the Great Depression in 1936, the “dust bowl” of Oklahoma, and the tenant-farmer economy that was the fate of millions. It is the story of the Joad family with Ma Joad and her oldest son, Tom, being the main characters. There is also another very important but mysterious character, Jim Casy, a former preacher who accompanies the Joads on their trek to California. These are tenant farmers; that means they don’t own the land they farm; the Bank owns it all. They have to turn over a certain amount of their crop as “rent.” In the mid ‘30s, during the height of the Great Depression, a tremendous drought hit this area and the land turned to dust and the winds blew and blew creating vast dust storms and millions of acres were lost to farming. The banks took over the land driving these tenant farmers out. Many of them, like the Joads, headed for California to become farmworkers picking vegetables and fruit–remember this is way before all the Hispanics that came into the fields of California to become farmworkers and Cesar Chavez and that era.

Now Steinbeck did not write just an historical/sociological study–but in fact it does have a lot of such observations–he wrote a novel, a story of deep significance for all human beings in all situations. If we focus on the three mentioned characters we will see this narrative as a kind of “conversion story.” So the “two cities” here might seem like the Joads in Oklahoma and the Joads in California and there is the journey from one to the other. There’s a certain truth in that, but the much deeper thing is the inner state of the key characters and their journey from one state of heart to another. Consider these three characters:

Tom: At the beginning of the story Tom is basically a good guy, the oldest and favorite son of the family, good-natured and thoughtful. A bit of a hot head, he accidentally kills a man in a bar fight and does some time in prison. As the novel begins he is on his way home. He makes do with what life hands him, but things have changed at home. He has a certain down-to-earth wisdom that makes him a fierce protector of the family’s well-being. By the end of the novel that whole inner dynamism has been transformed into a vision that encompasses not only his own family but the downtrodden everywhere. At the very end he is almost a Christ-like figure, the Risen Christ, who vanishes as an individual ego and is now going to be found everywhere where there are people who are mistreated and suffering.

Ma Joad: She is the stalwart anchor of the family, much stronger interiorly than her husband. As with Tom, at the beginning her main concern is with the welfare of her family. By the end of the novel she has journeyed with Tom to another sense of belonging. It is now “we, the people” that is her perspective.

Jim Casy: This guy is the most interesting character in the novel. His is the most radical conversion that we witness. At the beginning of the story when Tom meets him on the dusty road as Tom is walking back home after his release from prison, Casy confesses to Tom, “I ain’t no preacher no more.” He had been the community preacher; a kind of Pentecostal fundamentalist preacher. There are some grotesque descriptions of this, but you have to understand that what all this represents is all religion that is simply a manipulation of people. The “preacher” is an agent of this, and you can see this in the modern televangelists among others. But actually this happens in all religious traditions, and every member of every religious tradition needs a kind of “conversion” from the “city” of religion as manipulation, as external rule following, as guilt inducing, as institutional authority, as “anxiety-bleeding” through a showcase of excessive emotionalism or a magic show, etc., etc. All this and more Casy has left behind. As he puts it, “I lost the call.” He says he no longer can “preach.” This actually refers to this whole mode of religiosity. (Personal note: After seeing this movie I used to bother some people in my community that as a young priest I was going around saying with Casy, “I ain’t no preacher no more.” Actually I felt very close to Casy then. I felt that my homilies were simply a form of manipulation. I could be very clever because I was smart, but the actual words would turn to ash when they left my mouth or so I felt. And I felt this was not just me but the whole religious enterprise. We were not speaking the “Word of God” but our own clever manipulative words that either made us look good, or induced people to feel good, to give donations, to keep the “thing” going. In actuality, or so it seemed to me, God was truly silent, maybe in a way like never before, and I should cease my words and become more silent myself so that I could enter into the meaning of that silence and learn what it had to teach me. ) So we see Casy in the beginning of the novel already having made the first step in his “conversion,” in his leave-taking of that mode of religiosity. He grows by leaps and bounds and in a certain sense he becomes a kind of spiritual guide to Tom and his own conversion. Their religiosity now no longer has any reference to “Jesus” or “God” because these were only words that people used in a way that blinded them to their responsibilities to each other. The only mark of their religiosity is what we hear in the Gospel parable of “the sheep and the goats”(Mt. 25: 31-46).

Let’s listen to some quotes from the novel:

First, to get a flavor of Steinbeck’s marvelous writing here is an excerpt from the beginning of the novel as Steinbeck is already thematizing the “two cities” trope–in this case it is the “city of the horse” vs. the “city of the tractor”–and all this foreshadowing the deeper divisions that will become apparent:

“The houses were left vacant on the land, and the land was vacant because of this. Only the tractor sheds of corrugated iron, silver and gleaming, were alive; and they were alive with metal and gasoline and oil, the disks of the plow shining. The tractors had lights shining, for there is no day and night for a tractor and the disks turn the earth in the darkness and they glitter in the daylight. And when a horse stops work and goes into the barn there is a life and a vitality left, there is breathing and a warmth, and the feet shift on the straw, and the jaws champ on the hay, and the ears and the eyes are alive. There is a warmth of life in the barn, and the heat and smell of life. But when the motor of a tractor stops, it is as dead as the ore it came from. The heat goes out of it like the living heat that leaves a corpse. Then the corrugated iron doors are closed and the tractor man drives home to town, perhaps twenty miles away, and he need not come back for weeks of months, for the tractor is dead. And this is easy and efficient. So easy that the wonder goes out of work, so efficient that the wonder goes out of land and the working of it, and with the wonder the deep understanding and the relation. And in the tractor man there grows the contempt that comes only to a stranger who has little understanding and no relation. For nitrates are not the land, nor phosphates and the length of fiber in the cotton is not the land. Carbon is not a man, nor salt nor water nor calcium. He is all these, but he is much, much more, and land is so much more than its analysis. That man who is more than his chemistry, walking on the earth, turning his plow point for a stone, dropping his handles to slide over an outcropping, kneeling in the earth to eat his lunch; that man who is more than his elements knows the land is more than its analysis. But the machine man, driving a dead tractor on land he does not know and love, understands only chemistry, and he is contemptuous of the land and of himself. When the corrugated iron doors are shut, he goes home, and his home is not the land.”

So the Joads, as poor and miserable as they are, are not alienated from the land, from the roots of their being. But their religiosity at this point is very external, rule-oriented, magical and superstitious, and it is still another form of alienation that they contend with. Here is Casy at the beginning of the novel describing to Tom something of his new liberated heart:

“”Before I knowed it, I was sayin’ out loud, ‘The hell with it! There ain’t no sin and there ain’t no virtue. There’s just stuff people do. It’s all part of the same thing.’… I says, ‘What’s this call, this sperit?’ An’ I says, ‘It’s love. I love people so much I’m fit to bust, sometimes.’… I figgered, ‘Why do we got to hang it on God or Jesus? Maybe,’ I figgered, ‘maybe it’s all men an’ all women we love; maybe that’s the Holy Sperit-the human sperit-the whole shebang. Maybe all men got one big soul ever’body’s a part of.’ Now I sat there thinkin’ it, an’ all of a suddent-I knew it. I knew it so deep down that it was true, and I still know it.”


Here is an amazing vignette of the “two cities” as Casy is at the Joad farm with Tom and it’s mealtime and he is asked to say “Grace”:

“Casy ran his fingers through his hair nervously. ‘I got to tell you, I ain’t a preacher no more. If me jus’ bein glad to be here an’ bein’ thankful for people that’s kind and generous, if that’s enough–why, I’ll say that kinda grace. But I ain’t a preacher no more.’

‘Say her,’ said Granma. ‘An’ get in a word about us goin’ to California.’ The preacher bowed his head, and the others bowed their heads. Ma folded her hands over her stomach and bowed her head. Granma bowed so low that her nose was nearly in her plate of biscuit and gravy. Tom, leaning against the wall, a plate in his hands, bowed stiffly, and Granpa bowed his head sidewise, so that he could keep one mean and merry eye on the preacher. And on the preacher’s face there was a look not of prayer, but of thought; and in his tone not supplication, but conjecture.

‘I been thinkin,’ he said. ‘I been in the hills, thinkin’, almost you might say like Jesus went into the wilderness to think His way out of a mess of troubles.’ ‘Pu-raise Gawd!’ Granma said, and the preacher glanced over at her in surprise.

‘Seems like Jesus got all messed up with troubles, and He couldn’t figure nothin’ out, an’ He got to feelin’ what the hell good is it all, an’ what’s the use fightin’ an’ figurin’. Got tired, got good an’ tired, an’ His sperit all wore out. Jus about come to the conclusion, the hell with it. An’ so He went off into the wilderness.’

‘A–men,’ Granma bleated…. ‘I ain’t sayin’ I’m like Jesus,’ the preacher went on. ‘But I got tired like Him, an’ I got mixed up like Him, an’ I went into the wilderness like Him, without no campin’ stuff. Nightimes I’d lay on my back an’ look up at the stars, morning I’d set an’ watch the sun come up; midday I’d look out from a hill at the rollin’ dry country; evenin’ I’d foller the sun down. Sometimes I’d pray like I always done. On’y I couldn’t figure what I was prayin’ to or for. There were the hills, an’ there was me, an’ we wasn’t separate no more. We was one thing. An’ that one thing was holy.’

‘Hallelujah,’ said Granma, and she rocked a little, back and forth, trying to catch hold of an ecstasy.

‘An’ I got thinkin’, on’y it wasn’t thinkin’, it was deeper down than thinkin’. I got thinkin’ how we was holy when we was one thing, an’ mankin’ was holy when it was one thing. An’ it on’y got unholy when one mis’able little fella got the bit in his teeth an’ run off his own way, kickin’ an’ draggin’ an’ fightin’. Fella like that bust the holiness. But when they’re all workin’ together, not one fella for another fella, but one fella kind of harnessed to the whole shebang–that’s right, that’s holy. An’ then I got thinkin’ I don’t even know what I mean by holy.’ He paused, but the bowed heads stayed down, for they had been trained like dogs to rise at the ‘amen’ signal. ‘I can’t say no grace like I use’ ta say. I’m glad of the holiness of breakfast. I’m glad there’s love here. That’s all.’ The heads stayed down. The preacher looked around. ‘I’ve got your breakfast cold,’ he said; and then he remembered. ‘Amen,’ he said, and all the heads came up.

‘A—men,’ said Granma, and she fell to her breakfast, and broke down the soggy biscuits with her hard old toothless gums. Tom ate quickly, and Pa crammed his mouth. There was no talk until the food was gone, the coffee drunk; only the crunch of chewed food and slurp of coffee cooled in the transit to the tongue. Ma watched the preacher as he ate, and her eyes were questioning, probing and understanding. She watched him as though he were suddenly a spirit, not human anymore, a voice out of the ground.”

What an incredible scene, and I am sorry to say that it is left out of the movie version. But it is magnificent in showing the unfolding awakening in Casy while the others are still in the “old city of religion”–except that something has stirred within Ma Joad.


Ma Joad’s last words as it were. She is talking to her son Tom who is going to have to vanish as he is being pursued by security goons in a corporate camp for farmworkers:

““Why, Tom – us people will go on livin’ when all them people is gone. Why, Tom, we’re the people that live. They ain’t gonna wipe us out. Why, we’re the people – we go on.’
‘We take a beatin’ all the time.’
‘I know.’ Ma chuckled. ‘Maybe that makes us tough. Rich fellas come up an’ they die, an’ their kids ain’t no good, an’ they die out. But, Tom, we keep a-comin’. Don’ you fret none, Tom. A different time’s comin’.”

When the group is on the road to California, Granpa dies and has to be buried. Casy is asked once more to say a few words:

““Pa said, “Won’t you say a few words? Ain’t none of our folks ever been buried without a few words.”
Connie led Rose of Sharon to the graveside, she reluctant. “You got to,” Connie said. “It ain’t decent not to. It’ll jus’ be a little.
The firelight fell on the grouped people, showing their faces and their eyes, dwindling on their dark clothes. All the hats were off now. The light danced, jerking over the people.
Casy said, “It’ll be a short one.” He bowed his head, and the others followed his lead. Casy said solemnly, “This here ol’ man jus’ lived a life an’ just died out of it. I don’t know whether he was good or bad, but that don’t matter much. He was alive, an’ that’s what matters. An’ now his dead, an’ that don’t matter. Heard a fella tell a poem one time, an’ he says ‘All that lives is holy.’ Got to thinkin’, an’ purty soon it means more than the words says. An’ I woundn’ pray for a ol’ fella that’s dead. He’s awright. He got a job to do, but it’s all laid out for’im an’ there’s on’y one way to do it. But us, we got a job to do, an’ they’s a thousan’ ways, an’ we don’ know which one to take. An’ if I was to pray, it’d be for the folks that don’ know which way to turn. Grampa here, he got the easy straight. An’ now cover ‘im up and let’im get to his work.” He raised his head.”


And finally there are these amazing last words of Tom–Casy has been killed by the goons during a strike– as he is saying farewell to his mother in the dead of night as he has to take off and disappear or the whole family would be molested badly by the security goons out to break the farmworkers’ strike. He has picked up Casy’s vision; he has undergone a transformation, and he has become an enigmatic Christ-figure:

“Then it don’ matter. Then I’ll be all aroun’ in the dark. I’ll be ever’where – wherever you look. Wherever they’s a fight so hungry people can eat, I’ll be there. Wherever they’s a cop beatin’ up a guy, I’ll be there. If Casy knowed, why, I’ll be in the way guys yell when they’re mad an’ – I’ll be in the way kids laugh when they’re hungry an’ they know supper’s ready. An’ when our folks eat the stuff they raise an’ live in the houses they build, why, I’ll be there. See? God, I’m talkin’ like Casy. Comes of thinkin’ about him so much. Seems like I can see him sometimes.”


Now we turn to a very different story, a biography of sorts of a person who died very recently: Charles Liteky. Very few have heard of him, but those in the peace movement and resistance movement knew him well. A most amazing person.

Born into a traditional Catholic family, the son of a career military man, he was ordained a priest in 1960. He became an Army Catholic chaplain and volunteered for Vietnam. In his own words: “Politically,” he would write later, “I was a clerical hawk, who believed that any war against communism was just. I knew little to nothing about Vietnam and its centuries-long struggle to free itself from foreign domination.” So Liteky was in this “city” of traditional religion and traditional patriotism and the two were very much intertwined. In December of 1967, as a young priest, he was assigned to an army unit that was active in engaging Vietcong forces. One day they were severely ambushed, the whole unit was paralyzed by enemy firepower. Numerous casualties happened, and Liteky, under great danger to himself, pulled 20 wounded men to safety and saved their lives. He was under constant fire as he went back again and again to get another wounded soldier. In 1968 President Johnson awarded him the country’s highest honor, the Congressional Medal of Honor. As he put the medal on him LBJ whispered to him, “I’d rather have one of these babies than be president.”

Liteky stayed in the Army and returned to Vietnam. The war, the carnage and the destroyed lives, took their toll on him. As he put it, “I left the Army in 1971 with my humanity severely damaged.” He tried to be a counselor at the VA, but this only exposed him further to the wounds of war. He ended up leaving the priesthood in the mid ‘70s. So he joined with Casy in saying, “I ain’t no preacher no more.”

Eight years later he married an ex-nun, and his wife opened his eyes to what the U.S. government was doing in Central America. It was the Reagan era. He became an ardent resister and peace activist, now totally transformed in his outlook but with that same sense of courage and focus. Eighteen years after his winning of the Medal of Honor, in 1984, Charles Liteky renounced the Medal and the lifetime monthly stipend that came with it. This he did in protest of the Reagan Administration’s policies in Central America. Nobody had ever renounced the Medal of Honor before. In a paradoxical sense, he was still “saving lives,” but now with a much deeper, broader vision—wherever there are people suffering he said, “I’ll be there.” He was one with Christ.


Toward a Christian Advaita, Part I

We will spend a few postings during 2017 reflecting on the possibilities of a Christian advaita, a Christian nonduality. This will not be a scholarly or theological exercise, but we do want to rely on real knowledge and serious theology. The use of one’s intelligence is important in approaching spirituality lest one fall into the trap of fundamentalism. Our main resource will be the writings of Abhishiktananda, especially the letters and the diary. There he was uninhibited in his own reflections and explorations since it wouldn’t get him into trouble with the Church authorities. A wise move considering what happened to other Catholic thinkers! We do have one problem in that a new edition of both the letters and the diary are planned for the near future, with the diary apparently containing some previously unpublished material. We may have to revise our conclusions after that comes out!

Another very important resource is Eckhart, but he is more difficult for us since his vision is couched in the language of medieval Thomism. We will make sparing use of him. More central and more important is simply the Gospel of John, the foundational document of Christian mysticism; and somewhere Abhishiktananda called it the “Christian Upanishad.” Interesting. The Hindu Upanishads are, of course, the text, the scripture that bears witness most acutely to the advaitic experience with the One we call “God.” It was Abhishiktananda’s deepest wish and his deepest sense of mission or vocation to draw this experience into Christianity and to re-express it in Christian terms. More than that, he was trying to find advaita within the heart of Christianity, and for him the Gospel of John was going to be a key element in this endeavor. I really believe that Abhishiktananda was onto something here, and so our own reflection will proceed with one eye always on these resources.


Now before we take our plunge, there is one major problem to confront: Christianity’s seeming aversion to advaita. No doubt about it, basic Christian thought and basic Christian piety is very much dualistic. There is the creator-creature distinction; then there is Jesus over there and here I am–and even where this kind of outlook gets very spiritualized as a “presence” within one, or as in Eastern Orthodox spirituality, where one is “divinized,” the fact is that you and Christ are treated as “two,” as “separate,” and as finally united by a very fragile bond in that “twoness.” Finally, there is the sense of a remote God, the Father, and maybe even the whole Trinity as a kind of fearful remote reality, so one turns and focuses on some saint or Mary. Sadly this becomes the basic spirituality of way too many Catholics and other Christians. (I am totally ignoring Protestant fundamentalists, who would be a caricature of the above-stated and so not even worth our consideration here.) But if we turn to some Christian mystics and if we become conversant with a truly developed theological outlook, we might find it all not necessarily or simplistically dualistic.

The person we will find to be most helpful in this regard is Jacques Dupuis, a Jesuit theologian who taught in India for many years and became friends with Abhishiktananda in the last years of his life. Dupuis was deeply interested in the encounter of Christianity with the great world religions, and because of his life in India this was mostly focused on Hinduism. This encounter very much is shaped by what we believe is the meaning and significance of Jesus Christ. And in this regard Dupuis is an expert, and we will consult his authoritative book: Jesus Christ at the Encounter of World Religions. Dupuis is very sympathetic to Abhishiktananda’s ideas and very respectful of his spiritual experience, but he is also not uncritical of what he believes to be some questionable aspects of Abhishiktananda’s formulations or whether Abhishiktananda can reconcile his articulated spiritual experience with traditional Catholic Christology. We will consider what he has to say–it is important to our consideration of the possibility of a Christian advaita.


Now to start off let us clarify what is a not uncommon misunderstanding: that advaita necessarily implies monism. “Advaita” means “not two”; so the usual supposition would say, “Well, then, advaita means “one.” That would indicate monism. That would mean that “I” and “God” are one substance really–thus “monism.” Dualism is simply the affirmation that “God” and “I” are distinctly different and thus “two.” Advaita says: Not so! But does that necessarily force us to say “one” in the sense of monism? I am afraid that a large number of Hindu sages and also Western intellectuals seem to believe that is the case. Certain people with mystical experience of advaita, both Hindu and Christians like Abhishiktananda and Eckhart, seem to indicate that the situation is much more nuanced and that there is another choice of sorts here. In a very real sense, Christian advaita would prefer to say, “not one, not two”; this would be the Christian version of the “neti, neti” of the Upanishads.

Lets approach our problem in another way. Christianity and Christian mysticism is fundamentally and deeply relational. The ground of all relationality is the relationality within the Trinity.   Then there is the relationship of Jesus to the one he calls Father. Then there is the relationship of Jesus to his disciples. And finally, there is the relationship of the disciples among themselves and to the rest of the world. All this “relationship” stuff seems to point in another direction from advaita: dualism. Afterall the disciple prays to Jesus; the disciple “returns” to the Father, etc. And “I” am I, and “you” are you. The “other” is still and always the other. Even Buber’s attempt at creating a deeper sense of union within the Judeo-Christian perspective with the “I-thou” formulation still does not escape the sense of “otherness.” Advaita, on the other hand, seems to obliterate all sense of otherness. Here is Abhishiktananda giving us a sense of the problem we face:

“Not allowing myself to locate God anywhere outside me, but recognizing that within as well as without there is only He alone. For if there were God plus an ‘other,’ he would no longer be God, the Absolute! Nothing is left but he who says : I AM! Then what does it matter where I ‘myself’ am? It is his business! But how to say ‘Him’? ‘Who’ is there to speak of ‘Him’? Nothing is left but He who says ‘I’ ‘aham,’ from eternity to eternity. OM is precisely the word of the one who in the presence of the mystery can do no more.”


Abhishiktananda will be our guide in future postings on this topic as he both articulates the crucial nature of the problem most forcefully and at the same time he shows us a way out of our dilemma. Let’s be clear at the outset: there is no solution to our problem in the sense of any conceptual understanding or any systematic thought. There is only a hint, a faint scent, a glimmer of light that we can catch in all our symbols and stories and language and theories. If we have the proper preparation of a certain kind of religious experience, then we might find out how advaita and our Christian identity will cohere. But trust me, this is not an easy matter–Abhishiktananda is a witness to that! Our little reflections will be merely a “preparation of the ground” for the real work of the heart.

So our plan, then, will be first to focus on the Gospel of John, then we will focus on what Abhishiktananda has to say as our “Master Teacher,” and then we will listen to Dupuis and his appraisal of Abhishiktananda’s presentation. Finally, we will, perhaps, present our own appraisal of Dupuis. So that’s it for now.








Quotes and Musings for Hard Times

Wei Ying-wu was an outstanding Chinese poet during the great Tang period. But he came at the end of it and experienced its collapse into chaos and destruction. A collection of his poems is entitled In Such Hard Times. I think we are entering our own “hard times,” not that our past has been a “walk in the park.” I am not a poet, so I can’t offer any consoling poems, but I will share some quotes from some friends “off the beaten path.”


“Not until we are lost do we begin to understand ourselves.” Henry David Thoreau

Comment: We pretty much have a sense of how this works on a spiritual and individual level, even a psychological level such as you only come to grips with your addiction when you hit rock bottom. But how would this work on a collective scale, like a whole country, like the U.S.? It has always amazed me how Americans by and large are blind to the dark and sinful (and I use that word deliberately) nature of the roots of their country. Perhaps we are entering an era when this will no longer be “hidden” but unmasked; the furies unleashed, the hounds of chaos ripping at our social fabric. We might find ourselves truly “lost” as a nation. Then what?



“Only by going alone in silence, without baggage, can one truly get into the heart of the wilderness. All other travel is mere dust and hotels and baggage and chatter.”   John Muir

Comment: I don’t think Muir foresaw an era that wanted to abolish all wilderness. Make it all into a park here; totally destroy it through the extraction craze and pollution there; and everywhere it is simply another commodity for our use. Lots of people will even quote the Bible on that one.


“Know, O beloved, that man was not created in jest or at random, but marvelously made and for some great end.” Al-Ghazzali

Comment: To borrow from the ancient Chinese poet, “In such times as these,” we better hang on to this notion no matter what.


“When human beings lose their connection to nature, to heaven and earth, then they do not know how to nurture their environment or how to rule their world – which is saying the same thing. Human beings destroy their ecology at the same time that they destroy one another. From that perspective, healing our society goes hand in hand with healing our personal, elemental connection with the phenomenal world.”

Chogyam Trungpa

Comment: Not a bad insight for a deeply mixed up Tibetan lama. But “in such times as these” you got to find your wisdom wherever you can.


Alexander Sozhenitsyn wrote this piece of advice to all his fellow refuseniks in Stalinist Russia:

“Do not pursue what is illusory—property and position; all is gained at the expense of your nerves decade after decade, and is confiscated in one fell night. Live with a steady superiority over life—don’t be afraid of misfortune, and do not yearn after happiness; it is, after all, all the same: the bitter doesn’t last forever, and the sweet never fills the cup to overflowing. It is enough if you don’t freeze in the cold and if thirst and hunger don’t claw at your insides. If your back isn’t broken, if your feet can walk, if both arms can bend, if both eyes can see, and if both ears can hear, then whom should you envy? And why? Our envy of others devours us most of all. Rub your eyes and purify your heart—and prize above all else in the world those who love you and who wish you well. Do not hurt them or scold them, and never part from any of them in anger; after all, you simply do not know: it might be your last act before your arrest, and that will be how you are imprinted in their memory!”

Comment: Only someone who has suffered much, who has stared into the deep dark pit of history can write like this. Perhaps we are approaching our own time of being “refuseniks” at great cost to ourselves. But I would add another note: the Dalai Lama and my friends the Desert Fathers would say that you should cherish the most those who hate you and want to do harm to you; it is these who will most test your heart and tell you who you really are.


From a book review by Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, a famous basketball player and a devout Muslim:

“In 1776, Thomas Jefferson’s friend Senator Richard Henry Lee expressed both of their opinions when he asserted in Congress, referring to Muslims and Hindus, that “true freedom embraces the Mahometan and the Gentoo as well as the Christian religion.” In 1777, the Muslim kingdom of Morocco became the first country in the world to formally accept the United States as a sovereign nation. In 1786, when the United States needed protection from North African pirates who were stealing ships and enslaving crews, it signed the Treaty of Tripoli, which stated that “the government of the United States of America is not, in any sense, founded on the Christian religion, as it has in itself no character of enmity against the laws, religion or tranquillity of Musselmen.” In 1785, George Washington declared that he would welcome Muslim workers at Mount Vernon. In 1786, Jefferson triumphed in his Bill for Establishing Religious Freedom in Virginia, by persuading the Legislature to overwhelmingly reject attempts to include Jesus Christ as the religious authority in the bill. Jefferson later declared that this was one of his three greatest accomplishments.”

Comment: Interesting how this undermines how fundamentalists and other narrow-minded Christians portray the beginnings of the United States. We are not a theocracy which is ruled by a particular religious view but a secular community, and so every religious person should find a space of free expression within this undefined secular space. But lest we get carried away with a romantic view of this early era, it is also very evident that NOT ALL people were welcome or tolerated, such as the many Native Americans. Here’s a few quotes pertaining to that:

From The Spanish Requerimiento: “But if you do not submit…we shall powerfully enter into your country, and shall make war against you…. We shall take you, and your wives, and your children, and shall make slaves of them.”


“The only true method of treating the savages is to keep them in proper subjection and punish, without exception, the transgressors.”

                           Sir Jeffrey Amherst, commander of British forces


When Columbus came in 1492 to Hispaniola there were several million Native Americans there–an estimate, a very large number. By 1520 there were only 20,000; by 1535, 0. Why? Partly because of the diseases the Spaniards brought; partly because of the policy of genocide. Here is an excerpt from Bartolome de las Casas, a Dominican Friar who documented what the Spaniards did:

“It was a general rule among the Spaniards to be cruel; not just cruel, but extraordinarily cruel so that harsh and bitter treatment would prevent Indians from daring to think of themselves as human beings or having a minute to think at all. So they would cut an Indian’s hands and leave them dangling by a shred of skin and they would send him on saying, ‘Go now, spread the news to your Chiefs.’ They would test their swords and their manly strength on captured Indians and place bets on the slicing off of heads or the cutting of bodies in half with one blow. They burned or hanged captured chiefs.”

Comments: Important to note that the Church only stepped in to stop this kind of activity when de las Casas presented the full story to the Pope and the king and queen of Spain. But you have to realize that the religious powers of Europe were fully behind the movement into the New World. The Church enabled and empowered these people through its language and its teachings.


Shifting gears, here’s a few quotes from one of my favorites, Edward Abbey:

“Benedicto: May your trails be crooked, winding, lonesome, dangerous, leading to the most amazing view. May your mountains rise into and above the clouds. May your rivers flow without end, meandering through pastoral valleys tinkling with bells, past temples and castles and poets towers into a dark primeval forest where tigers belch and monkeys howl, through miasmal and mysterious swamps and down into a desert of red rock, blue mesas, domes and pinnacles and grottos of endless stone, and down again into a deep vast ancient unknown chasm where bars of sunlight blaze on profiled cliffs, where deer walk across the white sand beaches, where storms come and go as lightning clangs upon the high crags, where something strange and more beautiful and more full of wonder than your deepest dreams waits for you — beyond that next turning of the canyon walls.”


“You can’t study the darkness by flooding it with light.”

Comment: Spiritually this is so true. Deep, deep spiritual experience first comes (most often) as an incredible darkness (see John of the Cross for this, and also Merton). The temptation is to try and deal with it in terms of words and concepts we are familiar with. Bad! Abide in the darkness, rather, until it transforms into a knowledge beyond knowledge. Now with regard to a social situation, “darkness” is a lot trickier to deal with. Yes, a lot of words trying to explain our darkness can only get more confusing. Look at all the analysis after the election!! But total silence is not right either. A real wisdom is called for, “to study this darkness.”

“There are some good things to be said about walking. Not many, but some. Walking takes longer, for example, than any other known form of locomotion except crawling. Thus it stretches time and prolongs life. Life is already too short to waste on speed. I have a friend who’s always in a hurry; he never gets anywhere. Walking makes the world much bigger and thus more interesting. You have time to observe the details. The utopian technologists foresee a future for us in which distance is annihilated. … To be everywhere at once is to be nowhere forever, if you ask me.”

Comment: Our electronic wizardry and infrastructure is an attempt “to be everywhere at once.” This hurried, instantaneous mode of life infects everything we do and are.


“The love of wilderness is more than a hunger for what is always beyond reach; it is also an expression of loyalty to the earth, the earth which bore us and sustains us, the only paradise we shall ever know, the only paradise we ever need, if only we had the eyes to see.”


“Whenever I see a photograph of some sportsman grinning over his kill, I am always impressed by the striking moral and esthetic superiority of the dead animal to the live one.”

Comment: I have always wondered why do people enjoy killing animals for trophies. It’s one thing if you need food; but so much of hunting is simply killing animals for the enjoyment of killing.


“The ugliest thing in America is greed, the lust for power and domination, the lunatic ideology of perpetual Growth – with a capital G. ‘Progress’ in our nation has for too long been confused with ‘Growth’; I see the two as different, almost incompatible, since progress means, or should mean, change for the better – toward social justice, a livable and open world, equal opportunity and affirmative action for all forms of life. And I mean all forms, not merely the human. The grizzly, the wolf, the rattlesnake, the condor, the coyote, the crocodile, whatever, each and every species has as much right to be here as we do.”












War and the Crisis of Language

This is actually the title of an essay by Thomas Merton, written in 1968, the last year of his life, and published only after his death. It was written during the height of the Vietnam War, and it belongs to a whole collection of Merton anti-war writings. As was often the case, in this instance Merton articulated something broader and more deep than just a policy disagreement with the government. Using such resources as Gandhi, Orwell, James Joyce and so many others, he delves into the abuse and degradation of our communication by means of language. This denatured language then becomes an instrument for obfuscating or just plain excusing the atrocities and injustices that we commit. Recall Orwell’s 1984, the slogans, “War is Peace,” “Freedom is slavery,” “Ignorance is strength,” and so on. Recall the sign at the gate of Auschwitz: Arbeit macht Frei, Work makes one free. Maybe it’s not THAT bad in modern America, but it’s pretty close. Merton loved the example of the American military commander who actually said, “In order to save the village, it became necessary to destroy it.” He thought the following pretty much summed up the attitude and the language of those who supported the war:

“The Asian whose future we are about to decide is either a bad guy or a good guy. If he is a bad guy, he obviously has to be killed. If he is a good guy, he is on our side and he ought to be ready to die for freedom. We will provide an opportunity for him to do so: we will kill him to prevent him falling under the tyranny of a demonic enemy.”


Merton of course saw that this war language was only the end-result of a long process of a degradation of language as a bearer of meaning. This took place in advertising, in pop culture, and in political discourse. Decades before folks such as at Adbusters critiqued modern discourse at all levels, Merton had nailed down the vacuity and triviality of pop culture, this vacuity which then colonized all our thinking. In this essay he uses the example of a perfume ad from a magazine, and then comments:

“Now let us turn elsewhere, to the language of advertisement, which at times approaches the mystic and charismatic heights of glossolalia. Here too, utterance is final. No doubt there are insinuations of dialogue, but really there is no dialogue with an advertisement, just as there was no dialogue between the sirens and the crews they lured to disaster on their rocks.[Reference to the Odyssey] There is nothing to do but be hypnotized and drown, unless you have somehow acquired a fortunate case of deafness. But who can guarantee that he is deaf enough? Meanwhile, it is the vocation of the poet–or anti-poet–not to be deaf to such things but to apply his ear intently to their corrupt charms. An example: a perfume advertisement from The New Yorker (September 17, 1966).

I present the poem as it appears on a full page, with a picture of a lady swooning with delight at her own smell–the smell of Arpege. (Note that the word properly signifies a sound–arpeggio. Aware that we are now smelling music, let us be on our guard!)

For the love of Arpege . . .

There’s a new hair spray!

The world’s most adored fragrance

now in a hair spray. But not hair spray

as you know it.

A delicate-as-air-spray

Your hair takes on a shimmer and sheen

that’s wonderfully young.

You seem to spray new life and bounce

right into it. And a coif of Arpege has

one more thing no other hair spray has.

It has Arpege.


One look at this masterpiece and the anti-poet recognizes himself beaten hands down. This is beyond parody. It must stand inviolate in its own victorious rejection of meaning. We must avoid the temptation to dwell on details: interior rhyme, suggestions of an esoteric cult (the use of our product, besides making you young again, is also a kind of gnostic initiation), of magic (our product gives you a hat of smell–a “coif”–it clothes you in an aura of music-radiance perfume). What I want to point out is the logical structure of this sonata: it is a foolproof tautology, locked tight upon itself, impenetrable, unbreakable, irrefutable. It is endowed with a finality so inviolable that it is beyond debate and beyond reason. Faced with the declaration that “Arpege has Arpege,” reason is reduced to silence (I almost said despair). Here again we have an example of speech that is at once totally trivial and totally definitive. It has nothing to do with anything real (although of course the sale of the product is a matter of considerable importance to the manufacturer), but what it says, it says with utter finality.”

One can read the whole Merton essay online here:


Now I am not about to rehash the Vietnam era or launch into a general critique of our culture. It’s just that we have recently had this miserable election, and it was full of the kinds of things that Merton et al. were talking about way back then: not just the usual political lies, but now much more sophisticated “fake news,” sloganeering, myths and images for our consumption that are totally unreal. You see the only thing that has changed since the Vietnam era is the amazing speed and immediacy of all this unreality: cell phones and texting, twitter and social media, etc. The general populace is drugged with mindless entertainment, with pain killers(an epidemic in our country right now–one of the pharmaceutical giants shipped over 750 million pain-killing pills just to West Virginia, a town of just over 390 got 7 million pills alone), with mind-numbing and dumbing education that stifles critical thinking, with narcotics of all kinds. And the whole thing is wrapped up in this package of language that disguises the unreality of it all. “I am a consumer; therefore I am.”

Now I want to emphasize that in many ways this is nothing new in American history. It is actually our history which is more and more focused on the unreal as we move into technological modernity and postmodernity. This is a history that is awash in blood, in genocide, in slavery, etc.; and it’s all covered over by a language of myth, fantasy, not just “fake news” but even “fake history.” We have simply gotten very, very good at producing this fakery and feeding it to the general population. From the “advance of civilization” that was used to justify the annihilation of Native Americans to the “Gulf of Tonkin incident” that was manufactured to justify our invasion of Vietnam to the “weapons of mass destruction” and the “war on terror” that all our leaders signed on to (including Hillary Clinton–but not Bernie Sanders, almost alone in this regard), all our history is loaded with “fakery” and manufactured propaganda. The effectiveness of all this was demonstrated when we invaded Iraq and there was absolutely no war protest at all in this country. All the big media players like the New York Times and the Washington Post joined in the parade toward this destruction. You are being manipulated in ways that you are hardly aware of. So Obama is portrayed as a “progressive,” Clinton as a “protector of children and minorities,” and you are invited to “Make America Great,” etc., etc. You will hear about “free trade” and the “free market,” but there ain’t no such animal in this zoo. The deck is stacked; the game is rigged for the benefit of maybe 1% or so. Financial institutions that are “too big to fail,” etc. Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren have been talking about this, but most of the populace is so drugged out on the toys and games of our culture that they can hardly understand the implications of what they are told.

Chris Hedges, as usual, has written powerfully about this in a recent piece. Its title is “’Fake News’ in America: Homegrown, and Far From New.” Here is the link to the whole piece:


It’s interesting that Hedges was a Pulitzer Prize winning international journalist with the New York Times decades ago when he was forced out because he was reporting on how Israel was treating the Palestinians in graphic detail. So he is one who knows the modern news biz…..and as he says, it is more a business than a service of fact and information. Here is an extended quote from that piece:


“The media landscape in America is dominated by “fake news.” It has been for decades. This fake news does not emanate from the Kremlin. It is a multibillion-dollar-a-year industry that is skillfully designed and managed by public relations agencies, publicists and communications departments on behalf of individuals, government and corporations to manipulate public opinion. This propaganda industry stages pseudo-events to shape our perception of reality. The public is so awash in these lies, delivered 24 hours a day through electronic devices and print, that viewers and readers can no longer distinguish between truth and fiction.

Donald Trump and the racist-conspiracy theorists, generals and billionaires around him inherited and exploited this condition, just as they have inherited and will exploit the destruction of civil liberties and collapse of democratic institutions. Trump did not create this political, moral and intellectual vacuum. It created him. It created a world where fact is interchangeable with opinion, where celebrities have huge megaphones simply because they are celebrities, where information must be entertaining and where we can all believe what we want to believe regardless of truth. A demagogue like Trump is what you get when you turn culture and the press into burlesque. 

Journalists long ago gave up trying to describe an objective world or give a voice to ordinary men and women. They became conditioned to cater to corporate demands. News personalities, who often make millions of dollars a year, became courtiers. They peddle gossip. They promote consumerism and imperialism. They chatter endlessly about polls, strategies, presentation and tactics or play guessing games about upcoming presidential appointments. They fill news holes with trivial, emotionally driven stories that make us feel good about ourselves. They are incapable of genuine reporting. They rely on professional propagandists to frame all discussion and debate……… The 20th century’s cultural and social transformation, E.P. Thompson wrote in his essay “Time, Work-Discipline, and Industrial Capitalism,” has turned out to be much more than the embrace of an economic system or the celebration of patriotism. It is, he pointed out, part of a revolutionary reinterpretation of reality. It marks the ascendancy of mass culture and the destruction of genuine culture and genuine intellectual life.

Richard Sennett, in his book “The Fall of the Public Man,” identified the rise of mass culture as one of the prime forces behind what he termed a new “collective personality … generated by a common fantasy.” And the century’s great propagandists would not only agree but would add that those who can manipulate and shape those fantasies determine the directions taken by the “collective personality.”

This huge internal pressure, hidden from public view, makes the production of good journalism and good scholarship very, very difficult. Those reporters and academics who care about the truth and don’t back down are subjected to subtle and at times overt coercion and often are purged from institutions.”



If you are in the world of religion, don’t think that you are immune from all this or that you are “above all this,” or that this has nothing to do with you. In fact religion produces its own linguistic obfuscations galore, and certainly Christian church history has its own mirages and delusions written all over it. All religions have participated, more or less, in the deceptive abuse of language for the purpose of self-aggrandizement and gaining power. Just compare for example, all those religious and spiritual books about the “glories of the Church” with the real history of the Church. No wonder it is understandable that some people have this intuitive aversion to anything religious these days! Consider this example from Church history: the Doctrine of Discovery–this allowed the taking of lands from Native Americans and if they resisted we were allowed to kill them. This was government policy, law and civil practice. But the roots of this injustice lay in religious language, in various papal bulls from the 15th Century that literally allowed “Christian” European nations to enslave, dispossess and/or kill all indigenous peoples in the New World who were not Christians. Several popes have asked forgiveness on behalf of the Church for this incredible moment in history, but not one, not even Pope Francis, has rescinded or rejected any of these papal bulls. Papal language, I guess, is considered sacrosanct, and a pope can never be caught saying something that has to be denied later, no matter how outrageous. If the language is couched in religion, then it seems untouchable. (Something like this occurs among evangelical Christians and their use of the Bible–Biblical language cannot be critiqued.) A more complete treatment of some of this matter can be found in a series of stories done by the National Catholic Reporter:






Another Potpourri of Comments

A. Wendell Berry, who had a few friends among the Amish and some interactions with them, has this interesting contribution: a list of Amish social principles.


“1. No institutions except family and church. The church is the community.

  1. The one community institution–the church–is not an organization: no building, no building fund, etc.
  2. The only chosen leaders are church leaders, and those are chosen by lot.
  3. They don’t have specialization in the pure, modern sense. Their craftsmen, ministers, etc. are also farmers. Agriculture is a norm, like binocular vision.
  4. They all work with their hands.
  5. They force the issue of community dependence; won’t buy insurance or accept government help.
  6. They vote on technological changes. For adoption, the vote must be unanimous.”

Berry goes on commenting: “This last rule I learned from Randy Wittman. If there is even one dissenter, he says, they assume the Devil is with the majority! This would make ‘progress’ very slow–but, I think, probably fast enough….. What impresses me is that, though the community is seen as a positive good, most of these principles are negative in intent or bearing. Unlike modern American government which is snarled in many rules prescribing what to do, Amish government consists of a few rules saying what not to do.”

B.  The influence and role of the news media in the election. Just a hint of how it goes: The Tyndall Report analyzed all the media in their political coverage during the primary season of the election year. In a span of 1000 minutes of coverage, Trump got 327 minutes; Bernie received just 20 minutes. Hilary got 121 minutes of campaign coverage, six times the amount Sanders received. ABC World News Tonight aired 81 minutes on Donald Trump compared with just 20 seconds for Sanders. This is just the tip of the iceberg in how the media distort our awareness of real things. Trump was a media icon; Bernie was an unknown delivering a serious message that needed some real thinking about. But we are more and more a people that thrives on slogans and simplistic solutions to our problems.

C.   January is the month of Martin Luther King and Mahatma Gandhi. MLK Day is celebrated in January; and the anniversary of Gandhi’s assassination is January 30th. Here’s a few quotes to celebrates these giants of our era:

Martin Luther King: “I’ve seen too much hate to want to hate, myself, and I’ve seen hate on the faces of too many sheriffs, too many White Citizens Councilors, and too many Klansmen of the South to want to hate, myself; and every time I see it, I say to myself, hate is too great a burden to bear. Somehow we must be able to stand up before our most bitter opponents and say: ‘We shall match your capacity to inflict suffering by our capacity to endure suffering. We will meet your physical force with soul force. Do to us what you will and we will still love you. We cannot in all good conscience obey your unjust laws and abide by the unjust system, because noncooperation with evil is as much a moral obligation as is cooperation with good, and so throw us in jail and we will still love you. Bomb our homes and threaten our children, and, as difficult as it is, we will still love you. Send your hooded perpetrators of violence into our communities at the midnight hour and drag us out on some wayside road and leave us half-dead as you beat us, and we will still love you. Send your propaganda agents around the country and make it appear we are not fit, culturally and otherwise, for integration, but we will still love you. But be assured that we will wear you down by our capacity to suffer, and one day we will win our freedom. We will not only win freedom for ourselves, we will so appeal to your heart and conscience that we will win you in the process, and our victory will be a double victory.’”


This, of course, is thoroughly in the Gandhian tradition, and perhaps one might want to say it is too idealized. But if we don’t have those kinds of ideals we are lost as human beings. Speaking of Gandhi, here are a few quotes from him:

“If Christians would really live according to the teachings of Christ, as found in the Bible, all of India would be Christian today.”

“What difference does it make to the dead, the orphans and the homeless, whether the mad destruction is wrought under the name of totalitarianism or in the holy name of liberty or democracy?”

“There are people in the world so hungry, that God cannot appear to them except in the form of bread.”

“The weak can never forgive. Forgiveness is the attribute of the strong.”

“Prayer is not asking. It is a longing of the soul. It is daily admission of one’s weakness. It is better in prayer to have a heart without words than words without a heart.”

D.   Standing Rock. As I write this the protestors at Standing Rock seem to have won some kind of victory as the Army Corp of Engineers has denied the permit for the company laying the pipeline. It is a victory for nonviolence, for resistance, for the Native American people….though it is a very fragile victory which the Trump Administration might unravel. Long before Standing Rock, Pope Francis wrote the following which sums up very clearly what was at stake in this situation:

““In this sense, it is essential to show special care for indigenous communities and their cultural traditions. They are not merely one minority among others, but should be the principal dialogue partners, especially when large projects affecting their land are proposed. For them, land is not a commodity but rather a gift from God and from their ancestors who rest there, a sacred space with which they need to interact if they are to maintain their identity and values. When they remain on their land, they themselves care for it best.”

Here is a lovely website showing the various people involved in this action:

E.   Chris Hedges has another acute commentary on our situation, entitled “The Mafia State”:

F.    The New Monasticism Revisited. In a more spiritual vein, I was rummaging through some older Merton material, from the ‘50s and early ‘60s. Amazing how so much of that stuff feels so dated; it reads at times as if you were in a stuffy old room. There are a few exceptions, like the essay “Philosophy of Solitude,” for example. But it is also amazing how different Merton begins to sound after 1960 or thereabouts. One of the essays I stumbled on was something I had not read before, “The Christian in the Diaspora.” It is a lengthy reflection on the post-Vatican II Church and the modern theologians, like Karl Rahner, who were trying to address the Western modern world in which the Christian was going to be surrounded by a mass of unbelief and in which the Christian was going to be a true minority. How to live in such a situation, and what should the Christian’s attitude be toward such a situation? Somehow those don’t seem to be our concerns today–a lot of what he describes has happened, or we have simply gotten numb to our situation, or these have been transformed into other questions, and we are dealing with various consequences of all this in one way or another. But there is one whole section of this essay that still has a direct importance for us today in its urgency and its insight: “The Monk in the Diaspora.” Here he tackles the question of monastic identity in this situation of modernity and now we would say post-modernity. Merton: “The effectiveness of the monk’s presence in the world and of his monastic witness to the Gospel of Christ will depend on his ability to see his own place in relation to the world correctly. He too must learn to understand his monastic calling in the general diaspora situation of the whole Church.”

The felt need for reformulation and revitalization of the monastic charism was long experienced and is somewhat still with us. The two major problems that have plagued monastic renewal and still do: a fossilization of monastic identity into a kind of medieval theme-park with a fortress Church institution, or a re-structuring of monastic life by people who do not have a deep experience and knowledge of monastic tradition. It is the latter which is, in my opinion, a more serious problem because it can seem like a really new monasticism is being born. The other stuff is so obviously wrong that there is no need to comment.

Merton tosses this all around, and a lot of this material is familiar to those of us who have read his monastic writings; but then he touches ground with something that you hardly hear about or know much about: the Russian Orthodox monasticism as envisioned by Russian theologians and writers in their own diaspora in Europe in the middle of the 20th Century. Interesting that Merton finds them an intriguing guide for perhaps some radical aspects of some new monasticism. A few Merton quotes:

“Modern Russian Orthodox writers who live literally in a diaspora (mostly in France) have carefully taken stock of the monastic movement and have traced the beginning of a new outlook back to the last century which was in fact the golden age of Russian monasticism. Leon Zander, regarding the monasticism of the Russian 19th century through the eyes of Dostoevsky, feels that the author of The Brothers Karamazov was speaking in some measure prophetically when he described the person and doctrine of the ideal staretz in Father Zossima. It is well known that Zossima is supposed to have been a life portrait of Staretz Ambrose of Optino…. According to Zander, the portrait of Zossima is not psychological or historical, but is a piece of ‘iconography.’ Zossima embodies and typifies not the 19th century monk but Dostoevsky’s own view of the inner meaning of monasticism. Indeed this Staretz is a ‘prophetic’ type of what the monk of the future should be. Zossima is, in other words, what Dostoevsky thought the monks of the twentieth century needed to become.”

“…Zander quotes Rozanov and other writers who see in the clash between the Staretz, Zossima, and the fierce ascetic, Ferrapont, a contrast between two forms of monasticism, the traditional and the ‘new.’ In fact, the Startzi were much criticized and attacked in their own time. They were by no means looked upon with unanimous favor in the monasteries. Their charismatic openness to the world, was reproved and they were criticized for the marginal life they tended to lead in relation to the traditional monastic framework. Ferrapont…is convinced that Zossima is an imposter, a relaxed monk, undermining the ancient fabric of monasticism….”

Merton then quotes Rozanov: “Dostoevsky has formulated an eternal truth, reaching down into the most essential reality of monasticism. It is the truth of a conflict between two ideals: one which speaks a benediction and one which passes sentence of damnation, one which embraces the world and one which spits on the world, one which accepts pain (for itself) and one which plunges others deeper into pain.”

Merton continues: “Ferrapont stands for the full authority of the powerful and venerable monastic institution with all its medieval Byzantine traditions, all its hieratic observances, its sacred order, its security, its regularity, and its prestige. His ascesis is part of a mighty religious institution organized for power, manifesting that power in the inexorable condemnation of all that does not conform absolutely to its hieratic demands. It rejects as evil and damnable all that does not submit to the claims of a formidably organized body of traditions, in thought, morality and worship…. Zossima on the other hand is no ascetic, no ritualist, and his monastic practice is, by the standards of Ferrapont, lax and inconsistent. His observance…is not austere and, what is worse, he is in free spontaneous communication with the wicked world, since sinners crowd to his cell for advice and blessing. Yet Zossima is in no sense merely an activist, on the contrary he is, according to Dostoevsky, Rozanov, Zander, and modern Russian Orthodox writers, the ‘ikon of the true monk.’ He is truly solitary, fully dedicated and forgetful of self, a genuine man of God, totally converted to God yet perfectly aware of his own weakness and limitations, humble, merciful, and totally submissive not merely to law but to truth.”

All of the above then leads Merton to a striking conclusion: “The monk of the diaspora is, then, the charismatic man of God, distinguished from the world only by his humility and his dedication, by his fidelity to life and to truth, rather than by his garments, the cloister in which he lives, by his hieratic gestures and ascetic practices. He does not live a strange life that makes him a wonder to the rest of men. In Dostoevesky’s novel we read that old Karamazov, the scoundrel and blasphemer, has nothing good to say to any of the monks except Zossima but moved by the Staretz’s simple words, he confesses: ‘Talking to you, one is able to breathe.’”

Merton continues: “The modern Russian theologians writing in the Paris diaspora are all keenly aware that this was a prophetic insight into the needs of our own time, for which they are now developing the idea of ‘monasticity of the heart (monachisme interiorise’). This is not merely a conventional notion of ‘an interior life for the layman’ but the idea of the lay-monk, hidden, solitary and unprotected, without the benefit of distinguishing marks and outward forms, called to deepen his monastic vocation ‘beneath the level of forms’ and penetrating to the ‘ontological roots, the mystical essence’ of the monastic life….”


Very, very interesting. A fascinating historical embodiment of this phenomenon, not mentioned by Merton in this essay, is the example of Anthony Bloom, son of Russian emigres. He lived a double life of sorts for years. He earned his living as a doctor while secretly being a monk and spending long nights in prayer and worship. Later he was asked by his spiritual father to “come out of the closet,” as it were, because no one knew he was a monk, and to serve the Russian community as a bishop. There were a number of other such examples in Europe at that time, men and women. These were the original “new monks”!!

As marvelous as this sounds, it has a very limited application, and I am afraid that not much of that survives into our day in Europe, though, of course, by its very nature, it is a “hidden reality” and hard to estimate its real impact. Suffice it to say that the monastic movement benefited from these people greatly and still does today, and who knows what goes “unseen” by the mass media…. What’s important is that these people are like a monastic compass, always pointing to the “true north,” that which is the real essence of the monastic charism. Interestingly enough, Abhishiktananda lived in this era with these people, and in his own way was calling for something along these lines. His approach was to recognize the “namarupa” of not only Christian monasticism but also of Christianity itself, and to recognize what is relative and what is essential.

Response to the Election: Buddhist & Christian

The Buddhist magazine Lion’s Roar has done us a great service. They asked various Zen Buddhist teachers to write some kind of response/advice for people who have experienced post-election trauma in terms of fear, shock, anxiety, and especially feelings of hatred and anger. Here is the link to all that:

Most of the stuff is good basic stuff and helpful to a greater or lesser degree. Some of it borders on the platitudinous or is too vague to be helpful. And some is seriously inadequate: “Be kind to yourself” is not a “bullseye,” nor does it even hit the target. After having said all this, I look around at various Catholic publications, especially the National Catholic Reporter, and I see nothing like this at all. You would think they would round up a bunch of Catholic progressives, lay and religious, and ask them to voice some advice on where we go from here. So far I have not seen anything. I guess it’s just business as usual with us Catholics.

Returning to the Lion’s Roar collection, what bothers me most of all about it is one missing word in the collection, a very important word: RESISTANCE.   Wisdom about hope and healing is good and important, but ultimately that is an inadequate response. In fact I don’t believe you can have authentic hope or real healing until you are engaged in resistance. Indeed, the best way to deal with that post-election trauma is to commit oneself to resistance. Our mentors in such times as these should be, of course, Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Thomas Merton, among others. Next, the questions arise: resistance to what? Resistance how?

Resistance to what? That’s not hard to see. Our environment is under serious threat; many of our fellow human beings are under threat in various ways; the very social fabric of a decent life is under dire threat. We have to meet each of these threats with the proper medicine. The country is divided in an alarming way, and there is a large segment that seems blind to the dangers we are facing. In their blindness they can cause even more damage and hurt. In so many ways this did not begin on election day but has been an ongoing story for very long. It’s just that election day has brought a new urgency to the situation. And by the way, even if Clinton had won the election the call for resistance would still have been necessary but not so clearly obvious at first. There would have been relief at first, celebration, and then the real appointments and policies would have unfolded and if you were a keen observer of the scene you would have noticed some disturbing signs. These “centrist Democrats” have a way of hiding their damage. Consider this example from the Obama Administration. A very little known, very little covered in the media move by this Administration was the signing into law Section 1021 of the National Defense Authorization Act. This overturns the 1878 Posse Comitatus Act which prohibited the military from acting as a domestic police force. So now this permits the military to carry out what are called “extraordinary renditions” of U.S. citizens, strip them of due process and hold them indefinitely in military detention centers. Centrist Democrats say they are against rounding up of immigrants and putting Moslems in internment camps (like the Japanese, American citizens, who were interned during World War II), but this Obama move simply prepares the ground for such actions.



Resistance how? Ah, this is the truly tough one! Our fellow neighbors, our fellow citizens, our fellow human beings are the agents of these threats. What we cannot and must not do in our resistance is to demonize these people. This is what the Lion’s Roar contributors seriously missed–the key question in all this is how to engage in resistance without demonizing the other? To advise “love” is just too vague and doesn’t deal with the real situation of the real evil that people can and will do. As Dostoevsky’s Father Zosima admonished (and this was one of Dorothy Day’s favorite quotes), real love is a harsh and hard reality that will take its toll on you….not just a nice feeling you have for others…which will evaporate like a mist once you are “slapped down.”  The temptation and lure of scorn, derision, rejection and even hatred for that “other,” then, is very real–and found quite a lot in political progressive discourse these days– and can hide under the banner of “resisting evil,” but that is not the way of real spiritual maturity. But let’s be clear about this: in this regard we are all “beginners,” “learners,” “mere toddlers learning how to walk.” This is very deep stuff and let no one think he/she has a handle on it–but we can support and encourage each other on this path. “Stronger Together,” as someone recently said!! Let’s look at this a bit more in detail.

The obligation to resistance is truly there, but the concrete shape it takes in a given life will of course vary quite a bit. A contemplative monk will not normally engage in the same day-to-day activities as one whose real calling is to be a social activist. There may be times and circumstances where the difference between the two will be indistinguishable, but here we are simply talking about a whole life path. For a contemplative monk there are two dangers that must be avoided, two pitfalls that must be navigated around. One is the idea that the monk must drop his contemplative way of life and proceed to the barricades of protest. It makes no sense for the monk to lose the very essence of what he/she is about, abandoning that silence and solitude that marks their life and which in fact is the deepest ground of all resistance to real evil; there is no sense in the monk tossing aside his/hers very real and very precious contribution to the Church and to all of humanity in that very solitude and silence. No need to go into that here; we can discuss this at another time. I must say that in my own experience of monastic life I don’t think this was ever a real danger with the majority of monastic people. Very few monks were ever tempted this way; the majority of people who left monastic life since the ‘60s left mostly because they discovered that was not their real path.

Now the other danger is the very real one and the more serious one: to think that in monastic life you are “above” all that stuff, that you are “immune” to its dangers, that only the “inner life” matters, etc. It is an interesting dualism that was at one time prevalent and still is present among Catholic monastics: “the world,” and “monastic life.” In a context of a society that is difficult to come to terms with, where life is lived in a complex and problematic way and ambiguous to the nth degree, where people seem to have so many mixed motivations, etc., etc., the lure to withdraw into a purely interior world or at best deal only with the people in your own life, well, that is a problem that is truly there. And you can see a bit of this in the Buddhist contributors also.

For contemplative monastics Merton issued many warnings about a false contemplative stance where the monks claimed an “innocence” from all that stuff. Here is one pertinent quote:

“The contemplative life is not, and cannot be, a mere withdrawal, a pure negation, a turning of one’s back on the world with its sufferings, its crises, its confusions and its errors. First of all, the attempt itself would be illusory. No person can withdraw completely from the society of his fellow men; and the monastic community is deeply implicated, for better or for worse, in the economic, political, and social structures of the contemporary world. To forget or to ignore this does not absolve the monk from responsibility for participation in events in which his very silence and ‘not knowing’ may constitute a form of complicity. The mere fact of ‘ignoring’ what goes on can become a political decision. Too often it has happened that contemplative communities in Europe, whose individual members were absorbed in otherworldly recollection, have officially and publicly given support to totalitarian movements. In such cases it can ultimately be said that the monk in his liturgy, in his study or in his contemplation is actually participating in things he congratulates himself on having renounced…. The monastic flight from the world into the desert is not a mere refusal to know anything about the world, but a total rejection of all standards of judgment which imply attachment to a history of delusion, egoism and sin. Not of course a vain denial that the monk too is a sinner (this would be an even worse delusion), but a definitive refusal to participate in those activities which have no other fruit than to prolong the reign of untruth, greed, cruelty and arrogance in the world of men…. The adversary is not time, not history, but the evil will and the accumulated inheritance of past untruth and past sin. This evil the monk must see. He must even denounce it, if others fail to do so. What is the meaning of this ‘denunciation’? Is it to be regarded as a political act in the sense of an expressed determination to influence politics? Perhaps indirectly so. I speak not only as a monk but also as a responsible citizen of a very powerful nation. However, it is not my intention to imply that a state which is, and should be, secular, has to be guided by the perspectives of an eschatological Church. But I do intend to say at what point I and Christians who think as I do become morally obligated to dissent.”


At this point we are still at this dilemma: how does a contemplative (and so many others also, who may be obligated by family responsibilities, for example) practice resistance? No easy answers here. Mostly you have to look into your own heart and your own circumstances and be very attentive to what you can and should do or say. Resistance can begin with a lot of little things; and most of all resistance has to become a state of mind. Example: years ago we all wondered how ever would the gruesome Soviet empire get taken down? Very little known at first, there were Russians who were beginning to practice a refusal to cooperate with the State, artists and poets at first, then many others. This grew into a tidal wave by the 1970s, and these people even got their own name: refusniks! They refused to support the brutal State in whatever way they could. By the early 1980s this State was crumbling. Ignorant American media attributed this to the Reagan “hard line,” but it was decades of inner sacrifice and courage and determination by millions to derail the machinery of oppression by simply refusing to cooperate with it.

Another example–this time of what could have been/should have been: Standing Rock. We all know what is going on there. Native Americans planting the seed of what might become a major movement. It made me wonder….why did not all the Trappist monasteries at least issue a statement in support of these people. That might have jolted the Catholic population. Even more interesting and potent would have been if all the monastic groups would have sent a delegation of several dozen monks to join the Native American protestors on the front lines. Gosh, these monks go to all kinds of nice conferences and gatherings–doesn’t seem to bother their “contemplation” to do that, so why not to Standing Rock. It would have been noticed, believe me! Come to think of it, it probably would have been even better if they had networked with Buddhists, Sufis and others, all these together would be present at the side of these Native Americans. And I think they were badly needed. Recently I read that a lot of whites have come who are treating this like a Burning Man gathering, hanging out and smoking pot, and not participating in a disciplined way in the protest. This is troubling to the Native American leadership as it adds to their concerns. This is an extremely important point: nonviolent protest has to be disciplined, focused, not just a “happening.” Monks would have been a good presence.


By the way, here is a link to a nice video presentation of Chris Hedges doing a report on Standing Rock:


Let’s turn now to that toxic mixture of anger/hatred and political realities. A real lot of that lately. A number of commentators, some are white leftist or Democratic pundits, but more are commentators who are people of color and are fed up with white voters. One good example of this is a piece by Sonali Kolhatkar with the title, “I’m Done Trying to Empathize With Poor White Trump Voters.” Here is the link:

Sonali’s position is well-stated, powerful, and convincing. I am white, but I felt something of that anger the day after the election. However, it must be pointed out also that the communities of color either did not show up at the polls in the same numbers as they did for Obama or even worse, more people of color voted this time for Trump than they did for Romney or McCain in previous elections. Granted this is not a large number but it does indicate something else is going on. But most importantly, no matter what the facts be, the feelings and attitude expressed in this article will not help us to advance to a real form of resistance for the long term—and a long term will probably be needed. We do need to better understand those who think so differently from us, and when we confront them, and confront them we absolutely must, our state of mind and heart must be in peace and truth, humility and freedom, courage and seeking understanding. A bit of that is apparent in another piece, this time by Chris Hedges, “We Are All Deplorables.” Hedges is a very tough critic of our society, one of the toughest out there, and he doesn’t hesitate to paint a picture that is very dark and scary. Coming from a religious background, having studied theology at Harvard Divinity School, he sometimes sounds like one of the Old Testament prophets. Tough language indeed. However, here he is trying to understand who we are and where we are and why,….why did so many vote for Trump. Like I said, I think this step is badly needed if we are going to have a real resistance and a real encounter with our brothers and sisters who think differently. Here is a long quote from that article:

“My relatives in Maine are deplorables. I cannot write on their behalf. I can write in their defense. They live in towns and villages that have been ravaged by deindustrialization. The bank in Mechanic Falls, where my grandparents lived, is boarded up, along with nearly every downtown store. The paper mill closed decades ago. There is a strip club in the center of the town. The jobs, at least the good ones, are gone. Many of my relatives and their neighbors work up to 70 hours a week at three minimum-wage jobs, without benefits, to make perhaps $35,000 a year. Or they have no jobs. They cannot afford adequate health coverage under the scam of Obamacare. Alcoholism is rampant in the region. Heroin addiction is an epidemic. Labs producing the street drug methamphetamine make up a cottage industry. Suicide is common. Domestic abuse and sexual assault destroy families. Despair and rage among the population have fueled an inchoate racism, homophobia and Islamophobia and feed the latent and ever present poison of white supremacy. They also nourish the magical thinking peddled by the con artists in the Christian right, the state lotteries that fleece the poor, and an entertainment industry that night after night shows visions of an America and a lifestyle on television screens—“The Apprentice” typified this—that foster unattainable dreams of wealth and celebrity.

Those who are cast aside as human refuse often have a psychological need for illusions and scapegoats. They desperately seek the promise of divine intervention. They unplug from a reality that is too hard to bear. They see in others, especially those who are different, the obstacles to their advancement and success. We must recognize and understand the profound despair that leads to these reactions. To understand these reactions is not to condone them.

The suffering of the white underclass is real. Its members struggle with humiliation and a crippling loss of self-worth and dignity. The last thing they need, or deserve, is politically correct thought police telling them what to say and think and condemning them as mutations of human beings.”


Hedges continues:

“Those cast aside by the neoliberal order have an economic identity that both the liberal class and the right wing are unwilling to acknowledge. This economic identity is one the white underclass shares with other discarded people, including the undocumented workers and the people of color demonized by the carnival barkers on cable news shows. This is an economic reality the power elites invest great energy in masking.

The self-righteousness of the liberal class, which revels in imagined tolerance and enlightenment while condemning the white underclass as irredeemable, widens the divide between white low-wage workers and urban elites. Liberals have no right to pass judgment on these so-called deplorables without acknowledging their pain. They must listen to their stories, which the corporate media shut out. They must offer solutions that provide the possibility of economic stability and self-respect.

Martin Luther King Jr. understood the downward spiral of hating those who hate you. “In a real sense all life is inter-related,” he wrote in “Letter From a Birmingham Jail.” “All men are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly. I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be, and you can never be what you ought to be until I am what I ought to be. …”

We cannot battle the racism, bigotry and hate crimes that will be stoked by the Donald Trump presidency without first battling for economic justice. This is not a gap between the tolerant and the intolerant. It is a gap between most of the American population and our oligarchic and corporate elites, which Trump epitomizes. It is a gap that is understood only in the light of the demand for economic justice. And when we start to speak in the language of justice first, and the language of inclusiveness second, we will begin to blunt the protofascism being embraced by many Trump supporters.

I spent two years writing a book on the Christian right called “American Fascists: The Christian Right and the War on America.” I spent many months with dispossessed white workers in states such as Missouri, Kansas, Florida, Pennsylvania, Ohio and California. I carried into the book project all the prejudices that come with being raised in the liberal church—a disdain for a magic Jesus who answers your prayers and makes you rich, a repugnance at the rejection of rationality and science and at the literal interpretation of the Bible, a horror of the sacralization of the American empire, and a revulsion against the racism, misogyny, homophobia, Islamophobia, anti-Semitism and blind intolerance that often afflict those who retreat into a binary world of good and evil.

Those enthralled by such thinking are Christian heretics—Jesus did not come to make us rich and powerful and bless America’s empire—and potential fascists. They have fused the iconography and symbols of the American state with the iconography and symbols of the Christian religion. They believe they can create a “Christian” America. The American flag is given the same sacred value as the Christian cross. The Pledge of Allegiance has the religious power of the Lord’s Prayer. That a sleazy developer and con artist was chosen as their vehicle—81 percent of evangelicals voted for Trump—for achieving this goal is startling, to say the least. But this is not a reality-based movement. Most of those who profit from this culture of despair, many wrapped in the halo of the ministry, are, like Trump, slick, amoral trolls.”


Hedges looks toward the future, and it doesn’t look very bright, in fact rather dark. Things are going to get a lot worse before they get better, and Mother Nature may have the final word on this human experiment on Planet Earth. I think he is basically right, and if you think that all this gets resolved when we kick Trump out of office in 4 years (if then!), I think you still haven’t grasped how really bad off we are. Resistance is the only authentic way of being human in this situation, no matter what the future holds. We all have a vocation to be “refusniks” now. Monks were the original refusniks. It remains to be seen if today’s monks will have the vision to see what their “resistance” is all about. Beautiful liturgy with beautiful chant will not be enough.

I will let Hedges have the last word:

“There will be rebels. They will live in the shadows. They will be the renegade painters, sculptors, poets, writers, journalists, musicians, actors, dancers, organizers, activists, mystics, intellectuals and other outcasts who are willing to accept personal sacrifice. They will not surrender their integrity, creativity, independence and finally their souls. They will speak the truth. The state will have little tolerance of them. They will be poor. The wider society will be conditioned by mass propaganda to write them off as parasites or traitors. They will keep alive what is left of dignity and freedom. Perhaps one day they will rise up and triumph. But one does not live in poverty and on the margins of society because of the certainty of success. One lives like that because to collaborate with radical evil is to betray all that is good and beautiful. It is to become a captive. It is to give up the moral autonomy that makes us human. The rebels will be our hope.”       Amen!











The Many Problems of Zen Buddhism

Let me say at the outset that I am not just “picking” on Zen or Buddhism in general, and that I am quite acutely aware and lament all the incredible failings of Christianity and in particular of my own community of Catholicism. But just as we learn and benefit from our encounter with all the profound and beautiful elements of this tradition (and all the others), so we might learn something important by considering their problems and their history. Here I am going to take a brief look at two different categories of problems: intellectual and moral.

Let’s consider the intellectual first. It is also, paradoxically, the easier one to deal with. I already alluded to this problem in my reflection on Merton’s critics. There I mentioned this odd essay by John Keenan that appears in a collection of essays on Merton and Buddhism: “The Limits of Thomas Merton’s Understanding of Buddhism.” Keenan is a former professor of religion at Middlebury College, but he has bigger “scholarly guns” standing behind him and to whom he refers: Robert Scharf, Roger Corless, and the looming figure of Bernard Faure, the noted cultural historian of Buddhism at Princeton (who by the way seems to have a real disdain for Merton’s understanding of Zen).  

So, as I mentioned in the earlier posting, Keenan tells us that Merton got his Zen from Suzuki and that kind of Zen was seriously truncated. In many ways he is absolutely right. Suzuki brought over to the West a very narrow form of Rinzai Zen and furthermore he presented it as the only authentic Zen. But Suzuki also was very knowledgeable and deep and very impressive in his presence–in other words someone like Merton felt he was meeting a true representative of the Zen tradition. And he was! But according to Keenan and these other folks there is some kind of fatal flaw in Suzuki’s Zen because it is only a small part of the picture. The criticism is that if you approach Zen through their lens, Suzuki’s and Merton’s, you will not really know Zen. Wrong, absolutely wrong! Let me illustrate with an analogous example. Suppose you knew nothing about Christianity but you went to Mt. Athos and met the great spiritual fathers, Paisios and Silouan. They would illumine you on their kind of Christianity, and it might seem like the only “real thing”; they might even urge you to become Orthodox. You would get no idea of the richness of the Western mystical tradition of Christianity. But I wouldn’t blame them at all; they were truly deep and truly “deeply realized,” to put it in those terms. Through them you could enter the depths of what it means to be a Christian in the deepest sense and the Christian mystical tradition. And that is the most important thing. But it’s the not the whole picture, and that’s ok. And all their disciples would doubtless say that I am deluded for saying that, and that’s ok also!!

So I believe that those who were influenced by Suzuki got a window into the depths of Zen even if that was not the “whole picture” in some superficial way. Yes, there was the Soto school, there were Pure Land Buddhists, and so many other minor schools, all of which played an important role in conveying Zen and Buddhism, and at various times in history it was one school or another that did a better job of that than the others–corruption was a constant problem. In modern times there also arose a school that tried to combine Rinzai and Soto traditions, and so on. Whichever way you go, the important thing is getting to Zen. And now comes the other problematic point. Suzuki and the Rinzai tradition make a big point that what Zen is all about is this “awakening,” which is then a total transformation in one’s self understanding, in one’s being, and in one’s vision of all reality. So the very meaning and definition of what Zen is becomes a bone of contention. Suzuki and his followers believe that without this awakening there is NO Zen. According to these folks this awakening is “wordless,” beyond all concepts and descriptions, and mostly transmitted from one person to another, certainly not “learned” from books. Well, this kind of talk does not appeal to many professional religion scholars that inhabit our various academic departments of religion. They have an inherent bias toward texts and social structures, and anything that claims to go “beyond” that is held suspect. Since their job is precisely to analyze these texts, you can appreciate their position; but that doesn’t mean they have the “real” understanding of Zen as opposed to some monk. In fact, the very meaning of Zen may be quite different between these two positions. To borrow and adapt a quip from Upton Sinclair: you can’t expect a man to see something when his paycheck depends on his not seeing it.

Let’s summarize the complaints of this group of scholars: 1. that the core of Zen is this enlightenment experience, whether gradual or sudden; 2. that this awakening is wordless and beyond all conceptualizations; 3. that even if Zen’s natural home is in “Zen Buddhism,” the Zen experience can be found universally outside all structures; 4. that Zen Buddhism, like all religious traditions, is cluttered with a lot of texts, traditions, rituals, etc. that may or may not help in this “awakening.” They pretty much reject all these.

This last point is especially irksome to this group of scholars because to them it seems that Zen is merely the sum total of various kinds of practices and things: in other words, the flavor of religion known as Zen Buddhism. In fact, this is one of the ways they attack the Merton approach to Zen (and even Taoism) because Merton tends to push all that aside to get at the heart of Zen. Let’s back up a bit: what a number of these scholars practice has been in vogue for the last few decades: deconstruction. This began with a French philosopher, Jacques Derrida, spread from philosophy to literary departments (where it pretty much destroyed the enjoyment of literature in the old sense) and then to cultural studies, like with Bernard Faure. The method approaches a text and/or cultural structures and history showing the inconsistencies and contradictions, like claiming that Zen is “wordless” in hundreds of writings, like claiming that Zen is beyond all ritual, yet practicing strict ritualism, etc., etc. What someone like Faure seems to claim is that even some of the ancient Zen Masters are presenting a kind of Zen ideology where they create a Zen history that is partly fiction and partly misleading by leaving out all kinds of stuff. What gets lost in all their clutter of “facts” and “data” is the heart of Zen.  

Merton seems to have anticipated all this brouhaha almost 50 years ago. Here is a long quote from his key essay “The Study of Zen.” In a remarkable way he lays out the issues involved:

“’There is nothing,’ says Levi-Strauss, ‘which can be conceived of or understood short of the basic demands of its structure.’ He is talking about primitive kinship systems, and of the key role played in them by maternal uncles. And I must admit from the outset that uncles have nothing to do with Zen; nor am I about to prove that they have. But the statement is universal. ‘There is nothing which can be understood short of the basic demands of its structure.’ This raises a curious question: I wonder if Zen could somehow be fitted into the patterns of a structuralist anthropology? And if so, can it be ‘understood?’ And at once one sees that the question can probably be answered by ‘yes’ and ‘no.’

“In so far as Zen is part of a social and religious complex, in so far as it seems to be related to other elements of a cultural system–‘yes.’ In so far as Zen is Zen Buddhism, ‘yes.’ But in that case what fits into the system is Buddhism rather than Zen. [my interjection: Faure really hates this kind of statement] The more Zen is considered as Buddhist the more it can be grasped as an expression of man’s cultural and religious impulse. In that case Zen can be seen as having a special kind of structure with basic demands that are structural demands and therefore open to scientific investigation–and the more it can be seen to have a definite character to be grasped and ‘understood.’

“When Zen is studied in this way, it is seen in the context of Chinese and Japanese history. [Merton is practically prophesying the work of Faure and others.] It is seen as a product of the meeting of speculative Indian Buddhism with practical Chinese Taoism and even Confucianism. It is seen in the light of the culture of the Tang dynasty, and the teachings of various ‘houses.’ It is related to other cultural movements. It is studied in its passage into Japan and its integration into Japanese civilization. And then a great deal of things about Zen come to seem important, even essential. The Zendo or meditation hall. The Zazen sitting. The study of the koan. The costume. The lotus seat. The bows. The visits to the Roshi and the Roshi’s technique for determining whether one has attained Kensho or Satori, and helping one to do this.

“Zen, seen in this light, can then be set up against other religious structures–for instance that of Catholicism, with its sacraments, its liturgy, its mental prayer…its devotions, its laws, its theology, its Bible, its cathedrals and convents; its priesthood and its hierarchical organization; its Councils and Encyclicals.

“One can imagine both of them and conclude that they have a few things in common. They share certain cultural and religious features. They are ‘religions.’ One is an Asian religion; the other is a Western, Judeo-Christian religion. One offers man a metaphysical enlightenment, the other a theological salvation. Both can be seen as oddities, pleasant survivals of a past which is no more, but which one can nevertheless appreciate just as one appreciates Noh plays, the sculpture of Chartres or the music of Monteverdi. One can further refine one’s investigations and imagine (quite wrongly) that because Zen is simple and austere, it has a great deal in common with Cistercian monasticism, which is also austere–or once was. They do share a certain taste for simplicity, and it is possible that the builders of twelfth-century Cistercian churches in Burgundy and Provence were illumined by a kind of instinctive Zen vision in their work, which does have the luminous poverty and solitude that Zen calls Wabi.

“Nevertheless, studied as structures, as systems, and as religions, Zen and Catholicism don’t mix any better than oil and water. One can assume that from one side and the other, from the Zendo and from the university, monastery or curia, persons might convene for polite and informed discussion. But their differences would remain inviolate…. All this is true as long as Zen is considered specifically as Zen Buddhism, as a school or sect of Buddhism, as forming part of the religious system which we call ‘the Buddhist religion.’

“When we look a little closer however, we find very serious and responsible practitioners of Zen first denying that it is ‘a religion,’ then denying that it is a sect or school, and finally denying that it is confined to Buddhism and its ‘structure.’ For instance, one of the great Japanese Zen Masters, Dogen, the founder of Soto Zen, said categorically: ‘Anybody who would regard Zen as a school or sect of Buddhism and call it Zen-shu, Zen school, is a devil.’

“To define Zen in terms of a religious system or structure is in fact to destroy it–or rather to miss it completely, for what cannot be ‘constructed’ cannot be destroyed either. Zen is not something which is grasped by being set within distinct limits or given a characteristic outline or easily recognizable features so that, when we see these distinct and particular forms, we say: ‘There it is!’ Zen is not understood by being set apart in its own category, separated from everything else: ‘It is this and not that.’…. We see from this that Zen is outside all particular structures and distinct forms, and that it is neither opposed to them nor not-opposed to them. It neither denies them nor affirms them, loves them nor hates them, rejects them nor desires them. Zen is consciousness unstructured by particular form or particular system, a trans-cultural, trans-religious, trans-formed consciousness. It is therefore in a sense ‘void.’ But it can shine through this or that system, religious or irreligious, just as light can shine through glass that is blue, or green, or red, or yellow. If Zen has any preference it is for glass that is plain, has no color, and is ‘just glass.’

“In other words to regard Zen merely and exclusively as Zen Buddhism is to falsify it and, no doubt, to betray the fact that one has no understanding of it whatever. Yet this does not mean that there cannot be ‘Zen Buddhists,’ but these surely will realize (precisely because they are Zen-people) the difference between their Buddhism and their Zen–even while admitting that for them their Zen is in fact the purest expression of Buddhism. But, of course, the reason for that is that Buddhism itself…points beyond any theological or philosophical ‘ism.’ It demands not to be a system (while at the same time, like other religions, presenting a peculiar temptation to systematizers). The real drive of Buddhism is toward an enlightenment which is precisely a breakthrough into what is beyond system, beyond cultural and social structures, and beyond religious rite and belief (even when it accepts many kinds of systematic superstructures–Tibetan, Burmese, Japanese, etc.).”


So much for this long quote. It is important because this view is now under serious attack by a number of scholars. I would also add that what Merton said above connects very well with Abhishiktananda’s contentions late in his life about the “namarupa” of both Christianity and Hinduism, how one had to go deeper than these to get to the heart of that religion. But whatever the scholars argue and debate and propose and write their innumerable papers about, the “true person of no status,” the Zen-person, will walk unseen and unknown, not measured by any metric or any methodology.


Now we turn to the much more difficult subject of moral problems. Zen Buddhism(and the other schools of Buddhism, like the Tibetans), like most religious traditions has had its share of problematic behavior on the part of its top practitioners, the Zen Masters. In the modern era and especially as Zen came to the West and the U.S., it is astonishing how recurring the moral failings have been: sexual predation and exploitation, alcoholism, and financial chicanery…all these and more abound in ALL the various lineages and schools of Zen. It has been a shock to a lot of American students of Zen. Some have left; some took refuge in a Zen kind of state of denial–“Zen is beyond morality, etc.” –forgetting that the Buddha himself laid down some pretty strict rules for his monks and disciples. Many other Zen students sobered up about their religious infatuation with Zen and had to face a much more realistic approach to their pursuit of enlightenment. A number of westerners now question the kind of unexamined master-disciple relationship that a lot of religious traditions hold up. I have discussed some of the problems here in postings long time ago, and do not intend to go over this dreary ground again. However, there is this interesting and puzzling point: why is it that so many who are considered “enlightened” or at least “advanced” students of Zen are so vulnerable to so many moral lapses that not only harmed themselves but caused significant harm to many others?” To push this further: it seems that one has a critical choice here: either their “enlightenment” is a pretend, a play-acting, or at best nowhere near the depth their students think they see in them, perhaps one could say “project” on them; or is it the more intriguing possibility that enlightenment itself and Zen consciousness is “not enough.” I mean you would think that since Zen makes such a big thing about awareness and vision and all that, that a master of Zen, a teacher of Zen would not be exploiting his own students for his own pleasure or succumbing to the chaos of inner drives that lead to self-destruction. You would think that Zen consciousness would keep you from all that…. So which is it? I have no idea. But the dilemma can get even more twisted….

A Zen practitioner and teacher by the name of Brian Victoria has written a scathing book about the collaboration of many Japanese Zen Masters with Japanese militarism leading up to World War II. He implicates almost all of the top Zen Masters (including D. T. Suzuki) who became the lineage bearers for all the current Western Zen teachers. Victoria shows how all the Zen lineages are tainted with this sordid history which the Japanese especially do not want to admit to. The needless wars and the war crimes of the Japanese military were never ever condemned by any of the Zen Masters; nor after the war was there any expression of real regret or sorrow for what they were involved in—how often these Zen Masters were cheer leaders for the Japanese military.

To be fair, Victoria has his critics also: some claim that he quotes these people out of context, and they don’t sound so bad when you recognize the times they lived in. I don’t buy this because all these folks were contemporaries of Gandhi, and it’s obvious that he was able to see through this muck. The problem is, as I think Victoria shows, the wedding of Zen Buddhism with Japanese culture and then one step further, with Japanese national identity. D. T. Suzuki showed a bit of that in his writings. And this is the kind of problem that we see all over the globe….when national identity and religious identity become merged. Radical Hinduism in India, Eastern Orthodoxy in Eastern Europe–consider how Christian Serbs turned to slaughter the Serbian Moslems a few decades ago. Also, there’s Jews and the State of Israel; and we have plenty of problems with Christians here in the U.S. waving the flag, the gun, and the Bible.

But let’s return to the real crux of the thing: the dilemma we face leads to a real questioning of the meaning and scope of “enlightenment.” Unless of course we choose to hold that all these figures were “faking” enlightenment or something like that. Maybe some of them were precisely doing that, but not the majority. More likely we need to face the puzzle of how an “enlightened being” could be seduced by nationalism, could be overcome by lust, could destroy himself with alcoholism, or be enticed by greed. And to expand this puzzle even more, consider the Christian thing about “saintliness” or “holiness.” A dear acquaintance of mine, Donald Nichol, a British historian and student of religion, once wrote this marvelous little book on holiness. Donald valued holiness to the nth degree; the “holy person,” was beyond questioning. As much as I liked that book, I always thought that he overvalued this thing of “holiness.” Sounds like a strange thing to say, especially coming from a monastic perspective, but truly there is something more at stake here, and it is not too far-fetched to say that holiness is not enough. Consider some people who have been declared by the Church to be saints, yet whose lives contain egregious mistakes and distortions of vision. Like St. Bernard, the great Cistercian figure, one of the giants of the medieval Church — he called for the slaughter of Moslems that occupied the Holy Land. He was a cheerleader for the Crusaders. The very opposite of Francis of Assissi. Now I won’t question the “St.” in St. Bernard, but I do question the nature and scope of that which we call “holiness.” Or consider more modern examples: Pope John Paul II who was recently declared a saint. He was instrumental in trying to cover up the priest pedophile scandals that were emerging into the light during his pontificate. Or take the example of Mother Teresa, also recently canonized. She took money from one of the nastiest banksters in America, Charles Keating, and for 10 years or so she had as spiritual director a Jesuit who was convicted in a court of law of having sexually abused a large number of underage boys. It does seem that holiness does not exclude blindness of a serious kind. Unless, again, one wants to doubt the very presence of this “holiness.” Truly a puzzle!  

So returning again to our Zen friends, so whether it be enlightenment or holiness or whatever other lofty goal our religious tradition sets up for us, we also need to attend to that which real and true wherever and whatever that be. As the Upanishad says: “Lead me from the unreal to the Real.” And as that old platitude says, no one has a handle or a monopoly on truth. And that goes for the “holy person” and the “enlightened person” also. Perhaps that saying holds for them even more! A bumper sticker I saw says it all: Question All Authority! Yes! Even the authority of holiness or enlightenment. And a truly holy/enlightened person would say Amen to that!!







Post-Election Blues

What can you say? So many of us are stunned in disbelief. We actually should have seen this coming. All the tell-tale signs were there, unless you were, like me, naively just looking at all those stupid polls that showed Hillary ahead. Actually the national polls were right and she was more popular but not by much and not in some key areas. Also, there was this naïve belief that someone like Trump, someone “this bad,” could not possibly be elected. I had my fears; I did not like Hillary at all; I thought she was really bad, but simply the “lesser bad” of the two choices by a large margin. When I saw the results and went to bed election night, I felt fear, nausea, depression. The next day it was disgust and a real anger that I would have to say “President Trump” for the next four years at least. Deep angry thoughts roamed my mind: Make Earth great again; abolish the human race! After that, simple worry and anxiety that the Republicans control all of Congress and have free rein to do all kinds of bad things. Makes you want to pack for Canada. But sobriety sets in sooner or later, and you realize that this is just one more lousy election among so many others. I agree with those voices that say give Trump a chance to show what he will REALLY do, not just the bluster and rhetoric of the campaign. The first 100 days of his presidency will be very interesting and a sure sign of where he will go. As some have pointed out, the weight of the actual responsibility of being President might sober him up and who knows he might actually do SOME good. Like he’s said, he is not beholden to all the money interest on Wall Street and in Washington, and he is more free to act than the traditional politicians, Democrat or Republican. On the other hand, he has some really nasty people in his camp and it may be just as Chris Hedges says that this is the birth or emergence of American Fascism. We shall see.

Let me throw out a few random reflections:

*Trump did not so much win the election as Hillary actually lost it. She truly waged a very bad campaign with lots of mistakes.

*It looks at this point that Hillary actually won the popular vote by hundreds of thousands or more(votes still being counted). In fact, before it’s all over-they are now counting all the absentee ballots in California, Washington and New York, all states that gave Hillary a large majority but it doesn’t affect the key swing states–her majority may well be several million. Astounding! This is the 6th time in American history that a candidate won the popular vote but lost the election. Some, like Michael Moore, are saying that delegitimizes Trump’s Presidency. Not really. The game is what the game is. You can’t change the rules after the game simply because you lost. Some are calling for an end to the electoral college system (by the way, Trump just said that he favors a change from the electoral college to a popular vote system. He said that he always thought that, and just because he benefitted from the electoral vote system, he won’t change his mind but support the pop vote system.)  Whatever be the merits of that it would require a constitutional amendment, and that ain’t gonna happen. Besides, the popular vote approach has its own “dark side.” Another thing, the people gave control of both the Senate and the House to Republicans, lots of state governorships, and a whole bunch of state legislatures are controlled by Republicans. It’s very obvious that the country is divided in a very dysfunctional kind of way and that tinkering with the electoral system won’t solve anything.

*Beware of simple explanations for Hillary’s loss. Don’t buy this thing you’ll hear from Dems that racists and anti-woman people got Trump elected. Yeah, there certainly were those types supporting Trump (the KKK endorsed him and yes his rhetoric has opened the door to a lot of racists acting out their sickness), but guess what, a lot of basic, decent people voted for Trump also and mostly AGAINST Hillary. I am not going to call them names, but I am angry, very angry at their stupidity, blindness, narrowness of mind, etc. Consider the woman thing: amazingly enough over 40% of college-educated women voted for Trump, and among non-college educated women, over 60% voted for Trump. So what happened with all these women? The Clinton campaign was counting on a huge woman support that really didn’t materialize. A lot of women found Hillary disagreeable, untrustworthy and simply the “same old stuff” (my feelings exactly), but it amazed me that they did not see the real danger in Trump.

*Speaking of bad numbers, consider this: about 29% of Hispanics voted for Trump. Now that includes Mexicans, Puerto Ricans, Cubans and a few others, so there’s quite a mixture there; but it’s amazing that almost a third of these folks voted for Trump considering how he talked about Latin Americans. Some Latino leaders are contesting these numbers, but we shall see later. One problem was that the Latino turnout, while larger than in past years, was still not really all that large. But the numbers here are all in dispute.

*Voter turnout: miserable. Not many people realize this but we had a 20 year low on total voter turnout. Neither candidate really excited people. Consider this: over 126 million people voted. Sounds good, but that’s only 55% of eligible voters. (In some states the turnout was robust, but not across the country.) So Hillary and Trump each got only a bit more than 27% of eligible voters. So this is who elected Trump, only a bit over 27%. Even with the extra popular vote that is now coming in for Hillary in those 3 states, it still amounts to a miserable turnout considering the crucial nature of this election. A “small” group of people might send us to hell. Is this any way of deciding who runs the country?

*Bernie. Ah, Bernie….. There’s actually a poll out now that demonstrates that Bernie would have handily beaten Trump. Frankly I doubt that; especially after all those polls that showed Hillary leading!! Screw the polls!   But it still makes you wonder….. Certainly the Sanders people are going to have to be a key element in any recovery of the Dem Party. It didn’t help Hillary at all when it came out that some key Dem supporters and bigwigs were conniving to derail Bernie during the primaries.

*Trump breaks big precedent in not revealing his tax returns. Really bad and suspicious.   But Hillary never revealed what she said in those speeches to the Wall Street crowd for those fat paychecks. What was there to hide? This lack of transparency kind of defanged her attacks on Trump.

*We are not alone. When you look around the world, rightwing movements are emerging in a lot of places: Europe, Latin America, and Asia. I mean look at India, the guy these people elected may be just as bad as Trump, with the addition that he supports fanatical radical Hindus.

*Ah, my dear, blind conservative Catholics who voted for Trump in big numbers. What can you say? For the sake of one major issue, abortion, they were willing to really hurt the country and millions of people. But the kicker is that I bet they will not even get much on the abortion issue. These folks have been voting for an end to abortion since Reagan, and what they get is deregulation of banks and Wall Street. This electoral group can be described as: Dumb and Dumber…

*This election was in many ways a repudiation of the Obama era. Obama’s approval rating was reported as being high, but considering the inaccuracy of the polls you really wonder about that. In any case, Hillary tied herself to the Obama legacy, like Obamacare with premiums spiking in October, and almost half the electorate said “No.” Also, if you look at the voting with a microscope you see this fact: in key counties in Wisconsin and Michigan, which Obama had carried, now turned to Trump.

*In a political campaign there are two key elements: the “ground game,” and the message. The ground game consists of having organized troops getting the vote out, having a structured way of getting in touch with the voters. Hillary had a much better ground game than Trump; she had a very experienced organization of electioneering people almost everywhere. However, she really lost it on the message part, which kind of poured sand into the machinery of her organization. And the message part was bad on several counts. For example, Obama had won for promising “change.” I remember this was really big back in 2008 and I believed him. He was implying he was not talking just about some tinkering change but something radical. He was going to Washington to bring “hope” and “change.” Remember that it was the time of economic crisis brought about by the big banks and financial entities, the Dems controlled both houses of Congress, and yet once he was President, Obama did nothing to nail the banksters who had caused this. And this is just one example. Well, Hillary tied herself to this legacy. And she almost made it an election pledge that she was only going to “adjust” certain things, like Obamacare, like bank regulations, etc. Trump sounded like he wanted to throw a brick thru the Washington establishment window, and this resonated with a lot of people.

*Listen to this quote from a Muslim woman, Asra Q Nomani, who voted for Trump–this appeared as an op-ed in the Washington Post:

“This is is my confession — and explanation: I — a 51-year-old, a Muslim, an immigrant woman “of color” — am one of those silent voters for Donald Trump. And I’m not a “bigot,” “racist,” “chauvinist” or “white supremacist,” as Trump voters are being called, nor part of some “whitelash.”

In the winter of 2008, as a lifelong liberal and proud daughter of West Virginia, a state born on the correct side of history on slavery, I moved to historically conservative Virginia only because the state had helped elect Barack Obama as the first African American president of the United States.

But, then, for much of this past year, I have kept my electoral preference secret: I was leaning toward Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump.

Tuesday evening, just minutes before the polls closed at Forestville Elementary School in mostly Democratic Fairfax County, I slipped between the cardboard partitions in the polling booth, a pen balanced carefully between my fingers, to mark my ballot for president, coloring in the circle beside the names of Trump and his running mate, Mike Pence.

Supporters of President-elect Donald Trump rejoiced across the nation on Election Night as their candidate defied the polls. (Monica Akhtar/The Washington Post)

After Hillary Clinton called Trump to concede, making him America’s president-elect, a friend on Twitter wrote a message of apology to the world, saying there are millions of Americans who don’t share Trump’s “hatred/division/ignorance.” She ended: “Ashamed of millions that do.”

That would presumably include me — but it doesn’t, and that is where the dismissal of voter concerns about Clinton led to her defeat. I most certainly reject the trifecta of “hatred/division/ignorance.” I support the Democratic Party’s position on abortion, same-sex marriage and climate change.

But I am a single mother who can’t afford health insurance under Obamacare. The president’s mortgage-loan modification program, “HOPE NOW,” didn’t help me. Tuesday, I drove into Virginia from my hometown of Morgantown, W.Va., where I see rural America and ordinary Americans, like me, still struggling to make ends meet, after eight years of the Obama administration.

Finally, as a liberal Muslim who has experienced, first-hand, Islamic extremism in this world, I have been opposed to the decision by President Obama and the Democratic Party to tap dance around the “Islam” in Islamic State. Of course, Trump’s rhetoric has been far more than indelicate and folks can have policy differences with his recommendations, but, to me, it has been exaggerated and demonized by the governments of Qatar and Saudi Arabia, their media channels, such as Al Jazeera, and their proxies in the West, in a convenient distraction from the issue that most worries me as a human being on this earth: extremist Islam of the kind that has spilled blood from the hallways of the Taj Mahal hotel in Mumbai to the dance floor of the Pulse nightclub in Orlando, Fla.

In mid-June, after the tragic shooting at Pulse, Trump tweeted out a message, delivered in his typical subtle style: “Is President Obama going to finally mention the words radical Islamic terrorism? If he doesn’t he should immediately resign in disgrace!”

Around then, on CNN’s “New Day,” Democratic candidate Clinton seemed to do the Obama dance, saying, “From my perspective, it matters what we do more than what we say. And it mattered we got bin Laden, not what name we called him. I have clearly said we — whether you call it radical jihadism or radical Islamism, I’m happy to say either. I think they mean the same thing.”

By mid-October, it was one Aug. 17, 2014, email from the WikiLeaks treasure trove of Clinton emails that poisoned the well for me. In it, Clinton told aide John Podesta: “We need to use our diplomatic and more traditional intelligence assets to bring pressure on the governments of Qatar and Saudi Arabia, which are providing clandestine financial and logistic support to ISIL,” the politically correct name for the Islamic State, “and other radical Sunni groups in the region.”

The revelations of multimillion-dollar donations to the Clinton Foundation from Qatar and Saudi Arabia killed my support for Clinton. Yes, I want equal pay. No, I reject Trump’s “locker room” banter, the idea of a “wall” between the United States and Mexico and a plan to “ban” Muslims. But I trust the United States and don’t buy the political hyperbole — agenda-driven identity politics of its own — that demonized Trump and his supporters.

I gently tried to express my thoughts on Twitter but the “Pantsuit revolution” was like a steamroller to any nuanced discourse. If you supported Trump, you had to be a redneck.

Days before the election, a journalist from India emailed me, asking: What are your thoughts being a Muslim in “Trump’s America”?

I wrote that as a child of India, arriving in the United States at the age of 4 in the summer of 1969, I have absolutely no fears about being a Muslim in a “Trump America.” The checks and balances in America and our rich history of social justice and civil rights will never allow the fear-mongering that has been attached to candidate Trump’s rhetoric to come to fruition.

What worried me the most were my concerns about the influence of theocratic Muslim dictatorships, including Qatar and Saudi Arabia, in a Hillary Clinton America. These dictatorships are no shining examples of progressive society with their failure to offer fundamental human rights and pathways to citizenship to immigrants from India, refugees from Syria and the entire class of de facto slaves that live in those dictatorships.”

End of piece. Ok, she sounds like a decent person, a nice person, a good person, and I think she is right about so many things, and all this shows just a bit how Hillary failed to reach people like her. But I am afraid being “good” and “nice” and even “right” just won’t cut it; you need to see things clearly, and people like her do not see the danger in Trump, the really serious danger. And the same goes for all those Catholics and Christians who voted for Trump. By the way, I am amazed how much damage is done by “good” people all around, from good popes, good presidents, good common people, etc. It simply is not enough to be “good.”

Now for a quote from one of my favorites, Michael Moore. Amazingly enough he wrote this about 2 months before the election. Boy, does he nail it! Perfect bullseye!

Moore: “Friends:

I am sorry to be the bearer of bad news, but I gave it to you straight last summer when I told you that Donald Trump would be the Republican nominee for president. And now I have even more awful, depressing news for you: Donald J. Trump is going to win in November. This wretched, ignorant, dangerous part-time clown and full time sociopath is going to be our next president. President Trump. Go ahead and say the words, ‘cause you’ll be saying them for the next four years: “PRESIDENT TRUMP.”

Never in my life have I wanted to be proven wrong more than I do right now.

I can see what you’re doing right now. You’re shaking your head wildly – “No, Mike, this won’t happen!” Unfortunately, you are living in a bubble that comes with an adjoining echo chamber where you and your friends are convinced the American people are not going to elect an idiot for president. You alternate between being appalled at him and laughing at him because of his latest crazy comment or his embarrassingly narcissistic stance on everything because everything is about him. And then you listen to Hillary and you behold our very first female president, someone the world respects, someone who is whip-smart and cares about kids, who will continue the Obama legacy because that is what the American people clearly want! Yes! Four more years of this!

You need to exit that bubble right now. You need to stop living in denial and face the truth which you know deep down is very, very real. Trying to soothe yourself with the facts – “77% of the electorate are women, people of color, young adults under 35 and Trump cant win a majority of any of them!” – or logic – “people aren’t going to vote for a buffoon or against their own best interests!” – is your brain’s way of trying to protect you from trauma. Like when you hear a loud noise on the street and you think, “oh, a tire just blew out,” or, “wow, who’s playing with firecrackers?” because you don’t want to think you just heard someone being shot with a gun. It’s the same reason why all the initial news and eyewitness reports on 9/11 said “a small plane accidentally flew into the World Trade Center.” We want to – we need to – hope for the best because, frankly, life is already a shit show and it’s hard enough struggling to get by from paycheck to paycheck. We can’t handle much more bad news. So our mental state goes to default when something scary is actually, truly happening. The first people plowed down by the truck in Nice spent their final moments on earth waving at the driver whom they thought had simply lost control of his truck, trying to tell him that he jumped the curb: “Watch out!,” they shouted. “There are people on the sidewalk!”

Well, folks, this isn’t an accident. It is happening. And if you believe Hillary Clinton is going to beat Trump with facts and smarts and logic, then you obviously missed the past year of 56 primaries and caucuses where 16 Republican candidates tried that and every kitchen sink they could throw at Trump and nothing could stop his juggernaut. As of today, as things stand now, I believe this is going to happen – and in order to deal with it, I need you first to acknowledge it, and then maybe, just maybe, we can find a way out of the mess we’re in.

Don’t get me wrong. I have great hope for the country I live in. Things are better. The left has won the cultural wars. Gays and lesbians can get married. A majority of Americans now take the liberal position on just about every polling question posed to them: Equal pay for women – check. Abortion should be legal – check. Stronger environmental laws – check. More gun control – check. Legalize marijuana – check. A huge shift has taken place – just ask the socialist who won 22 states this year. And there is no doubt in my mind that if people could vote from their couch at home on their X-box or PlayStation, Hillary would win in a landslide.

But that is not how it works in America. People have to leave the house and get in line to vote. And if they live in poor, Black or Hispanic neighborhoods, they not only have a longer line to wait in, everything is being done to literally stop them from casting a ballot. So in most elections it’s hard to get even 50% to turn out to vote. And therein lies the problem for November – who is going to have the most motivated, most inspired voters show up to vote? You know the answer to this question. Who’s the candidate with the most rabid supporters? Whose crazed fans are going to be up at 5 AM on Election Day, kicking ass all day long, all the way until the last polling place has closed, making sure every Tom, Dick and Harry (and Bob and Joe and Billy Bob and Billy Joe and Billy Bob Joe) has cast his ballot?  That’s right. That’s the high level of danger we’re in. And don’t fool yourself — no amount of compelling Hillary TV ads, or outfacting him in the debates or Libertarians siphoning votes away from Trump is going to stop his mojo.

Here are the 5 reasons Trump is going to win:

  1. Midwest Math, or Welcome to Our Rust Belt Brexit.  I believe Trump is going to focus much of his attention on the four blue states in the rustbelt of the upper Great Lakes – Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin. Four traditionally Democratic states – but each of them have elected a Republican governor since 2010 (only Pennsylvania has now finally elected a Democrat). In the Michigan primary in March, more Michiganders came out to vote for the Republicans (1.32 million) that the Democrats (1.19 million). Trump is ahead of Hillary in the latest polls in Pennsylvania and tied with her in Ohio. Tied? How can the race be this close after everything Trump has said and done? Well maybe it’s because he’s said (correctly) that the Clintons’ support of NAFTA helped to destroy the industrial states of the Upper Midwest. Trump is going to hammer Clinton on this and her support of TPP and other trade policies that have royally screwed the people of these four states. When Trump stood in the shadow of a Ford Motor factory during the Michigan primary, he threatened the corporation that if they did indeed go ahead with their planned closure of that factory and move it to Mexico, he would slap a 35% tariff on any Mexican-built cars shipped back to the United States. It was sweet, sweet music to the ears of the working class of Michigan, and when he tossed in his threat to Apple that he would force them to stop making their iPhones in China and build them here in America, well, hearts swooned and Trump walked away with a big victory that should have gone to the governor next-door, John Kasich.

From Green Bay to Pittsburgh, this, my friends, is the middle of England – broken, depressed, struggling, the smokestacks strewn across the countryside with the carcass of what we use to call the Middle Class. Angry, embittered working (and nonworking) people who were lied to by the trickle-down of Reagan and abandoned by Democrats who still try to talk a good line but are really just looking forward to rub one out with a lobbyist from Goldman Sachs who’ll write them nice big check before leaving the room. What happened in the UK with Brexit is going to happen here. Elmer Gantry shows up looking like Boris Johnson and just says whatever shit he can make up to convince the masses that this is their chance! To stick to ALL of them, all who wrecked their American Dream! And now The Outsider, Donald Trump, has arrived to clean house! You don’t have to agree with him! You don’t even have to like him! He is your personal Molotov cocktail to throw right into the center of the bastards who did this to you! SEND A MESSAGE! TRUMP IS YOUR MESSENGER!

And this is where the math comes in. In 2012, Mitt Romney lost by 64 electoral votes. Add up the electoral votes cast by Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin. It’s 64. All Trump needs to do to win is to carry, as he’s expected to do, the swath of traditional red states from Idaho to Georgia (states that’ll never vote for Hillary Clinton), and then he just needs these four rust belt states. He doesn’t need Florida. He doesn’t need Colorado or Virginia. Just Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin. And that will put him over the top. This is how it will happen in November.

  1. The Last Stand of the Angry White Man. Our male-dominated, 240-year run of the USA is coming to an end. A woman is about to take over! How did this happen?! On our watch! There were warning signs, but we ignored them. Nixon, the gender traitor, imposing Title IX on us, the rule that said girls in school should get an equal chance at playing sports. Then they let them fly commercial jets. Before we knew it, Beyoncé stormed on the field at this year’s Super Bowl (our game!) with an army of Black Women, fists raised, declaring that our domination was hereby terminated! Oh, the humanity!

That’s a small peek into the mind of the Endangered White Male. There is a sense that the power has slipped out of their hands, that their way of doing things is no longer how things are done. This monster, the “Feminazi,”the thing that as Trump says, “bleeds through her eyes or wherever she bleeds,” has conquered us — and now, after having had to endure eight years of a black man telling us what to do, we’re supposed to just sit back and take eight years of a woman bossing us around? After that it’ll be eight years of the gays in the White House! Then the transgenders! You can see where this is going. By then animals will have been granted human rights and a fuckin’ hamster is going to be running the country. This has to stop!

  1. The Hillary Problem. Can we speak honestly, just among ourselves? And before we do, let me state, I actually like Hillary – a lot – and I think she has been given a bad rap she doesn’t deserve. But her vote for the Iraq War made me promise her that I would never vote for her again. To date, I haven’t broken that promise. For the sake of preventing a proto-fascist from becoming our commander-in-chief, I’m breaking that promise. I sadly believe Clinton will find a way to get us in some kind of military action. She’s a hawk, to the right of Obama. But Trump’s psycho finger will be on The Button, and that is that. Done and done.

Let’s face it: Our biggest problem here isn’t Trump – it’s Hillary. She is hugely unpopular — nearly 70% of all voters think she is untrustworthy and dishonest. She represents the old way of politics, not really believing in anything other than what can get you elected. That’s why she fights against gays getting married one moment, and the next she’s officiating a gay marriage. Young women are among her biggest detractors, which has to hurt considering it’s the sacrifices and the battles that Hillary and other women of her generation endured so that this younger generation would never have to be told by the Barbara Bushes of the world that they should just shut up and go bake some cookies. But the kids don’t like her, and not a day goes by that a millennial doesn’t tell me they aren’t voting for her. No Democrat, and certainly no independent, is waking up on November 8th excited to run out and vote for Hillary the way they did the day Obama became president or when Bernie was on the primary ballot. The enthusiasm just isn’t there. And because this election is going to come down to just one thing — who drags the most people out of the house and gets them to the polls — Trump right now is in the catbird seat.

  1. The Depressed Sanders Vote. Stop fretting about Bernie’s supporters not voting for Clinton – we’re voting for Clinton! The polls already show that more Sanders voters will vote for Hillary this year than the number of Hillary primary voters in ’08 who then voted for Obama. This is not the problem. The fire alarm that should be going off is that while the average Bernie backer will drag him/herself to the polls that day to somewhat reluctantly vote for Hillary, it will be what’s called a “depressed vote” – meaning the voter doesn’t bring five people to vote with her. He doesn’t volunteer 10 hours in the month leading up to the election. She never talks in an excited voice when asked why she’s voting for Hillary. A depressed voter. Because, when you’re young, you have zero tolerance for phonies and BS. Returning to the Clinton/Bush era for them is like suddenly having to pay for music, or using MySpace or carrying around one of those big-ass portable phones. They’re not going to vote for Trump; some will vote third party, but many will just stay home. Hillary Clinton is going to have to do something to give them a reason to support her  — and picking a moderate, bland-o, middle of the road old white guy as her running mate is not the kind of edgy move that tells millenials that their vote is important to Hillary. Having two women on the ticket – that was an exciting idea. But then Hillary got scared and has decided to play it safe. This is just one example of how she is killing the youth vote.
  2. The Jesse Ventura Effect. Finally, do not discount the electorate’s ability to be mischievous or underestimate how any millions fancy themselves as closet anarchists once they draw the curtain and are all alone in the voting booth. It’s one of the few places left in society where there are no security cameras, no listening devices, no spouses, no kids, no boss, no cops, there’s not even a friggin’ time limit. You can take as long as you need in there and no one can make you do anything. You can push the button and vote a straight party line, or you can write in Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck. There are no rules. And because of that, and the anger that so many have toward a broken political system, millions are going to vote for Trump not because they agree with him, not because they like his bigotry or ego, but just because they can. Just because it will upset the apple cart and make mommy and daddy mad. And in the same way like when you’re standing on the edge of Niagara Falls and your mind wonders for a moment what would that feel like to go over that thing, a lot of people are going to love being in the position of puppetmaster and plunking down for Trump just to see what that might look like. Remember back in the ‘90s when the people of Minnesota elected a professional wrestler as their governor? They didn’t do this because they’re stupid or thought that Jesse Ventura was some sort of statesman or political intellectual. They did so just because they could. Minnesota is one of the smartest states in the country. It is also filled with people who have a dark sense of humor — and voting for Ventura was their version of a good practical joke on a sick political system. This is going to happen again with Trump.

Coming back to the hotel after appearing on Bill Maher’s Republican Convention special this week on HBO, a man stopped me. “Mike,” he said, “we have to vote for Trump. We HAVE to shake things up.” That was it. That was enough for him. To “shake things up.” President Trump would indeed do just that, and a good chunk of the electorate would like to sit in the bleachers and watch that reality show.”

And now we get this excerpt from Glen Greenwald:

“… Democrats have already begun flailing around trying to blame anyone and everyone they can find — everyone except themselves — for last night’s crushing defeat of their party.

You know the drearily predictable list of their scapegoats: Russia, WikiLeaks, James Comey, Jill Stein, Bernie Bros, The Media, news outlets (including, perhaps especially, The Intercept) that sinned by reporting negatively on Hillary Clinton. Anyone who thinks that what happened last night in places like Ohio, Pennsylvania, Iowa, and Michigan can be blamed on any of that is drowning in self-protective ignorance so deep that it’s impossible to express in words.

When a political party is demolished, the principal responsibility belongs to one entity: the party that got crushed. It’s the job of the party and the candidate, and nobody else, to persuade the citizenry to support them and find ways to do that. Last night, the Democrats failed, resoundingly, to do that, and any autopsy or liberal think piece or pro-Clinton pundit commentary that does not start and finish with their own behavior is one that is inherently worthless.

Put simply, Democrats knowingly chose to nominate a deeply unpopular, extremely vulnerable, scandal-plagued candidate, who — for very good reason — was widely perceived to be a protector and beneficiary of all the worst components of status quo elite corruption. It’s astonishing that those of us who tried frantically to warn Democrats that nominating Hillary Clinton was a huge and scary gamble — that all empirical evidence showed that she could lose to anyone and Bernie Sanders would be a much stronger candidate, especially in this climate — are now the ones being blamed: by the very same people who insisted on ignoring all that data and nominating her anyway.

But that’s just basic blame shifting and self-preservation. Far more significant is what this shows about the mentality of the Democratic Party. Just think about who they nominated: someone who — when she wasn’t dining with Saudi monarchs and being feted in Davos by tyrants who gave million-dollar checks — spent the last several years piggishly running around to Wall Street banks and major corporations cashing in with $250,000 fees for 45-minute secret speeches even though she had already become unimaginably rich with book advances while her husband already made tens of millions playing these same games. She did all that without the slightest apparent concern for how that would feed into all the perceptions and resentments of her and the Democratic Party as corrupt, status quo-protecting, aristocratic tools of the rich and powerful: exactly the worst possible behavior for this post-2008-economic-crisis era of globalism and destroyed industries.”


Well, enough for all that. For those of us on some sort of monastic path, in whatever circumstances we find ourselves, it is important on the one hand not be blind to what is really going on in our world, but also we need to see things in a bigger picture. A lot of our monastic ancestors, whether it be Chinese hermits, Christian desert monks, etc, etc., lived in and thru some incredibly bad times and under some incredibly bad regimes. Nothing new here. We have to keep our heads low, keep up our life in whatever measure and intensity we can, and carry the pain of the world in our hearts. If we can lend a hand to someone who is fighting the good fight, so be it. The key thing is to not be overwhelmed by the darkness, nor to place our whole hope in some political process or position. I will comment on this at some future point.



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Recently I had occasion to walk through a toy department in one of our largest retailers. Very interesting. Toys sure have changed since my little kid days. Some of the stuff looked interesting and imaginative, but too much of it, way too much, seemed to reflect a warped imagination, a distorted view of reality, a proneness to entice our most superficial energies, a programming of the young mind for total unreality. Things do not bode well for our future! Of course all this prepares them quite well for our unreal techno world.


I ran across this quote from Charlotte Joko Beck, a Zen teacher: “We’re here to get our present model repainted a little bit. If the car of our life is a deep grey, we want to turn it into lavender or pink. But transformation means that the car may disappear altogether. Maybe instead of a car it will be a turtle. We don’t even want to hear of such possibilities. We hope that the teacher will tell us something that will fix our present model. A lot of therapy merely provides techniques for improving the model. They tinker here and there, and we may even feel a lot better. Still, that is not transformation. Transformation arises from a willingness that develops very slowly over time to be what life asks of us. Most of us (myself included at times) are like children: we want something or somebody to give us what a small child wants from its parents. We want to be given peace, attention, comfort, understanding. If our life doesn’t give us this, we think, ‘A few years of Zen practice will do this for me.’ No, they won’t. That’s not what practice is about. Practice is about opening ourselves so that this little ‘I’ that wants and wants and wants and wants and wants–that wants the whole world to be its parents, really–grows up.”

Indeed. Well put! In addition to what she is saying here directly, this also has a certain relevence and application to people entering monastic life. Very often they come to monastic life just to get their “present model repainted a little bit.” When it turns out that the life is pulling them into something much more demanding, a lot of them bail out. Another interesting application of this account is to the public sphere, the social and political reality. This extrapolation I will leave to you.


Speaking of politics, we are approaching a very critical national election. An election that has enormous moral and religious dimensions as well as social and economic ones. More is at stake in this election than at any time since I think the LBJ–Goldwater tussle back in 1964. As much as I dislike and distrust Hillary Clinton as a politician and as much as I think that there are many questions around her, it is absolutely imperative that Trump be defeated for the sake of the common good and the well-being of the nation. And it does seem as I write this that Clinton should have a very sizeable victory. But….and this is a BIG “but”….I won’t be celebrating the day after election day. This is not only because of my view of Clinton, but much more so because I realize that Trump is not “the disease”; he is only one symptom of what ails America now. And this problem is going to be with us after election day big time!


Random Thoughts On Politics:

The Economist, hardly a leftist rag, recently had an article with the title, “The Debasing of American Politics.” Just one sentence tells you what that’s about: “By normalizing attitudes that, before he came along, were publicly taboo, Mr. Trump has taken a knuckle-duster to American political culture.” Indeed. So true, but note the key words–“publicly taboo.” Trump is only bringing to the surface and to the light what was lurking there all along, things that were “not allowed” to appear in the public sphere.


Sometimes I wonder…. I recall a Scripture scholar I had in seminary, an elderly Jesuit who was the essence of gentleness and kindness and deeply knowledgeable in all the ancient languages. I never really enjoyed Scripture classes as a rule–they seemed to me to kill the spiritual element there–but this guy was interesting to listen to. One day, however, he jolted me out of my complacency. He pointed to something in the Gospel of Luke that was right there in front of my nose but which we all usually just take for granted, never really pondering the full implications of these words. The full pericope was the “Temptation in the Desert,” Lk 4: 5-7—“Then the devil led him up and showed him in an instant all the kingdoms of the world. And the devil said to him, ‘To you I will give their glory and all this authority; for it has been given over to me, and I give it to anyone I please.’” (Similar words in Matthew.) The old Jesuit was trying to challenge all the young Jesuit students in class (I was the only non-Jesuit in class!) who at that time were totally mesmerized by the call to political action as a religious activity, and you can readily understand that in the context of Liberation theology and other such movements. The old Jesuit was simply cautioning them not to “put all their chips” on politics. This realm is not a “godly realm” no matter how good your intentions; and if you really study history you will begin to see what he means. Well, at that time I thought he was overly pessimistic, and I still do today; but, sometimes, I begin to wonder…..


American history is an eye-opener if you get beyond the mythologized narrative they give you in school. Read Howard Zinn’s account for a change. In any case, just as an example, I used to idolize Thomas Jefferson. I even identified myself as a “Jeffersonian American”—until I discovered the “real” Jefferson, the one who not only was a slave-owner but also participated energetically in hunting down runaway slaves, dead or alive. On top of that, when he became president and got that big piece of land from the French, the Louisiana Purchase, he planned the removal or extermination of all natives from that land. This is the guy who wrote the Declaration of Independence and “all men are created equal.” In school we usually get only half the picture. Or take the case of the Democrat Woodrow Wilson who had the support of the KKK and welcomed that support and wanted to keep Blacks “in their place,” and lied to get us into World War I so that many made money off that–like the Republican George Bush in recent years. So the story goes…..

All through American history the political parties and the candidates they put forward are only “beards” for various money interests. The term “beard” comes from the world of sports betting. When a person cannot or does not want to be seen making a big sports bet in a casino, he will send in another person to make that bet for him. The bet’s true owner is thus concealed, and the person making this bet is called a “beard.” The image is self-explanatory! In any case, the phenomenon can be seen in politics quite readily.


One of the really serious problems in American politics is the truncated nature of our choices. Ok, the Republicans are really a far right party; and the Dems are more a center-right party, to use a European metric. To use the word “leftist” for the Dems is to not see what is really going on. Even the much weaker word “liberal” will not do–primarily because it has had so many different changes in meaning over the last century. If another serious choice pops up, like the socialist Bernie Sanders, he has to run as a Dem to have any chance and then the system will find a way to defeat him. I followed the Washington Post’s handling of the Sanders campaign and it was amazingly negative, even making fun and distorting all his proposals and his agenda. What we have really is what Chomsky called “a manufactured consent.” Only these two options will be allowed. And one is getting so looney that pretty soon we might really have only a one-party system.


I saw in the news an evangelical Trump supporter holding a Bible in one hand and a rifle in another. No more need be said. Then, again, I am totally perturbed, even aghast, that Trump is doing relatively well among my own Catholic community. Granted, these are conservative Catholics, but don’t they know anything about Catholic social teaching? It will be interesting to see what the demographics of the Trump support will be on Election Day. How many vote for him and exactly who votes for him. I predict that he will get about 38% of the vote, which is truly bad for the country considering there are THAT many people who believe in Trump. They will be there after the election as a real problem. If Trump gets over 40%, we are in BIG trouble; and if he gets around 48%, I am getting in touch with the Canadian embassy!


So what has happened to the Republican Party? Way back when, it used to stand against American involvement in foreign wars and supported civil rights, more or less. The party of Robert Taft, Eisenhower and Rockefeller, you could have an honest debate with. Trump’s supporters today talk of rebellion and assassination if they lose the election. Even Richard Nixon, wow I can’t believe I am saying this, had some remarkable positions but all these went down the toilet of history with Watergate. Few people know that he was responsible for starting the Environmental Protection Agency and for getting the Clean Air and Pure Water Act passed. He was also going to push for a single-payer health plan in the U.S. way back in 1970; and he was also exploring the feasibility of a guaranteed income for all American citizens, whether they worked or not, something that is only now being tried in Finland. Even Bernie didn’t openly propose that! What happened since Reagan is a complex phenomenon but it can be reduced to several elements at least. One is a real deep anger and frustration that a lot of people are feeling that demagogues like Trump and the far right have exploited to the nth-degree. This anger is due both to constant propagandizing and distorting by the far-right and it is due to a perceived betrayal by the elites of the country. And so any “anti-establishment” voice will get a hearing in this climate. Both Sanders and Trump actually connected to some of that, but one totally exploited that anger and anxiety ; the other tried to address it to some extent. Interesting that Bernie Sanders, this very old Jewish figure, gave voice to so much of Catholic Social Teaching (unbeknownst to him!!) and appealed to an overwhelming majority of people under 30…..the future.


About the future of the Republican Party…..recently Mother Jones had an interesting article about a Republican senator from Nebraska, Ben Sasse. An obviously intelligent man, a Ph.D. in history from Yale, an evangelical, and someone who was critical of Trump from the very beginning and disassociated himself from “Trumpism.” That much he is to be commended for, and perhaps he can be a building block for a new Republican Party of the future. However, Sasse sees the problems of Trump as a “personal behavior” problem ,more or less, and he is objectionable as a person. I think that is only scratching the surface. Sasse himself seems to be part of that very wave that Trump is riding….the Tea Party. And with support from Sarah Palin and Ted Cruz, he is not in good company. But we shall see….   As Mother Jones implies at the end, we have yet to see the real Sasse and what he stands for. He uses terms like “entitlement reform” and he says he is against “centralized planning,” for example, and these kind of words usually lead to privatizing Social Security, cutting Medicare and the likes. What Sasse really needs is a really different Republican vision, and for that we will have to wait and see. Right now they are starting to spew this “the-election-is-rigged” thing, and they are preparing to be total obstructionists for Clinton just as they were for Obama. Obama’s big mistake was his inclination to try and “work together” with these folks, not really assessing their nasty intentions. LBJ used to pull Republican congressman to the White House and tell them that he would pull all Federal money out of their district if they didn’t vote for such and such a bill. That’s how he got the Civil Rights Act passed and the War on Poverty. It’s not “nice” but when you are faced with that degree of nastiness and so much is at stake, then you better be tough enough to twist some political arms, that is, if you really want to get such legislation passed. That’s a whole other story. In any case, it remains to be seen if Sasse will be with these obstructionists or will he try to lead another kind of Republican “loyal opposition” that will actually dialogue and compromise with Clinton. A lot is at stake in all this for the well-being of the country.


A much deeper survey of our situation is hinted at in this incredibly complex essay by Henry A. Giroux.   As Giroux acutely observes, our problems are a lot more serious than this or that politician. Here is the beginning of this piece verbatim:

“What happens to a society when thinking is eviscerated and is disdained in favor of raw emotion? What happens when political discourse functions as a bunker rather than a bridge? What happens when the spheres of morality and spirituality give way to the naked instrumentalism of a savage market rationality? What happens when time becomes a burden for most people and surviving becomes more crucial than trying to lead a life with dignity? What happens when domestic terrorism, disposability, and social death become the new signposts and defining features of a society? What happens to a social order ruled by an “economics of contempt” that blames the poor for their condition and wallows in a culture of shaming? What happens when loneliness and isolation become the preferred modes of sociality? What happens to a polity when it retreats into private silos and is no longer able to connect personal suffering with larger social issues? What happens to thinking when a society is addicted to speed and over-stimulation? What happens to a country when the presiding principles of a society are violence and ignorance? What happens is that democracy withers not just as an ideal but also as a reality, and individual and social agency become weaponized as part of the larger spectacle and matrix of violence.

The forces normalizing and contributing to such violence are too expansive to cite, but surely they would include: the absurdity of celebrity culture; the blight of rampant consumerism; state-legitimated pedagogies of repression that kill the imagination of students; a culture of immediacy in which accelerated time leaves no room for reflection; the reduction of education to training; the transformation of mainstream media into a mix of advertisements, propaganda, and entertainment; the emergence of an economic system which argues that only the market can provide remedies for the endless problems it produces, extending from massive poverty and unemployment to decaying schools and a war on poor minority youth; the expanding use of state secrecy and the fear-producing surveillance state; and a Hollywood fluff machine that rarely relies on anything but an endless spectacle of mind-numbing violence. Historical memory has been reduced to the likes of a Disney theme park and a culture of instant gratification has a lock on producing new levels of social amnesia.”


Here is the link to this article:


Christ Hedges, my favorite commentator writes about Trump—“Donald Trump: The Dress Rehearsal For Fascism”       Here is the link:

And a more mainstream commentator, Robert Reich, who once served in the Clinton Cabinet and is now a professor at Berkeley, has an alarming prognostication–that a win by Hillary will be welcome by Wall Street and that they will get something important for them from her and the growing income disparity will continue to widen. Here is the link to that piece:


The things these folks predict may not happen, but still we need to face our predicament with open eyes and with thoughtful minds and hearts. The future is going to be a most serious challenge.

Leaving this quagmire of politics, now I would like to turn to a very different kind of person and a very different kind of world: In The Sun Magazine there recently was this article: “Not On Any Map: Jack Turner On Our Lost Intimacy With the Natural World,” by Leath Tonino. It is a marvelous interview with Mr. Turner and here is the introduction to this piece:

Since 1978 he has lived at the foot of the Tetons, one of North America’s most dramatic mountain ranges, usually in cabins without electricity or running water. A retired mountain guide, he believes that to really love a place, one must forge an intimate, bodily relationship with it, and that to do so in this day and age is an “achievement.” One cabin in which he lived, a twelve-by-twenty-foot plywood shack located inside Grand Teton National Park, could be reached during the winter months only by skiing or snowshoeing four miles from the nearest plowed road.  Temperatures sometimes dropped to 40 below. Weeks passed without a visit to town. He says the years he spent there with his wife, Dana, and dog, Rio, were the best of his life.

Raised in Washington, D.C., and Southern California, Turner grew up in a family of outdoorsmen. His grandfather was the co-owner of a hunting-and-fishing camp in northern Pennsylvania, and his father hunted and fished year-round. Turner got an undergraduate degree in philosophy at the University of Colorado and went on to study Chinese and philosophy at Stanford and Cornell. Soon after, he accepted a teaching position at the University of Illinois in Chicago, but he was less comfortable in the halls of academia than he was wandering the backcountry. He’d become obsessed with rock climbing in the early 1960s, and by the middle of that decade he was partnering with some of the best climbers in the U.S. on difficult routes in Yosemite National Park and Colorado. He loved climbing more than philosophy, so he quit being a professor. The mountains were calling, and he trusted their voice.

Now seventy-two years old, Turner has spent more time outdoors in pursuit of wildness and wilderness than anybody else you’re likely to meet. For forty-two years he worked for Exum Mountain Guides, a company based in Wyoming, leading clients up the 13,776-foot Grand Teton and neighboring peaks. He has climbed the Grand Teton roughly four hundred times and participated in more than forty treks and expeditions to Pakistan, India, China, Tibet, Nepal, Bhutan, and Peru. In his free time he’s backpacked, canoed, fished, bird-watched, and camped — often alone and always without a GPS — all across North America.”


Now this guy I really feel in tune with! He makes a very strong case for the human need for real and personal encounter with wilderness for both human and spiritual health. This is a topic that I have touched on a few times in this blog, and I was exhilarated by this interview. He also has a good understanding of the hermit life, which is quite rare. Here is the link to the full online interview:


And let us conclude with an actual contemporary Zen story. This took place at Esalen, the New Age spirituality and therapy center right on the coast of California in Big Sur and just down the road from the Hermitage where I lived at the time. Kobun Chino Roshi, who was a Zen master and a master of Kyudo, the way of the bow, was visiting Esalen with his archery teacher. The teacher fired off some arrows at a practice target and then he handed off the bow and arrow to Kobun and invited him to demonstrate his skill.   Esalen is high on a cliff overlooking the Pacific. Kobun took an arrow and with complete concentration and attention and care shot the arrow into the ocean. When it hit the water he said, “Bull’s eye!” (The story is told in Essential Zen.)

This is connected to everything I wrote above, but don’t ask for an explanation!!










The Continuing Saga of Zen Masters: Japan

So we continue our little perusal of these fascinating figures in the history of religion: the Zen Masters. This time our attention shifts to Japan. Now to be very clear, we are not under the spell of a romanticized, idealized view of Zen Buddhism. It has had plenty of problems thru its history until this very day, and this could be said of Buddhism in general. About some of this we shall reflect on in the next posting. But here and now I simply want to enjoy the company of some remarkable people–folks who are as endearing as many of my favorite Desert Fathers. When I was visiting with the Chinese masters, I used Red Pine as my guide. Here I will use a lovely little work by Richard Bryan McDaniel, Zen Masters of Japan.

Let us begin by repeating a story that I already once related, a story that I consider one of the most important in all the history of religion. This is the account of the meeting of Bodhidharma, the Buddhist monk who had arrived in China from India, with the Emperor of China. Recall that Buddhism had long before entered China and this Emperor himself was not only friendly to Buddhism but also a convert to it. But Bodhidharma’s Buddhism was very different to what the Emperor was used to and so he was very curious what this strange monk was about. Whether this account is mythic in nature or an actual historical incident is totally irrelevant for our purposes. The meaning of this story is what matters. So let us listen in to this encounter once more:

“The Emperor was a practicing Buddhist and proud of the many ways he had supported the tradition in his realm. When he learned that there was a visitor in his kingdom from the land where the Buddha had lived, he naturally invited Bodhidharma to come to the court. There, Wu described all he had done to promote Buddhism and asked, ‘What is your opinion? What merit have I accumulated as a result of these deeds?’ Bodhidharma’s reply was blunt and tactless: ‘No merit whatsoever.’ ‘Why not?’ the Emperor demanded. ‘Motives for such actions are always impure,’ Bodhidharma told him. ‘They are undertaken solely for the purpose of attaining future rebirth. They are like shadows cast by bodies, following those bodies but having no reality of their own.’ ‘Then what is true merit?’ the Emperor asked. ‘It is clear seeing, pure knowing, beyond discriminating intelligence. Its essence is emptiness. Such merit cannot be gained by worldly means.’ This was unlike any exposition of the Buddhist faith the Emperor had heard before, and, perhaps a little testily, he asked, ‘According to your understanding, then, what is the first principle of Buddhism?’ ‘Vast emptiness and not a thing that can be called holy,’ Bodhidharma responded at once. Wu spluttered: ‘What is that supposed to mean? And who are you who now stands before me?’ To which Bodhidharma replied: ‘I don’t know.’ Then he left the court.” (as presented by Richard Bryan McDaniel)

What a remarkable story! This story has a universal significance–it holds for all the great religions whether it be Christianity or Hinduism or Islam–you might say that it points to “A Tale of Two Views Within a Religion,” to borrow a phrase. In one story religion is a kind of transaction, you do something in order to gain something. There is this “I” that is constantly seeking “gain,” and so religion energizes this self-centered dynamism disguised by piety, worship, rituals and traditions, spirituality, doctrines, even benevolence–all of which is for the enhancement of this “I”–(Dostoyevsky’s Fr. Zosima pointed this out also in The Brothers Karamazov–in fact he pushed this to the extreme with unspeakable irony when he said that a person would even endure crucifixion as long as he got adulation for it, as long as there were people there to “applaud.”) The Zen Masters (and Desert Fathers) totally deconstruct this inner dynamism. Theirs is the “other” story of religion, one which seeks a piercing vision into the reality of the human condition and deconstructs the ground of all those dualisms that the “I” lives by: I like this; I don’t like that; here is the holy; there is the not-holy, you are you and I am I, two separate realities, etc., etc.


Now the history of Zen Buddhism oscillates between these two stories of religion as it travels through the centuries. Both in China and in Japan Zen Buddhism has its periods where it becomes lost in stagnation, superficiality, decadence and self-seeking; and it has its moments, and I use this word deliberately because these tend to be brief, when the intense light of Zen shines clearly and fully. We will hit a few of these moments in Japan.


Buddhism came to Japan from China. Chinese culture was looked upon as something to learn from and imitate, and so were the religious tendencies. At first there were three schools of Buddhism that came from China and flourished in Japan: the Tendai, the Shingon, and the Pure Land. The Tendai School is often considered the first wholly Chinese School of Buddhism, and it was primarily concerned with the teachings of the historic Buddha. McDaniel: “Although meditation was practiced in the Tendai tradition, the majority of Tendai adherents were satisfied with understanding it as the doctrinal system which was intellectually coherent and which was able to meet the devotional needs of the literate population.” So the focus of the Tendai was on Scripture, while the focus of the Shingon School was on ritual. McDaniel: “It was one of the so-called ‘esoteric’ schools of Buddhism, in which secret teachings, or ‘empowerments,’ were transmitted from teacher to student.” Shingon practice had elaborate rituals and mantra recitation. When this School reached Japan, initially it was very popular with the ruling class. Finally, there was the Pure Land Buddhism which became very popular among common people who found “philosophical Buddhism” too abstruse. Pure Land was utter simplicity–you simply recited this mantra and you would be “reborn” in a heaven-like afterlife. Also, you didn’t need to be a monk. It arrived in Japan in the 12th Century; it was always popular among ordinary people; and today it is the most popular form of Buddhism in Japan. (And Zen Buddhism is practically dead or just a cultural artifact!!)


Now in China all these varieties of Buddhism competed for popularity, power and influence. Zen Buddhism somehow emerged among all these others–due to those great Patriarchs of Zen we previously mentioned– and at times even flourished. It seemed to survive the various persecutions that some Emperors engaged in when they determined that Budddhism was a “foreign” religion and the push was for a return to Taoism and Confucianism. Because Zen Buddhist monasteries pretty much stayed in far-off rural areas and the hermits lived in remote mountains, Zen Buddhism was often “off the radar” and left alone. There were some great Zen Masters, but there were also periods of decline and decay when, for one reason or another, the focus on enlightenment, on that “direct seeing” into one’s mind that Hui Neng and Lin Chi emphasized, all that seemed lost and Zen Buddhism became “infected” with the kinds of problems the other varieties of Buddhism exhibited: emphasis on ritual, on doctrine, on wealth and power and prestige, etc., etc. There is a lot of controversy about this history, and about all that I will touch on in the next posting. (Recall that what made Hui Neng’s Zen Buddhism so special and revolutionary was his emphasis on “sudden enlightenment,” the downplaying of intellectual prowess and intellectual efforts, the openness to all no matter their station in society or in life, and most startling of all, Hui Neng’s downplaying the necessity of having a teacher—after all he himself, the greatest Zen figure of all time, didn’t have one until after his awakening.)


Dogen. This is the first great Japanese Zen Master to look at. He is generally known as the “founder” and foundation of the Soto School of Zen Buddhism in Japan–throughout Japanese history there are then these two parallel tracks of Zen Buddhism, Soto and Rinzai. The peculiar thing is that both branches trace their lineage back to the same Chinese Zen Patriarchs, like the great Hui Neng , and the amazing Zen Master Lin Chi. Yet these two branches are very different in their approach to Zen and at times they were fierce rivals—D. T. Suzuki simply ignored Soto in his presentation of Zen and thought it was not “real” Zen. Yet today Soto is the only Zen Buddhism that has any life left in Japan and is the prevalent form of Zen in the Wes(though in some cases Westerners combine Soto and Rinzai traditions). In any case, back to the great Dogen.

Dogen lives about the same time that Romuald, Bruno Francis, and Bernard are doing their thing with monks and hermits in the West. He came from a noble family, received an excellent education as a youngster and was definitely slated for a life in the imperial court. But his parents died while he was still young, and this deeply affected him. By the time he was sixteen he had run away from that scene and became a monk at a Tendai monastery. Here he studied the Buddhist sutras, and since he was well-trained in Chinese he took to the study readily. However, his deepest questions and concerns were not assuaged by this approach. He traveled to other monasteries, and he was exposed to a kind of amalgam of Tendai and Shingon brands of Buddhism with a little bit of Zen that had filtered into Japan. It was here that Dogen sensed that his deepest quest was leading him beyond any study and ritual, and the path he was on was not going to lead to any kind of awakening. He had a sense that Zen had what he needed, and so he traveled to China to learn Zen Buddhism from its source.

So Dogen goes to China, and there he encounters various Zen Masters. Things are not quite as good as in the Tang period, the “golden age of Chinese Zen,” and due to various government persecutions and pressures Zen is in decline.   The lineage of Hui Neng and Lin Chi has split up into several schools and not all the branches are flourishing. Dogen finds himself with what was the Chinese beginnings of the Soto school. Now let’s take a moment and explain what’s going on. For Hui Neng and someone like Lin Chi, Zen Buddhism was all about this “direct pointing at the Mind.” Sometimes called your “original face,” sometimes called “the true person of no-rank,” sometimes called “the Buddha nature,” sometimes called “your original nature,” sometimes called, the Unborn or the Self, etc., etc.   This whole awakening, this wholly revolutionary way of seeing things, this piercing of reality into the true nature of things, was called by different names by different masters but it all amounts to the same thing and for Hui Neng everything was for the purpose of this awakening. Yes, meditation could play a role, but it was not essential in primitive Zen; anything and everything was an instrument in someone like Hui Neng’s hands. All of life, your whole situation, anything was a means to this awakening. Lay or monk didn’t matter. This is the purest Zen, but it is also a very intense way of living, and not many could keep up with the likes of Hui Neng and Lin Chi. So what happens is quite understandable, various Zen masters develop various ways of ameliorating the journey if you will, or at least making it more “well-defined.” Thus, the koan method develops. People are given the koan and this is the total content of their meditation. Their mind is given “something to do,” something to focus on—in a sense it becomes like the wall that Bodhidharma sat in front of for years. It is still a very intense practice, but you see it is a very well-defined path and that takes some of the stress out of it. Later on the koans get systemztized and people go from koan to koan as if solving one puzzle and getting a deeper one. The koan method usually implies a totally monastic life.   When a person has a breakthrough, an awakening, “kensho” as it is called, then he is able to give an answer to the Zen Master that shows he has broken through the wall of his rational, ego-centered, dualistic vision of things.

Another approach was completely different. Here the emphasis is on a kind of empty meditation, the key thing is precisely the meditation and not some content of the meditation. The student is taught a formless meditation, shikantaza, which literally means “just sitting.” So here sitting meditation or zazen is the central practice. Dogen eventually settled in a Chinese Zen (Chan)monastery that was following this path. He stayed there for several years and had his first awakening. When he returned to Japan he brought back this path, enhanced it, intensified it, made it THE practice of his Zen monasteries, and today this school, the Soto School, is the most popular Zen path both in Japan and in the West.


A story related by McDaniel: “Dogen found an elderly monk working in the heat of the day preparing food. The tenzo (monastery cook) was hatless in the sun and walked over tiles which must have burned, but he showed no sign of discomfort. Dogen asked the monk how old he was and the monk replied that he was approaching his seventieth year. ‘Are there no younger monks who could assist you?’ Dogen asked. ‘Others are not me,’ the tenzo answered. ‘These are my duties, how can someone else fulfill them?’ ‘But surely there’s no need to carry them out during the hottest part of the day,’ Dogen persisted. ‘If not now, when?’ the monk asked. ‘I can see that you are a man of the Way (Tao),’ Dogen said. ‘Please tell me, what is the true Way?’ ‘The universe has never concealed it,’ the cook said and turned back to his work. The conversation struck Dogen profoundly, and the memory of it would stay with him long after he returned to Japan.”


When Dogen got back to Japan, he found many Buddhist monasteries were filled with luxury compared to the Chinese Zen monasteries. He set up teaching in a remote, old, run-down temple and there he started attracting students. He was open to teaching lay people and monks. He also wrote extensively in Japanese–previous Buddhist writings were mostly in Chinese and so of limited accessibility. He wrote of philosophical/theological issues, explaining Buddhism in general and Zen in particular, and he also was propagating what he picked up in China which became the Soto School of Zen. Here he wrote very practical things like how to do zazen, what to eat, how to live as monks, etc. Here is an excellent summary of his teaching by Peter Levitt, a poet and Soto Zen teacher from British Columbia:

“The ability to leap beyond dualistic thinking during zazen is fundamental to Dogen Zen. It is due to the wholehearted, all-inclusive nature of the activity, but we should look at this carefully to be sure we discern his meaning. As taught by Dogen, meditation does not lead to enlightenment. [In that he is very much in tune with Hui Neng] In fact there is no distance of any kind between meditation and enlightenment. There is not even a separation between one’s aspiration to realize the self and that very realization.   According to Dogen, from the very first moment of establishing the meditation posture, no bridge is necessary; practice IS full realization, and full realization IS practice. As he says, ‘Between aspiration, practice, enlightenment, and nirvana, there is not a moment’s gap.’ Dogen’s understanding is that at all moments we are whole, lacking nothing, despite how we feel at any given time. Therefore, zazen is not a practice that leads to realization. It is neither a means to an end in our usual goal-oriented manner of thinking nor a method for learning to concentrate; nor is it a technique designed to help us improve ourselves…. Dogen’s teaching is clear: zazen is…an intimate expression of the oneness of all life…. It is realization itself whether we are aware of it or not…. And so we do not sit in order to become enlightened; we sit as an expression of enlightenment. That is what buddhas do.”


Final Dogen quote: “Studying the Buddha way is studying oneself. Studying oneself is forgetting oneself. Forgetting oneself is being enlightened by all beings.”


The other great Japanese Zen Master to look at is Hakuin. Even though Hakuin lived centuries after Dogen, he can be considered as Dogen’s great rival. Hakuin is probably the most prominent figure in the Japanese Rinzai tradition of Zen Buddhism. And this is, like I said, very very different from Soto Zen!

Hakuin was born in 1686; his father was a samurai of limited means; his mother a devout practitioner of Nichirin Buddhism, an offshoot of Tendai. They lived in an impoverished region, and throughout his life Hakuin retained a great compassion for the poor people of Japan. Hakuin entered monastic life at the age of 15. He spent time at various temples, studying this and that. It was not until he met this particular teacher that challenged and pushed him to his own awakening. The odd thing to remember in all this is that for most of its history, Zen Buddhism both in China and in Japan was in a state of decline. This seems surprising, but it was especially true of the Rinzai tradition, the one in which Hakuin lived. Yes, there are the great moments and the great masters, figures who can take your breath away with their insight and awareness; but strangely enough this hardly lasts, and most of the time Zen is in decline. Here’s a few examples from McDaniel:

“Official support of the Rinzai tradition perhaps had more negative consequences than positive ones. Since Rinzai temples had become schools for the sons of the nobility and the warrior class, the government had an interest in how they were organized…. The government approved abbots and controlled the curriculum….schools became training grounds for students intending to enter the civil service, and they became a vehicle for promulgating government policies in remote districts. As they became centers of growing cultural importance, they lost something of their credibility as spiritual centers. Students with no religious interest at all were sent to them in order to acquire basic literacy skills. Other students were drawn by an interest in various arts that were becoming associated with Zen. Meanwhile, koan study deteriorated from being a powerful and challenging spiritual exercise to becoming a popular literary activity.”

“Shosan never bothered to have his awakening formally acknowledged, and he would always claim to be ‘self-enlightened without the aid of a teacher.’ The experience even led him to question the value of kensho. He was contemptuous of what he called kitai-zen, Zen practice undertaken in expectation of attaining some end, such as satori. The Rinzai emphasis on kensho, he argued, resulted in monks with very minor awakening experiences coming to believe they were fully enlightened individuals. Particularly significant to him was the fact that he seldom saw a notable change in the moral behavior of these monks. Their lifestyles, preoccupied as they were with physical comfort and ambitions to advance within the hierarchy, were evidence of how preoccupied they remained with self or ego.”

“Temples could be commercial establishments. Some acted as banks; others were publishing centers, where school texts, along with both Buddhist and Confucian documents from China, were made available in woodcut prints. The temples also carried out ritual activities for the benefit of the national government. In many temples, religious teaching became slack. Monks unable to earn them could purchase documents of enlightenment.”


So Hakuin arrives on this scene with that kind of monastic milieu, with Rinzai Zen in very bad shape. As a young monk he tours many temples trying to learn what he can of Buddhism and the Zen tradition. However, he is not interested in formulating ideas about all this; he has a deep, instinctive and intense desire for awakening, and he knows nothing else will satisfy him. Finally he meets this rare bird, a crusty old Rinzai master who was the real thing and who helps Hakkuin break through in Lin Chi fashion–by giving him one helluva time and knocking the psychological stuffings out of him! Hakuin spends some time with this master after his awakening; then he travels a bit more to deepen his awakening; then he finally returns to his hometown and takes up this abandoned, run-down temple. Here is McDaniel’s description: “It had neither roof nor floor boards. When it rained, Hakuin had to wear a rain hat and high getas (sandals with wooden slats on their soles) even indoors. The land and furnishings were mortgaged to local creditors. Undaunted, Hakuin set about rebuilding it, and subsequently this small rural temple became a center to which students from throughout Japan flocked for the next fifty years. Although Hakuin did not actively seek for disciples, his character was such that genuine aspirants were drawn to him…. Although the primary focus of his life’s work was on renewing the Rinzai School…Hakuin also retained a commitment to lay people, in particular the working classes. He took lay disciples and was sensitive to the challenges they faced…. Hakuin took upon himself the responsibility of affecting a complete reform of the Rinzai School. Central to that reform was ensuring that only individuals who had legitimately received inka be allowed to teach. It was essential that students work with genuinely awakened teachers, although Hakuin realized there were only a few available in Japan during his lifetime. He set high standards for both students and teachers. He had no illusions about the difficulties facing those who came to him…. Awakening was central to Hakuin’s Zen. One was not, in his opinion, a member of the Zen community until one had ‘seen into one’s true nature.’”


Here’s a very well-known story about Hakuin, which I long ago related and which corresponds so closely to a Desert Father story –totally amazing actually:

In the village in which Hakuin was building a Zen monastic life, there was a family who had a daughter who got pregnant. The parents demanded to know who the father was. At first she wouldn’t talk; they pressured her and wore her down, and she finally said, “The father is the monk, Hakuin.” All the villagers were outraged, and word spread all over that Hakuin had impregnated the girl and everyone feelings toward Hakuin changed for the worse. When the child was finally born, the parents and the villagers brought the baby to Hakuin and said, “This is your child. You look after it.” “Is that so?” Hakuin said. He accepted the baby and did not appear distressed at receiving it. His reputation was in tatters, but he looked after the child as best as he could. The baby was kept clean and warm, and Hakuin sang it to sleep at night. He lived like this for almost a year. Then one winter’s day, the girl happened to see Hakuin making his way through the snow, going from house to house, begging for food with the baby tied securely on his back. She felt ashamed at what she had done and confessed to her parents that it was not Hakuin at all who had fathered the child; rather it was a young man who worked at the market whom she had been seeing on the sly. Abashed, her parents rushed to Hakuin and apologized profusely. The child was not his; they would take the child off his hands and the girl would marry the real father. “Is that so?” is the only thing Hakuin said, and turned the child over to them.


So much for these two giants of Japanese Zen. There were of course many other outstanding figures through the centuries right into modern times, and each one made his own contribution to our appreciation of Zen. The figures who appeal to me the most are the ones who are unconventional, who are not “officially approved,” who don’t fit in, who are in fact “Zen fools.” Ryokan would certainly be one of these. Here’s a few others:


Shuho (later known as Daito Kokushi).

Here is a story about him: In the 14th century, Japan had a very young emperor who was so interested in Zen that he abdicated his throne at the age of 22 to give his whole time to Buddhist study and practice. Here is McDaniel’s account of what happened: “The retired Emperor heard a rumor that a Zen master of exceptional ability had come to the city of Kyoto where, instead of establishing himself at one of the city’s temples, he had chosen to live among the derelicts and beggars residing under the Gojo Bridge. The emperor was intrigued by the tale and asked his informant if there were any way that he could identify which of the beggars was the Zen Master. All the informant could tell him was that it was rumored the master was particularly fond of honeydew melons.

The emperor disguised himself as a fruit peddler and pushed a cart laden with melons to the bridge. As the residents gathered around him, he held up a ripe melon and announced, ‘I will give this melon freely to anyone who can come up to me and claim it without using his feet.’ One of the beggars immediately challenged him, ‘Then give it to me without using your hands.’ It was as much the gleam in the eye of the beggar as his reply that told the emperor that he had found the Zen teacher he was seeking.”


One of Shuho students was Kanzan. He was an especially gifted Zen student, but after his awakening Kanzan retreated to a rural village in a distant mountain region where for the next eight years he worked as a farm laborer during the day and spent his evenings in meditation seated on a stone ledge that jutted from the edge of a high cliff. He lived in this manner until the Emperor summoned him to Kyoto to become an abbot. While abbot he lived as frugally and austerely as when he was in the mountains. Not many could withstand the rigors of his training, and there were frequent defections. But those who stayed became the basis of one of the strongest lines in Japanese Rinzai.


Bassui: From McDaniel: “At the age of 20 he entered Jifukuji where he sought instruction from a master named Oko. Under Oko’s instruction, he began a rigorous meditation practice. However, he still questioned the value of the many ritual activities carried out in the temple…. As a consequence, he resisted taking the precepts, choosing instead to practice as a layman. He did this for nine years before finally having his head shaved and becoming a monk. Even then, despite his official change of status, he remained uncomfortable with the trappings of monastic life and remained noncompliant in many regards. He refused to chant sutras or take part in rituals; he even decided not to wear the traditional robes of a monk. Eventually he even ceased to stay at the monastery…choosing to live in a nearby hermitage.”

Again from McDaniel: “Bassui had heard about a hermit named Takukei who lived in a small hut in the wilderness…. Intrigued by what he had been told, Bassui sought the hermit out. At their first meeting, Takukei was confounded by the young man’s appearance and remarked, ‘I can tell by your shaved head that you are a monk. Why then aren’t you wearing the robes of a monk?’ I became a monk to learn the Buddha way, not to wear special clothes,’ Bassui answered.

‘So do you study the koans of the old masters?’

‘Of what use to me are the koans of the old masters when I do not understand my own mind?’

‘What then is your practice?’

‘I seek to attain enlightenment for the benefit of all beings in order to help them overcoming their sufferings even if by doing so I should fall into the deepest hells.’

Tokukei was so impressed by this answer that he bowed to the youth.”


When Bassui was about 50 he emerged from his “hidden life” and began accepting students. Eventually he had over a thousand disciples!


Then finally there is the incomparable Ikkyu, the “anti-monk,” the no-monk, the ultimate fool, the outrageous one….but also one of the most profound…..

Ikkyu seems to have been an illegitimate son of the emperor, but his mother was kicked out of the court when she became pregnant and was banished. She raised her child in poverty, and this deeply influenced his formation. He acquired a life-long aversion to the upper classes and a sympathy for working people and for the tribulations of women in that culture. When Ikkyu was a child, his mother enrolled him as a student in a Rinzai Zen temple. Ikkyu was a very good student and he also received a good literary education but he was drawn to Buddhism. McDaniel: “Even as a youth, Ikkyu had a naturally reflective temperament. He was drawn to Buddhist practice, but he was also sensitive to the discrepancy he observed between the way monks lived in the temple and the principles of monastic life to which they paid lip service.”

With his thirst for enlightenment growing, Ikkyu sought out some real masters. He found one in Kaso Sodon, who at that time was living in a hermitage near a village. Kaso had a reputation as a very demanding Zen Master, and he gave Ikkyu the “full treatment.” It took several years, but Ikkyu had an especially deep awakening, but when Kaso wanted to give him the formal certificate of Dharma transmission, the credential that allowed him to become a teacher in his own right, Ikkyu threw it into the fire. McDaniel: “Ikkyu was leery of the formal customs associated with the established Zen tradition. He refused to give his own students certificates of inka since such documents could now be purchased from less scrupulous teachers and, to his mind, were no longer credible evidence of a practitioner’s level of attainment.”

After his enlightenment, Ikkyu stayed with Kaso until the latter’s death. He took care of Kaso’s physical needs as Kaso weakened with age and illness, but there was always tension between the two for Kaso was a firm adherent to Zen traditions and the monastic code, while Ikkyu preferred saki, dallied with prostitutes and showed no deference to distinguished visitors. Ikkyu was in his early 30s when Kaso died; he could have become a teacher and would have many disciples. Instead he adopted the life of a wandering monk, visiting wine shops and brothels as often as he did Zen Temples. Ikkyu was critical of the pretentions of monks who affected a sanctimonious lifestyle.

A story that McDaniel relates about Ikkyu begging for food: “He came to the house of a wealthy landowner who, although he professed to be a Buddhist, gave Ikkyu only a single small coin and that grudgingly. Ikkyu returned to his dwelling and put on the formal robes of a transmitted Zen Master; wearing these, he returned to the landowner’s house. The landowner eagerly invited Ikkyu in and ordered an elaborate meal prepared for his guest. When the meal was served, Ikkyu stood, took off his robes and placed them on the seat of honor. ‘This meal has obviously been prepared not for me but for my clothes,’ he remarked. Then he left the house.”


Another tale narrated by McDaniel: “Ikkyu was crossing Osaka Bay on a ferry when a warrior monk of the Yamabushi School approached him. Yamabushi combined Shingon and Tendai teachings with native Shintoism, its adherents were trained in martial arts and magic.

‘You’re a Zen monk, aren’t you?’ the warrior monk asked. Ikkyu admitted he was.

‘I’ve heard that your school produces great meditators, but what else can it do?’

‘I don’t know. What can you do?’

‘We’re trained to be warriors and magicians. We can perform miracles which terrify our enemies and amaze the people and, by doing so, we bring respect to the Buddha way. Can you do anything like that?’

‘Certainly there are miracles in the Zen tradition, but tell me what kind of miracles you can do.’

‘I can call up the Bodhisattva Fudo on this very boat.’ Fudo was a guardian bodhisattva usually portrayed bearing a sword and a rope and surrounded by a fiery halo.

‘That would be very impressive,’ Ikkyu admitted. ‘Please show me.’

The monk began a series of chants and prayers and then, indeed, the Bodhisattva appeared in the boat surrounded by his halo of flames. The other passengers fell to their knees in amazement.

‘Can the Zen monk match my skill?’ the Yamabushi asked.

‘Well, I’m capable of a miracle or two as well,’ Ikkyu said. ‘For example, I can make water with my own body.’ So saying, Ikkyu pulled out his penis and urinated on the flames surrounding the bodhisattva, putting them out.”


In his old age Ikkyu finally took on some students and even got enticed in rebuilding a precious temple; the memorial temple for the beloved Daito Kokushi. But even here he was most unconventional and had his girl friend Mori visit him often. Even when he was 80, the two could be heard in the evenings playing duets. She was a harpist and vocalist, and Ikkyu accompanied her on the flute.