Monthly Archives: July 2011

The 27 Club

Recently the pop rock artist, Amy Winehouse, died from perhaps a drug overdose.  Regardless of the actual cause, she had already given many indications of drug abuse, so whether it was accidental or deliberate or even if it was just the heart giving out after years of abuse, that is not the critical issue here.  She was the bearer of a great pain that cried out for numbing.  A sad fact for any human being, but she also was an extraordinary talent within her own field of endeavor.  What is peculiar is how many of these great young talents have done themselves in precisely at age 27:  Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix, Kurt Cobain, Jim Morrison, and so many others, and now Amy Winehouse.  Someone may be saying to himself, Well, that is too bad, but these people trashed the gift of life in trivial pursuits and there are more important things to ponder at this point.  Indeed, perhaps true.  But I want to come back to that pain I mentioned.  It is the most fundamental pain a person can experience–you might say that it is the pain of being a human being.  Concretely and existentially this pain may have all kinds of manifestations or apparent causes, like failed relationships, betrayal, a troubled career, economic stress, loneliness, emotional chaos, etc, etc.  But underneath this potpourri of negative human dynamics, there is one foundational pain that pervades one’s heart but has so, so many names.

To understand this better, let us approach it from another angle.  Somewhere Abhishiktananda relates that the essence of Hinduism (and really all religion) can be summed up as follows:  “the total surrender of the peripheral ego to the Inner Mystery.”  Very well put (but I am sure a person could find something inadequate about that statement).  Now imagine if someone knew nothing of that “Inner Mystery,” had no sense of it, had no access to it, etc.  That one’s whole sense of reality, of one’s being, of one’s identity consisted in that “peripheral ego.”  That is more than scary; it is terrifying.  Why?  Because that peripheral ego is almost a nonentity, practically a “nothing,” a totally insubstantial, feeble reality, a construct that is equivalent to a “house of cards,” or a toothpick construction that comes tumbling down with the slightest breeze.  “Dust you are, and to dust you shall return.”  All the major religions point to this in their own terms, but they also point to something else, which in the theistic traditions we can call the “Inner Mystery.”  But imagine if that is nowhere on the horizon of your awareness…..  The cold, hollow wind of nothingness blowing through your heart….no matter what clothes you throw on that peripheral ego!     Finally death is the last word that declares it to be nothing–and ends the pain.

But that is precisely the condition of modern human beings.  All our social values, our economy, our structures, are organized around a kind of numbing of the impact of the emptiness of the peripheral ego.  Certainly it is not about helping or encouraging or facilitating the discovery of the Inner Mystery of each human being—that might make them less of a consumer and we know where that leads to….  Entertainment, games, the voyeurism of celebrity, econonic success, etc, etc., all this to push back against that feeling of nothingness which is the essence of the peripheral ego. Indeed, fame and celebrity itself is a kind of cry of “I am, I am,” but this “I am” is built on a foundation of sand  in the words of the Gospel, really a foundation of nothingness and emptiness in the true existential sense.  The real “I am” is grounded in the I AM of Absolute Reality, of God.

Now the artist, of whatever kind, has a more sensitive heart, so he/she will feel the impact of this even more so.  That pain will not be abated by art, more likely enhanced by it.  Art does not provide an anesthetic, or a “medication of forgetfulness” concerning our nothingness—more likely it puts it under a magnifying glass! (The role of art can be quite ambiguous in this regard.)  I am reminded of that great Welsh poet, Dylan Thomas, who also drank himself to death, but at one point he wrote a poem for his dying father with lines that repeated over and over this theme:

“Dear father, do not go gentle into that night,

But rage, rage against the failing of the  light.”

Ultimately this “rage” leads ironically enough to self-destruction because it is totally futile.  Consider finally another artist, Ernest Hemingway, who committed suicide in his old age by shooting himself.  Here is a poem by Merton about that moment:

“Now for the first time on the night of your death your name is

mentioned in convents, ne cadas in obscurum.

Now with a true bell your story becomes final.  Now men in

monasteries, men of requiems, familiar with the dead, include you

in their offices.

You stand anonymous among thousands, waiting in the dark, at

great stations on the edge of countries known to prayer alone,

where fires are not meciless, we hope, and not without end.

You pass briefly through our midst.  Your books and writings have

not been consulted.  Our prayers are pro defuncto N.

Yet some look up, as though among a crowd of prisoners or displaced

persons, they recognized a friend once known in a far country.

For these the sun also rose after a forgotten war upon an idiom

you made great.  They have not forgotten you.  In their silence you

are still famous, no ritual shade.

How slowly this bell tolls in a monastery tower for a whole age,

and for the quick death of an unseemly dynasty, and for that brave

illusion:  the adventurous self!

For with one shot the whole hunt is ended!”

Hemingway was a master of modern English narrative, but in so much of his writing and in his life he promoted this image of the he-man,  a certain kind of masculinity and ideal humanity that was embodied best in the image of the “great hunter,” the “great adventurer,”  among some other images.  This was the clothing Hemingway threw on his peripheral ego, and when in the feebleness of old age this image could no longer be sustained, well, the pain could only be ended in one way…..

Merton also translated and adapted from Sufi material, and here is piece of advice for a Sufi novice:

“Be a son of this instant!

It is a messenger of Allah

And the best of messengers

Is one  who announces your indigence,

Your nothingness.

Be a son of this instant

Thanking Allah

For a mouthful of ashes.”

Hemingway could not “welcome” that messenger that announced his own nothingness in the feebleness of his old age, in his failed relationships, in his inability to write anymore.   As great an artist as he was, he had no inkling of the abiding Inner Mystery in his own self.

And approaching this from another angle, here is another poem by Merton:

In Silence

Be still.

Listen to the stones of the wall.

Be silent, they try

To speak your



To the living walls.

Who are you?


Are you?  Whose

Silence are you?

Who (be quiet)

Are you (as these stones

Are quiet)?  Do not

Think of what you are,

Still less of

What you may one day be.


Be what you are(but who?) be

The unthinkable one

You do not know.

O be still, while

You are still alive,

And all things live around you

Speaking (I do not hear)

To your own being,

Speaking by the Unknown

That is in you and in themselves.

“I will try, like them

To be my own silence:

And this is difficult.  The whole

World is secretly on fire.  The stones

Burn, even the stones

They burn me.  How can a man be still or

Listen to all things burning? How can he dare

To sit with them when

All their silence

Is on fire?”

And lest there be any confusion, we need to include religious life itself as a possible locus of fixation upon the peripheral ego.  Taking up religious practices can simply be another set of clothes for the peripheral ego.  Here again is Merton adapting from translations of Sufi material–again from Advice to a Sufi Novice:

“He who seeks Allah will be made clean in tribulation,

His heart will be more pure,

His conscience more sensitive in tribulation

Than in prayer and fasting.

Prayer and fasting may perhaps

Be nothing but self-love, self-gratification,

The expression of hidden sin

Ruining the value of these works.

But tribulation

Strikes at the root.

This brings us back to Abhishiktananda’s “the total surrender of the peripheral ego to the Inner Mystery.”  The Sufis are very concrete and thorough!  Incidentally, the above material is taken from the writings of one of the greatest of Sufi figures:  Ibn Abbad, who lived in Spain and in North Africa during the Medieval Period, and some say he may have been a secret influence on John of the Cross.  We shall conclude with another excerpt, related to our theme, this time from Ibn Al Arabi, an even earlier Sufi figure who was a contemporary of Averroes, the greatest of Arabic philosophers:

“When the body of Averroes was brought once more to Spain, and

when the people of Cordova were gathered to watch its return

to the city of burial,

The coffin containing his remains was mounted on one side of a

beast of burden.  And on the other side, for counterweight, what

did they hang but all the books Averroes had written!

I too was watching, in the company of the scholar Benchobair, and

of my disciple, Benazzarach, the copyist.

Tuirning to us, the young one said, ‘Do you not observe what it is

that hangs as counterweight to the Master Averroes as he rides

by?  On one side goes the Master, and on the other side his

works, that is to say the books which he composed?’

Then Benchobair explained: ‘No need to point it out, my son, for

it is clearly evident!  Blessed be thy tongue that has spoken it!’

I took careful note of this word of my disciple, and I set it apart for

future meditation, as a reminder of this event.

For this was the word that held the secret of the occasion, the seed

of truth, shown to the disciple, at the burial of Averroes.

I planted the seed within myself thus, in two verses:

On one side the Master rides: on the other side, his books.

Tell me:  his desires, were they at last fulfilled?”

Amy, requiescat in pace.


Let’s face it–living in a real community is a very difficult thing to do.  Building a community is even more difficult!  Yet this is what some have proposed as the only solution to our dire times.  Most recently Chris Hedges, in a short essay detailing how bad things look to him, proposed that our only hope lies in a kind of resistance movement emanating from what he calls small “monastic communities.”


According to him there is no political solution to our dilemmas and our deeply incoherent ideologies and our pervasive corruption.  Resistance and a new vision has to come from elsewhere, and he locates it in small monastic communities.  It is interesting that he appends that qualifier “monastic.”  Not sure exactly what he means, but I think I get his sense.


To be sure, this is nothing new.  Just in the U.S. alone there have been all kinds of communal experiments over the years, stretchting back to the beginnings of this country.  And if you look at Christian monasticism as a whole, St. Benedict’s founding of his community, for example,  was in the wake of the collapse of the Roman Empire.  Now getting back to our own time, there were certainly many community experiments in the 1960s and most of them died almost overnight.  Some lasted longer than others, and there is no reason to say that any given community can only be considered a “success” if it lasts “forever” or a very long time—like a Benedictine monastery.  But the phenomenon is still marked by so much deterioration, failure of leadership, loss of focus, slipping into a cultish mode, becoming authoritarian, etc. etc.  that it’s hard to call it a successful phenomenon.  In a sense if you look just at this period from 1960 on, the impact on the larger society has been almost zero.  That doesn’t mean the experiments were not worth trying, or that certain individuals from these communities did not benefit in some way by being members, but for the overall thing there is not much to show.  So what is the problem.  Actually the problems are numerous, and there are very, very few communities even of the small number that survive more than a generation that deal with these problems in a way that enables them to grow or just to keep going.


This brings us to the point that Hedges is making I believe.  By “monastic” he doesn’t necessarily mean that everyone should become monks–hardly–but that the community should have some kind of religious/transcendent focal point, viewpoint, axis, whatever you want to call it. “Monastic” cannot simply mean any  kind of gathering of people around some idea or issue or value.   A community that is simply being established or built as an “anti-” something will certainly not have a chance of even accomplishing that before it evaporates.  Even being against  all things one should be against—-like pollution, war, consumerism, exploitation, etc, etc.— is not an adequate glue for a community.  But taking it one further step:  it is also not sufficient to build a community around any ideology, even a good one, or around any cause no matter how noble:  peace, sharing, environmentalism, hospitality, etc.  These are all excellent values and may be a very significant part of any community, but, hard to believe, they are not “the” solid foundation that a community needs.  What is really needed is a real religious tradition that guides the development of the community, provides it a focus, and gives it a foundation and resources to deal with the inevitable problems that all human ventures have.  And what Hedges points to, at least implicitly, is that only from these kind of solid communities can we expect to create a resistance movement against all that degrades human life in our society.  Now it should quickly be added that there have been plenty of “monastic” communities, both Catholic, Buddhist, and others, that have also deteriorated into some grotesque caricature of what their religious tradition is all about.  When you look at those examples, you will see that the “monastic” part is more like “window-dressing,” a kind of costume, rather than the substance of a real religious tradition.  Or perhaps in many cases of such failure it was a matter of badly interpreting the tradition or misunderstanding it.



A model for what Hedges is calling for would be a Gandhian ashram of sorts.  Gandhi, of course, is “the” icon of resistance.”  However, not everyone is fully aware of Gandhi’s deep religious roots, and what role they played in enabling him in his resistance–the movie on his life shows almost nothing of that.  He is known for espousing nonviolent resistance to injustice, but for people who took up nonviolence especially here in the U.S. very often it was simply a social tactic of confrontation to coerce some change that was called for.  For Gandhi, nonviolence was not a tactic but flowed out of a deeper sense of self, indeed, a different sense of self, of who one is.  Once nonviolence was used simply as a tactic it deteriorated into something else, became grossly misunderstood and misapplied–and then devalued by the society at large  By analogy, this often happened in the case of community building.


Now let us consider Person X coming to a community of sorts.  X is bringing a lot of stuff  to this endeavor—and I don’t mean material things.  More like life experiences, tendencies, habits, values, talents, quirks, fears, neurotic behaviors, and most of all and most importantly a false sense of self and a serious inability to see THAT fact or begin to understand it.  (This “falseness” may in fact be covered over with all kinds of religious language, or what’s even more problematic, it may be so deeply associated with one’s sense of identity that only some dramatic moment can begin to dislodge it.)  All the major religious traditions recognize that fact as a given (in their own terms) and have the resources for dealing with that, helping the person move toward a deeper, truer sense of self.  When a person comes to one of these communities, they are, whether they realize it or not at the point of entry, seeking to be a “different person” than what their society has told them they are.  Needless to say they will articulate many things, some incoherent, some obscure, some very lofty and idealistic and profound, but most of it will be a cover for a deep dissatisfaction with the sense of identity that one gets from the larger society.  That’s why these “monastic” communities all have some kind of initiation and testing process—to see if the person is willing and able to move beyond their own words and views, whether they are willing and able to engage in the process that will take them somewhere much deeper than they can see at that moment.  And by doing this they will then effect  a positive change in the world in whatever way that suits their capacities and talents, etc.  Incidentally, recall Thomas Merton’s famous last talk in Asia just before his death, when he at first is talking about Marxism and the attractions that held for a number of very idealistic young people in Europe in the 1960s.   Then  Merton mentions just in passing that Marxism really  only probably works in a monastery.  The gist of this is that one needs a profound inner transformation in order to really live by the values that authentic Marxism seems to be calling for and that these cannot be forced on a person or people from the outside by law or by force.  And the proper “laboratory” for this transformation is the monastic community.



Consider now a recent piece by Chris Hedges.  In his usual manner he paints a broad picture of our social ills and our predicament:


But what’s important for our purposes is that he gives a glimpse of what lies underneath these problems: a cult of the self, an idolization of self-interest, a culture of narcissism, a thoroughgoing self-absorption.  This is so strong, so pervasive, the “poison” seems so normal and is so intoxicating (recall in Greek myth how Narcissus falls in love with his own image which he sees on the water’s surface and drowns) that one wonders if there is any hope, any possibility of “liberation” and “resistance.”  Ultimately this is what a “monastic” community should provide and what all the major religious traditions point to, regardless of how well or how poorly any given community applies these resources.  Of course, in the theistic traditions, the person entering will be “seeking God,” but all this is only a jumble of words until the nitty-gritty of life and self are addressed.  That’s why you will often find simple practices like name-changing and common, boring  work for a long time as an initiatory period, as a way of beginning that “liberation” from a false sense of self leading to a real “seeking of God.”  In any case, let us look at Gandhi’s favorite scripture quote, from the Bhagavad Gita, which was often read in prayer at his ashram:


“He lives in wisdom

Who sees himself in all and all in him,

Whose love for the Lord of Love has consumed

Every selfish desire and sense-craving

Tormenting the heart.  Not agitated

By grief, nor hankering after pleasure,

He lives free from lust and fear and anger.

Fettered no more by selfish attachments,

He is not elated by good fortune

Nor depressed by bad.  Such is the seer….


When you keep thinking about sense-objects

Attachment comes.  Attachment breeds desire,

The lust of possession which, when thwarted,

Burns to anger.  Anger clouds judgment

And robs you of the power to learn from past

Mistakes.  Lost is the discriminative

Faculty, and your life is utter waste.


But when you move amidst the world of sense

From both attachment and aversion freed,

There comes the peace  in which all sorrows end,

And you live in the wisdom of the Self.


The disunited mind is far from wise;

How can it meditate?  How be at peace?

When you know no peace, how can you know joy?

When you let your mind follow the siren

Call of the senses, they carry away

Your better judgment as a cyclone drives

A boat off the charted course to its doom….


He is forever free who has broken

Out of the ego-cage of I and mine

To be united with the Lord of Love.

This is the supreme state.  Attain thou this

And pass from death to immortality.”




These words were the true source of Gandhi’s social revolution, and these words, or its counterparts in the other great traditions, are the true foundation of any real community.  Otherwise you have merely a club, and there is a great difference between the two.





There’s so many religious/spiritual traditions, so much variety, so many ways of taking that journey!  If you are so inclined, it is like the proverbial kid in the candy store—everything looks so inviting.    But most serious spiritual teachers will tell you to get rooted in one particular tradition, to be a serious practitioner of one way.  What you really don’t want is to dabble in several traditions, taste here, taste there, and so on.  Also, what you really don’t want are these “self-constructed” traditions (typically “New Agers”) where you take elements from the different spiritual traditions and lump them together as you see fit, taking of course only those elements which you like.  The results usually range from the superficial to the simply weird.


However, when a person is thoroughly rooted in one spiritual tradition, it is not only legitimate but a genuine positive development of growth to explore other spiritual traditions and see what one can learn from them, especially as they enhance the possibilities of your own tradition, or to see these possibilites in your own tradition with fresh eyes.  There are of course also the special vocations that are called to explore very deeply another tradition without losing that “anchor hold” of their own tradition, to live on the boundary as it were between the two.  The obvious two names in this regard are of course Merton and Abhishiktananda, just as a starter.


For Christians who are not contemplatives in the general sense of that term, in other words whose Christianity is one of “external discipleship” even as it involves prayer, etc., Zen Buddhism seems a very alien thing.  For those, however, who have ventured onto a contemplative path, Zen can hold some serious attractions and possibilities.  It seems less daunting than the obviously more complex Tibetan Buddhism.  It has a tendency to “clear the ground,” “clean the path.”  Or just like a gust of fresh wind into a stale closed-up room, it suddenly reinvigorates you.


The most important thing about approaching Zen is not to begin with metaphysical words or concepts like “God” or “self” or “reality,”etc.  And that goes for any such statement about Zen by any Buddhist or any Christian or anybody!  Look at Zen directly.  First look at what is right in front of your nose.  Then look at who is looking at what is in front of that nose!  That is the right spirit in which to begin to get an insight into Zen.  Look directly at the stories and sayings of Zen.   They contain the “whole thing” and you will sense that as you listen to their words.  And you will be intrigued by this and drawn to a deeper place.  (Or it may mean nothing to you and then you will go on your way in peace!)





A monk asked Ts’ui-wei about the meaning of Buddhism.  Ts’ui-wei answered:

“Wait until there is no one around, and I will tell you.”  Some time later the monk

approached Ts’ui-wei again, saying, “There is nobody here now.  Please answer

me.”  Ts’ui-wei led him out into the garden and went over to the bamboo grove,

saying nothing.  Still the monk did not understand, so at last Ts’ui-wei said,

“Here is a tall bamboo; there is a short one!”







Zen saying:  No snowflake ever falls in the wrong place.





Zen saying:  No seed ever sees the flower.


(Comment:  Can’t resist reminding you what Jesus said about the grain of wheat having to fall into the ground and die, etc.  Christians have a tendency to want to “have their cake and eat it too”!)










Talking about Zen all the time is like

looking for fish tracks in a dry riverbed.




Zen Master:


My magical power and miraculous gift:

Drawing water and chopping wood.

Before enlightenment, I chopped wood and carried water.

After enlightenment, I chopped wood and carried water.





Story about Hakuin, one of the great Zen Masters who lived  in 18th Century Japan and is credited with being the “Father of Modern Rinzai Zen”:



In a small hut, Hakuin lived a quiet life devoted to monastic purity.

When the young unmarried daughter of the village grocer

became pregnant, she named Hakuin as the father.  Her outraged

parents went to Hakuin and charged him with the deed.

Hakuin simply said, “Is that so?”


When the child was born, once again the parents came to Hakuin.

They handed him the baby and demanded he take responsibility

for raising it.  Hakuin said, “Is that so?” and took the baby in his arms.

Dutifully he began to look after the infant.


A year later, the young woman could bear it no longer.  She confessed

that the real father was a young man who worked in the

nearby fishmarket.  The parents went to Hakuin once more,

this time making deep apologies, and asked him to return the child.

Hakuin said only, “Is that so?” and gave the baby back to them.


(Comment:  Truly Hakuin was closer to the Kingdom of Heaven than most followers of Jesus!)







Some wise observations by a modern American Zen student:


” Most people who come to the Zen Center don’t think a Cadillac will do it,

but they think that enlightenment will.  Now they’ve got a new cookie, a new

“if only.”  “If only I could understand what realization is all about, I would

be happy.”  “If only I could have at least a little enlightenment experience,

I would be happy.”  Coming into a practice like Zen, we bring our usual

notions that we are going to get somewhere–become enlightened–and get all

the cookies that have eluded us in the past.


Our whole life consists of this little subject looking outside itself for an object.

But if you take something that is limited, like body and mind, and look for

something outside it, that something becomes an object and must be limited too.

So you have something limited looking for something limited and you just end up

with more of the same folly that has made you miserable.”


Charlotte Joko Beck


(Comment:  Indeed, and this would hold true in many ways for those who come to Christian monastic life also.)




Zen saying: If you want to climb a mountain, begin at the top.




A real Zen flavor to this saying by Thoreau:


A gun gives you the body, not the bird.





From a history of Zen in the 20th Century by Heinrich Dumoulin:


“Paramount for Zen praxis is the warning, often repeated to pupils, not to seek extraordinary experiences, combined with encouragement of the most intense effort.  This paradoxical combination is rooted in Buddhist tradition.  Since its earliest days, Buddhism has urged prudence in dealing with supersensible mental gifts.  In Zen the serene and patient attitude toward unusual experiences is based on the conviction that enlightenment is not the fruit of one’s own endeavor but the apprehension of the True Self or one’s original nature—in religious terms the Buddha-nature—that reveals itself when the moment has come, the moment of maturation that withdraws itself from the power of the practitioner.  Impatient expectation is a hindrance.  The attitude known as taigo-Zen (Zen that expects enlightenment) is generally rejected in Zen.”





From French Jesuit Yves Raguin:


“Being a child of the Father, I learned from Christ to be simply attentive to my inner mystery, knowing that I cannot see my face as God’s child, unless the Father enlightens me by his own Spirit.  The practice of Zen meditation taught me to stay in pure attentiveness  before my inner mystery….  In fact it is the practice of Zen which helped me to understand that the final step is not to follow Christ or to imitate him, but to be animated by him because he lives in us.”


This is very good, and it can lead us in several fruitful directions, but what I will simply emphasize now is the insufficiency of “discipleship” or “imitation”—they are authentic way-stations as it were, but not an end in themselves, and certainly not the deepest place one is called to.  Unfortunately too many very good Christians get stuck there.  All that Pauline language about Christ “in me”—I live now, not I, but Christ lives in me—kind of slides right on by as if it were only metaphorical or merely words or just some image suggesting some degree of closeness.  No the Risen Christ is our inmost reality, and whatever helps us recognize that and realize that is truly welcome.


In light of the above, consider this:


” Two monks were washing their bowls in the river when they

noticed a scorpion that was drowning.  One monk immediately

scooped it up and set it upon the bank.  In the process he was

stung.  He went back to washing his bowl and again the scorpion

fell in.  The monk saved the scorpion and was again stung.  The

other monk asked him, “Friend, why do you continue to save the

scorpion when you know its nature is to sting?”


“Because,” the monk replied, “to save it is my nature.”



Here Buddhism and Christianity meet, in silence, at a very, very deep level.





Let us conclude with some modern Zen humor:


Q:  What does a Zen monk say to

a hot dog stand vendor? (Tofu dogs of course!)

A:  Make me one with everything.


Q:  What does the vendor say when the monk

asks for change for his twenty-dollar bill?

A:  Change comes from within.


Ok, ok, so they’re not THAT funny!