Category Archives: Monk's Way

Can a Monk be in a Funk?

Well, yes! A lot of people would not think that. They project an idealized spiritual world and it is mostly an illusion and too many monks lap it up. I mean that when you “give up everything” you begin to want to be admired for that! And so you can’t afford to show the weakness and fragility and the emotional quicksand that stalks us all–even “holy” people. Well, ok, if a monk can be in a funk, so can anyone else, and sometimes that is the only honest feeling to have. No sugar-coated “hopefulness,” just trying to keep your feet on the ground of the Real. Always, always aim for that; whether it be comfortable or not, whether it be painful or not, whether it be dark or light….it is this which is the true Holy Ground. Staretz Silouan heard the “Lord’s voice” speak to him: Keep your mind in hell and despair not. Indeed. In our time and in our situation, not bad advice. The important thing is to let the Consuming Fire of the Divine Reality cleanse us of all illusions. Truly it will happen. The Divine Light, then, will be that by which we see everything.

And now for a few stories from the “funk vortex” all around us and within us:

  1. Recently I saw a story in the Washington Post about an exhibit at the Library of Congress about that famous World War II American leader, General George Patton. That he was a remarkable military leader and a genius at orchestrating tank attacks is without question and widely known. But something that is not known by many is the fact that Patton also wrote poetry voluminously. Frankly it’s all lousy, but it does reveal him more than his façade of military splendor. Here is a poem written at the end of World War I when he was a young colonel still learning his trade as it were:

We can but hope that e’re we drown

‘Neath treacle floods of grace

The tuneless horns of mighty Mars

Once more shall rouse the Race

When such times come, Oh! God of War

Grant that we pass midst strife

Knowing once more the whitehot joy

Of taking human life.


Patton loved war. He loved the battlefield of human carnage. He felt depressed when WW I ended and also at the end of WW II. If you saw this in a movie, you would consider this a caricature. But, unfortunately, we do not have a movie here. And here is the biggest mistake you might make: you might consider him an anomaly, a bizarre exception, a uniquely distorted heart, etc. I don’t think so. This darkness is hidden in the human heart and it manifests itself over and over, again and again, in the distant past, in the recent past, in our own very “advanced” modern era, wherever you look…. There is something in our hearts that loves war, loves killing and brutalizing and conquering. That’s the real reason we have wars. The myth of Cain and Abel begins this story; but more importantly we see that even religion is involved in this urge and a pretext for killing.

Americans have this fantasy of being righteous and just and in pursuit of the good and the true. We lie to ourselves over and over. We killed Native Americans as a form of genocide among many others. We have participated in the brutalization and the killing of all kinds of people down to this very day in the drone killings approved by both Republicans and Democrats. As the radical Black leader, Stokely Carmichael used to say: Violence is as American as apple pie.

Then again don’t make up the story of primitive people being pure victims. There is plenty of evidence that prehistoric and historic indigenous inhabitants of the Americas committed wars and slaughtered people and brutalized many. So what I am trying to point out is that there is no innocence in this regard, and it is an illusion if you try to disassociate yourself from this history as if these were merely abberrations in our history. Better to be like Gandhi, start with your own heart and find the roots of nonviolence there by facing the dynamic of violence that haunts our nature. Individually we may not be as distorted as Patton, but trust me, the love of killing is part of the fabric of our nationhood because violence is lodged deep in the human heart. Amazing that this man is lionized as a military hero! (And here we might reference that marvelous trilogy of scholarly analysis by Richard Slotkin of the American infatuation with the myth of violence. This explains our love of guns!)


  1. Religion is really very tiresome. I did not say “God.” I said “religion.” Any religion. The word “God” refers to that Ultimate Reality which is the ground of all that is and truly the only Real. Religion refers to what we human beings do about all that, and it has a tendency to become very unreal. And it can become a real source of the “funk.” It can become paradoxically an obfuscation of the Ultimate Reality because it is imprisoned in its own illusions–illusions in “religious garb and religious language.”

For a starter, for too many people “religion” and “God” are inseparable–they think that when you say God you inevitably are “talking religion,” and when you say religion, you are most often talking about God. Not true. I have met people who do not use the word “religion” much but are deeply and truly “religious” and “spiritual” in the deepest and truest sense of the word. Abhishiktananda mentions somewhere that when he met some Quakers in India early in his sojourn there he was shocked–he said that they “didn’t believe in any of the things you’re supposed to believe in” but were more Christian than anyone else he had ever met. Religion can become simply another way to expand one’s ego identity; it can easily become a vehicle for all one’s crazy fears, paranoia, violence, greed, even lust. God has nothing to do with this (or “enlightenment” for that matter), but the words of religion and spirituality can multiply and take over one’s discourse. (The Pharisees in the Gospel are one portrayal of this reality, but let’s not put the problem “back there”–it is our current church situation as well.)

Religion can also become very tiresome when it seems to lose touch with the realities people experience. Religious language especially begins to lose its power to grasp the heart when our leaders wallow in platitudes and banalities and retreat to ready-made formulas. A recent example is this:


This is a short article which I found in the National Catholic Reporter. Written by Bishop Tobin of Rhode Island, it addresses some issues that he had seen addressed in an earlier issue. The key issue, as the Bishop sees it, is that young people are unhappy with the Church and voting with their feet by walking away from it in large numbers. Bishop Tobin thinks he has it all figured out, and it’s summed up in the title of the piece: “Let’s Be Honest, It’s a Lack of Faith.” Really?! The lameness of this is beyond description. I won’t go into a detailed analysis of how bad this article is; let everyone discover what they can in it. When I first read it I got depressed–this is after all the church I belong to. The sad thing is that there is a certain truth in what he is trying to express, but his focus is all wrong and superficial and filled with religious phrases that he learned in seminary, the repeating of which made him a good institutional figurehead. As I have often written in different ways, I don’t believe that the Church (or monasticism for that matter) should be worried about young people or anyone else. Church people who get all wrapped up about this start resorting to all kinds of “gimmicks” in order to appeal to young people (the “liberal” approach) or attribute “sinfulness” that keeps people from coming to the Church (the “conservative” approach). What’s important is that the Church (and monasticism) be truly and starkly real, speak the Gospel in its naked power uncompromisingly, teach the mystical truth of our identity in God and not just a “membership” in the Church, etc., etc. If we had that, we wouldn’t be worried about who is or isn’t “in” the Church.

But the Church speaks mostly in a most compromised and muted way about all these things. It often comes across as simply protecting its institutional skin. At other times the Church seems allied with the forces of darkness and lies and pure institutional egoism disguised by an ecclesiology of “the holiness of the Church.” Recently Pope Francis apologized to Rwanda for the participation of Catholic leaders in Rwanda in the incredible massacres of thousands of people by one tribe versus another. The Catholic priests and nuns were members of one tribe that felt it had been greatly wronged and went on a killing binge. The apology is good but also very weak because it doesn’t get at the root of the problem: Catholic Christianity did not penetrate and challenge the cultural and tribal/national identity of these people, so that tribal identity was primary not the shared humanity they had with all other people. This kind of thing happens all the time and all over the place. It was so true of the “Christianization” of Europe which actually was totally shallow, no matter the grand cathedrals and the “pageants of faith.” And we see this of course in our own American situation. A small example: Amazing to me that Congressman Paul Ryan, a member of the Catholic Church, is not condemned from all the Catholic pulpits–here is a man who wants to destroy Medicare and Social Security and make life miserable for millions of poor people. Another congressman, who happened to vote for a bill that had funding for abortion clinics is told by his bishop that he cannot receive communion at a Catholic Mass. Another example: Still amazing to me that the American bishops never once condemned the various American wars in the Middle East, nor the continued use of drone killings, etc.

Ok, they occasionally issue vaguely worded documents that somehow manage to sputter out something real. No matter. Actually if any of the bishops actually did say anything prophetic, they might not be believed because they have been seen in various kinds of deceptions and subterfuge. Note the New York Archdiocese: it is fighting “tooth and nail,” lobbying very hard against a bill in the New York legislature that would extend the statute of limitations for child abuse victimization, so that those who were abused as children decades ago can come out now and sue the Church for compensation for all the pain they have experienced. The fact that the bishops are against this is interesting. They want to say that they are sorry for all that abuse by priests, but then their main thrust is to protect the institutional church from feeling “any” pain as a result of this. Maybe it’s things like that that can cause “a lack of faith.” I think the Church has a long way to go in this regard. I wouldn’t blame anyone from walking away from this Church.


  1. Speaking of Church language, here is a humorous but cogent representation of a certain kind of “Jesus” that may seem a caricature but I think he is more prevalent than you think. This was written by Derek Penwell and I saw it on Huffington Post:
  • ”Love your friends, bless those who bless you … and screw everybody else.”
  • “If you had the faith of this mustard seed … you wouldn’t need all that fancy ‘affordable health care.’”
  • “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me? I mean, look at all these liberals, and their un-Christian ‘caring for widows, orphans, and the stranger.’ Why can’t they care about Christian stuff, like the 2nd amendment or school prayer?”
  • “Go, sell all you have and give it to the richest one percent.”
  • “Blessed are those who hate immigrants in my name, for they shall inherit all the jobs white people don’t want to do.”
  • “Follow me and I will make you fishers of … people who look just like you.”
  • “Give unto Caesar that which belongs to Caesar, and give unto God only what you can’t hide on your 1040.”
  • “Let the little children come to me … unless they’re in Head Start or need help with school lunches, then cast them out into the outer darkness where there will be weeping and gnashing of their tiny little teeth.”
  • “Go ye therefore into all the world … and make sure everybody hates Muslims. Because obviously.”
  • “You have heard it said, ‘You shall not commit adultery, but I say to you … unless she’s a lot younger, prettier (like a model or whatever), and you’ve had enough foresight to sign a prenup.’”
  • “You have heard it said, ‘An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth, but I say to you … what the hell? They’ve got it coming.’”
  • ”You have heard it said that healthcare should be a right for everyone, but I say to you, ‘If you can store up for yourselves another new Benz, even though it comes from money meant for poor people’s chemotherapy, then you should totally do it.’”
  • “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven … but if you have a suitably large investment portfolio, that definitely won’t hurt.”
  • “If anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also.” (Marginalia—“This only applies to People of Color and women in abusive relationships.”)
  • “Again, you have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, ‘You shall not swear falsely, but I say to you … just kidding. That’s for suckers!”
  • “And I, when I am lifted up, will draw all straight, cisgender, middle class white guys unto myself.”
  • “I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep … except refugees. They definitely do not count.”
  • “So therefore , none of you can become my disciple if you do not give up all your possessions.” (Wait. Actually, he did say that, but he probably shouldn’t have.)


  1. At this time of year, around Eastertime, I am overcome with the hegemony of the Easter Bunny! This character dominates our cultural sense of Easter; his presence is ubiquitous.  Down with the Easter Bunny! Does anyone have a good recipe for rabbit stew?


  1. So lately we have had all this talk about a new health insurance plan, “Trumpcare” if you will, and it got defeated. Progressives should not get too jubilant about this because it was actually only the really, really bad defeating the really bad. The people who actually were responsible for breaking Trumpcare did so because they want to destroy the whole social structure that is a safety net for the physical well-being of people: Medicare, Social Security, etc. Trumpcare, in their eyes, was only a tiny step in that direction and they were expecting a lot more from him. Stay tuned for “tax reform”… will be a doozy!

With all this hullabaloo about health insurance, there is an amazing shortage of analysis that gets at the root problem: this insane American compulsion to put every aspect of our lives in the “free market.” Health insurance and health care “for profit” is a serious distortion of what is at stake. There is not another developed industrial country that deals with the well-being of its people as simply another consumer product, a commodity, by which someone can make money. On the contrary, all this should be considered a God-given right for every person no matter their economic status. Obama had an opportunity to challenge the prevailing view but passed on it, preferring to tweak the system and make it a “kinder and gentler” for profit system. It’s helping some people; it’s hurting a lot of people. But these folks today are out to destroy the whole thing.

Here is an interesting little op-ed piece from the New York Times by a person coming from Finland and reflecting on our health insurance system:


  1. Speaking of the “free market,” (actually there is no such thing but an illusion perpetrated by the upper class that controls all the levers to manipulate the economy), there is this very, very interesting reflection by an Indian economist on our whole economic and social perspective. Lynn Parramore writes about this in Alternet in an essay with the title, “Have We Been Denying Our Human Nature For Four Hundred Years”:


Here are a few relevant quotes:

“Rajani Kanth, a political economist, social thinker, and poet, goes beyond any of these for the answer. In his view, what’s throwing most of us off kilter— whether we think of ourselves as left or right, capitalist or socialist—was birthed 400 years ago during the period of the Enlightenment. It’s a set of assumptions, a particular way of looking at the world that pushed out previous modes of existence, many quite ancient and time-tested, and eventually rose to dominate the world in its Anglo-American form.

We’re taught to think of the Enlightenment as the blessed end to the Dark Ages, a splendid blossoming of human reason. But what if instead of bringing us to a better world, some of this period’s key ideas ended up producing something even darker?

Kanth argues that this framework, which he calls Eurocentric modernism, is collapsing, and unless we understand why and how it has distorted our reality, we might just end up burnt to a crisp as this misanthropic Death Star starts to bulge and blaze in its dying throes.

Kanth’s latest book, Farewell to Modernism: On Human Devolution in the Twenty-First Century, tells the history of a set of bad ideas. He first caught the scent that something was off as an economics student in India, wondering why, despite his mastery of the mathematics and technology of the discipline, the logic always escaped him. Then one day he had an epiphany: the whole thing was “cockeyed from start to finish.” To his amazement, his best teachers agreed. “Then why are we studying economics?” demanded the pupil. “To protect ourselves from the lies of economists,” replied the great economist Joan Robinson.

Kanth realized that people are not at all like Adam Smith’s homo economicus, a narrowly self-interested agent trucking and bartering through life. Smith had turned the human race — a species capable of wondrous caring, creativity, and conviviality — into a nasty horde of instinctive materialists: a society of hustlers.”

“Using his training in history and cultural theory, Kanth dedicated himself to investigating how this way of thinking took hold of us and how it delivered a society which is essentially asocial — one in which everybody sees everybody else as a means to their own private ends. Eurocentric modernism, he argues, consigned us to an endless and exhausting Hobbesian competition. For every expansion of the market, we found our social space shrunk and our natural environment spoiled. For every benefit we received, there came a new way to pit us against each other. Have the costs become too high?”


“Kanth thinks what we’d much prefer is to live in what he calls a ‘social economy of affections,’ or, put more simply, a moral economy. He points out that the simple societies Europeans were so moved by when they first began to study them, conjuring images of the ‘noble savage,’ tended toward cooperation, not competition. They emphasized feeling and mutual affection. Karl Marx got his idea of communism from looking at the early anthropological studies of simple societies, where he was inspired by the way humans tended to relate to each other. Today we are taught to believe that society doesn’t owe us a living, says Kanth. “Well, in simple societies they felt the exact opposite. Everybody owed everybody else.  There were mutual ties. People didn’t rely on a social contract that you can break. Instead, they had a social compact. You can’t break it. You’re born with it, and you’re delighted to be part of it because it nurtures you. That’s very different from a Hobbesian notion that we’re all out to zap each other.”


And so the essay goes. I am sure that you can find some criticisms of his ideas, but the basic thrust of this is without doubt truly valid. I think that Robert Bellah wrote in this vein in his monumental book, Habits of the Heart, years ago, and Merton anticipated Kanth’s analysis in his own social criticism. In some ways, the economic model for society would best be found in a monastery when it is authentically lived out, as Merton pointed out even in his last speech in Asia–but also as he pointed out this requires more than a change in ideas, but a radical change in heart, in consciousness, “a conversion of heart” as Benedict pointed out.


  1. I am eager to get out into the wilderness once more, the true sacrament of the Real! But, alas, my usual places of camping are under 10 feet of snow at present. I usually head out to the mountains in June but this year may be a bit hard for that. Well, anyway, a few positive words in conclusion from some of my fellow wilderness enthusiasts:


“I suspect the real glories of Yosemite belong to the backpackers, the trudgers and trekkers, those who finish a strenuous climb and wait for their psyches to catch up, suffer a thunderstorm on an alpine fell, and most of all, let the night spirits seep into their sleep. The real glories of Yosemite belong to those who are comfortable with being uncomfortable, who know it’s all right to be afraid, to be cold, wet, tired, and hungry, to be euphoric and, on occasion, ecstatic.

                                                                                    Ann Zwinger

“Most of all, I was awed, very early and indelibly…. The universe was neither hostile nor friendly, simply indifferent to my small, freezing-handed, steam-breathing figure in the white waste. You do not feel that mystery in city canyons or on suburban lawns. What you feel is the specious persuasiveness of human control, human management and organization and rearrangement. You do not know who the ultimate Authority is. Out in the public lands, where the nearest neighbor may be ten miles away and the stars are closer than the nearest town, you do.”

                                                                    Wallace Stegner



“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






The Masters, Part II

We continue our reflection. First, a historical note: Buddhism in China in the early centuries was basically divided up into Southern Buddhism and Northern Buddhism. The South was mostly populated by Hui-neng’s brand of Zen Buddhism, which upon his death proliferated into 5 schools, led by some of his key disciples. It was mostly rural, self-sustaining to a large extent, and based on a brisk and brusque Zen that bordered on the iconoclastic. The North was very different. The Buddhism there, even when it was termed “Zen,” was very drawn to study, to asceticism, to piety and mythology. It was a Buddhism situated mostly in the large cities and for the elite and wealthy. In fact it depended on wealthy donors for support, carrying Buddhist begging to an absurd degree, becoming wealthy themselves, and so becoming an inviting target for powerful figures.

Now various Chinese Emperors occasionally persecuted Buddhism–on the pretext that it was a “foreign religion” unlike Taoism and Confucianism. After Hui-neng’s death there was one huge persecution that devastated the Buddhist presence in China. Hundreds of thousands of monks and nuns were forced to return to lay life; thousands of temples and monasteries were destroyed. The North was totally wiped out and never recovered. In the South, Hui-neng’s Zen survived because of hearty disciples like Lin Chi and because of its social structure and geographical location: rural, even in remote areas, away from cities, and not depending on wealthy donors at all.


There is a vigor, a resilience, a depth, a toughness in the Zen that survives, and a lot of this is due to the main figure of this period in Chinese Chan (the 9th century): Lin Chi. He was a disciple of a disciple of a disciple of Hui-neng. A lot of what is authentic Zen which survives in China today comes from Lin Chi; but most important and most interesting is when his line moves to Japan and becomes what is known as Rinzai Zen(Rinzai being the Japanese for Lin Chi). This becomes the quintessential koan school.

So Lin Chi is another of these truly remarkable figures. On the surface of things he is not an attractive figure: scowling, shouting, hitting people with a stick, not one to care for your feelings!! Here is an ancient and classic depiction of him, at work with a kind of hoe, like all Chinese Zen monks, and you get the picture in more ways than one:


But Burton Watson, the scholar and poet who translated a lot of his teachings, scratches beneath this surface: “Who is this Liin-chi, with his devilish face and fearfully glaring eyes, and what is he shouting about? Anyone who takes a serious interest in Zen Buddhist teachings will probably find himself asking that question at some point, for there is little chance of getting around Lin-chi if one hopes to get at Zen. His portrait, with those penetrating eyes, will confront you everywhere in the Zen world, and when your teachers have tired of haranguing you–‘Straighten your back!’–‘Dig into your koan!’–they are certain to open the book that bears his name and harangue you further with readings from his golden words. Why must we listen to these pronouncements of Lin-chi? Because his is the oldest and most authentic voice that has come down to us from the early tradition of Chinese Ch’an or Zen…. Lin-chi glares at us because he wants us to attend to his words, words that are of life-and-death significance. He shouts because he hopes to wake us to their meaning.”


Consider the following episodes:

One day Constant Attendant Wang called on the Master and together they went to look at the monks’ hall. Constant Attendant Wang said, “This hallful of monks, do they read sutras perhaps? The Master said, “No, they don’t read sutras.” “Do they perhaps learn how to meditate?” asked the Constant Attendant. “No, they don’t learn how to meditate,” said the Master. The Constant Attendant said, “If they don’t read sutras and they don’t learn how to meditate, what in fact do they do?” The Master said, “We’re training all of them to become buddhas and patriarchs.” The Constant Attendant said, “Gold dust may be precious, but if it gets in the eye it can blind. What about it?” The Master said, “And I always thought you were just an ordinary fellow!”

(Burton Watson translation)


The Master ascended the hall and said, “Here in this lump of red flesh there is a True Man with no title. Constantly he goes in and out the gates of your face. If there are any of you who don’t know this for a fact, then look! Look!”

At that time there was a monk who came forward and asked, “What is he like–the True Man with no title?”

The Master got down from his chair, seized hold of the monk and said, “Speak! Speak!”

The monk was about to say something, whereupon the Master let go of him, shoved him away, and said, “True Man with no title–what a shitty ass-wiper!”

The Master then returned to his quarters.

(Burton Watson translation)

The Master ascended the hall. A monk asked, “What is the basic meaning of Buddhism?”

The Master held up his fly whisk straight up.

The monk gave a shout.

The Master struck him.

Another monk asked, “What is the basic meaning of Buddhism?”

Again the Master held his fly whisk straight up.

The monk gave a shout.

The Master also gave a shout.

The monk was about to say something, whereupon the Master hit him.

(Burton Watson translation)


Unless you have an inkling of what Lin Chi and his fellow Zen masters have in mind, encounters like this will exasperate you with their opaqueness. Perhaps a look at how Lin Chi himself became a “master” might help a bit. Here is an extended account from John C. H. Wu’s book The Golden Age of Zen:

“From the standpoint of natural endowment, Lin-chi was a typical northerner. As a young Buddhist monk he was an earnest and plodding pilgrim in the way of perfection, with pietist inclinations…. He was already a fully ordained monk when he began to feel an attraction for Ch’an. Probably in his twenties he joined the community of the master Huang-po…. At that time Mu-chou Tao-ming was the leader of the community. He was impressed by the purity of Lin-chi’s character and conduct, and kept an eye on him for a long time. When he thought that the time had come, he approached Lin-chi, asking, ‘How long has Your Reverence been here?’ ‘Three years,’ replied Lin-chi. ‘Have you ever presented a question to the Abbot?’ ‘No. I have never done so, because I do not even know what to ask.’ ‘Why don’t you ask the Abbot to explain to you the essential principles of Buddhism?’ Following the suggestion, Lin-chi went to put the question before the Abbot. Hardly had he finished with his question when Huang-po struck him with his staff. When Lin-chi came back, Mu-chou asked him, ‘How did he answer the question?’ Lin-chi told him what had happened, adding that he really could not make heads or tails of the Abbot’s unaccountable action. Mu-chou again egged him on to repeat the question. Lin-chi did as before, and once again he was beaten. Mu-chou pressed him for the third time and, believing that he might have better luck, Lin-chi asked the question for the third time, but he was beaten for the third time. Thereupon Lin-chi made up his mind that he had had enough of this nonsense and that it was time for him to leave the place for good. Even then he did not lose either his temper or his manners. He confided his decision to Mu-chou, saying, ‘I appreciate your instigating and urging me to ask about the Buddha Dharma. Repeatedly the Abbot has deigned to bestow his beatings upon me. I only regret that, due to some obstructive karma of my own making, I have not been able to comprehend the profound doctrine. There’s nothing left for me to do but to leave.’ Mu-chou said, ‘Before you go away, it is proper that you should take leave of the Abbot.’ Lin-chi bowed and retired. In the meantime, Mu-chou lost no time in coming to the Abbot, whispering to him, ‘The monk who asked the questions, although he is still young, is an extraordinary man. When he comes to take leave, please receive him tactfully. In the future he is destined to be a towering tree, which will shed its salutary shadows upon mankind.’ When Lin-chi came to take leave of the Abbot, the latter said, ‘You need not go to other places. Just go to the river bank at Kao-an to consult Ta-yu [interjection: he was a hermit monk], and I am sure he will tell you everything.’

When Lin-chi came to Ta-yu, the latter asked where he had come from, to which he answered that he had come from Huang-po’s place. Ta-yu then asked, ‘What instructions have you received from Huang-po?’ Lin-chi replied, “Three times I inquired about the essentials of the Buddha Dharma and three times I was beaten. I don’t know whether or not I had committed any fault.’ Ta-yu said, ‘The fact is that Huang-po had treated you with the compassionate heart of a grandmother, bent upon releasing you once for all from bondage and distress. And yet you have come here to ask me whether you are not at fault!’ Lin-chi was thoroughly enlightened at these words. Then he said, ‘So, after all, there is not much to Huang-po’s Buddha Dharma!’ Ta-yu grasped him, saying, ‘You bed-wetting imp! Only a moment ago you were still asking whether you might not be at fault. And now you are so bold as to say that there is not much to Huang-po’s Buddha Dharma. What truth do you see? Tell me right away! Lin-chi did not speak, but punched Ta-yu below the ribs thrice. Ta-yu pushed him away, saying, ‘After all, your master is Huang-po, not me. Why should I be involved?’”


And so begins the career of one of the giants of Zen Buddhism in China and Japan! What’s important to recognize, first of all, is how time-conditioned and culturally conditioned the words and gestures and iconoclasm of these figures is. It fits them to a tea, but they would be the first ones to point out that copying them is NOT the way. Even later Chinese Chan and later Japanese Zen faltered by simply a kind of ritual copying of these masters and today we have this same problem. Their iconoclasm is especially important to nuance. You have to remember that this was a truly religious society with a totally religious outlook, saturated with religious gestures and symbolism. Thus, their words that pooh-pooh various aspects of Buddhism have to be seen as a kind of liberating mechanism from merely a social religiosity–you see that in some Christian contexts where national identity and Christian identity become one thing. Today we have quite a different context in the modern West where religious symbols and rituals are hardly visible or even comprehensible to most. Perhaps a different kind of “medicine” is needed. In any case, what is most important is to get a handle on what is the point of all this, exactly what is going on, etc. So we have to keep in mind Hui-neng’s “direct pointing at the mind”–the true Self, nondualism that encompasses all reality, and an awakening that is so total and so uncompromising that no words or ideas can contain it.


Here is Wu again: “The focal point of Lin-chi’s philosophic vision is the unconditioned True Man. He never wearied of stressing reliance on one’s self, but this self is not the temporary individual, subject to all the contingencies of life, but the true self who is never born and therefore does not die, who is beyond time and space, who is one with the Tao. So long as a man identifies himself with his temporary self alone, he remains a slave. Once he is awakened to the True Man within him, he arrives at his true selfhood and becomes free.”


In other words Lin Chi is constantly asking, Who am I? Who are you?   And he is not fooled by the maneuvers of the ego self in any manner, religious, intellectual, or whatever….


Here is Lin-chi in his own words: “Followers of the Tao, do not take the Buddha for the Ultimate…. As I look at him, he is still like the hole in the privy. As to the Bodhisattvas and Arhats, they are all cangues and chains to keep you in bondage…. Virtuous Ones! Do not deceive yourselves! I care nothing for your expertise in interpreting the sutras and shastras, or for your high positions in the world, or for your flowing eloquence, or for your intelligence and wisdom; I only care for your true and authentic insight and genuine perception. Followers of Tao! Even if you were able to expound a hundred sutras and shastras, you would still be no match for a simple and humble monk with no concern for anything.”


You see how this is very much in keeping with Hui-neng’s lineage and teaching and approach to Zen. This is a very different kind of Buddhism. The focus is extremely intense on one’s own self and lived life–nothing exotic, no gimmicks, no “acting spiritual,” no reliance on scripture or ritual or even “masters.” Most of the recorded sayings of Lin-chi have to do with “cleaning the slate”–meaning he aims at the things that trip us up in our journey toward awakening. We spend most of our life and most of our energies in “reaching” for something “out there” beyond us, beyond our life. “Just give me that right situation and I will…..etc.” We will conclude with some words from Lin-chi as translated by Burton Watson:


“Followers of the Way, what is important is to approach things with a true and proper understanding. Walk wherever you please in the world but don’t let yourselves be muddled or misled by that bunch of goblin spirits. The man of value is the one who has nothing to do. [Taoism] Don’t try to do something special, just act ordinary. You look outside yourselves, going off on side roads hunting for something, trying to get your hands on something. That’s a mistake. You keep trying to look for the Buddha, but Buddha is just a name, a word.”


“Those who study the Way these days need to have faith in themselves and not go looking for something outside. Otherwise they get caught up in foolish and trifling environments and can’t even tell crooked from straight. There are patriarchs and there are buddhas, but those are all just things found in the scriptural teachings. Someone comes along with a phrase he has picked up, brings it out in a manner that’s half clear, half murky, and at once you start having doubts, looking at the sky, looking at the ground, running off to ask somebody else, getting into a great flurry. If you want to be first-rate fellows, don’t go around talking about the ruler or the rebels, talking about right and wrong, talking about sex and money matters, spending all your days talking idle chatter!   Here at my place we don’t talk about who is a monk and who is a lay believer. When someone comes to me, I can tell exactly what he is like.”


“Followers of the Way, the Dharma of the buddhas calls for no special undertakings. Just act ordinary, without trying to do anything particular. Move your bowels, piss, get dressed, eat your rice, and if you get tired, then lie down. Fools may laugh at me, but wise men will know what I mean.”


“You go all over the place, saying, ‘There’s religious practice, there’s enlightenment.’ Make no mistake! If there were such a thing as religious practice, it would all be just karma keeping you in the realm of birth and death. You say, ‘I observe all the six rules, and the ten thousand practices.’ In my view all that sort of thing is just creating karma. Seeking Buddha, seeking the Dharma–that’s just creating karma that leads to hell. Seeking the bodhisattvas–that too is creating karma. Studying sutras, studying doctrine–that too is creating karma…. There are a bunch of blind baldheads [monks] who, having stuffed themselves with rice, sit doing Ch’an-style meditation practice, trying to arrest the flow of thoughts and stop them from arising, hating clamor, demanding silence–but these aren’t Buddhist ways! The Patriarch Shen-hui said: ‘If you try to arrest the mind and stare at silence, summon the mind and focus it on externals, control the mind and make it clear within, concentrate the mind and enter into meditation, all practices of this sort create karma.’ … Followers of the Way, you take the words that come out of a bunch of old teachers to be a description of the true Way. You think, ‘This is a most wonderful teacher and friend. I have only the mind of a common mortal, I would never dare try to fathom such venerableness.’ Blind idiots! You go through life with this kind of understanding, betraying your own two eyes, cringing and faltering like a donkey on an icy road…. Followers of the Way, the really good friend is someone who dares speak ill of the Buddha, speak ill of the patriarchs…throws away the Tripitaka…and in the midst of opposition and assent searches out the real person…. Followers of the Way, here and there you hear it said that there is a Way to be practiced, a Dharma to become enlightened to. Will you tell me then just what Dharma there is to become enlightened to, what Way there is to practice? In your present activities, what is it you lack, what is it that practice must mend? But those little greenhorn monks don’t understand this and immediately put faith in that bunch of wild fox spirits, letting them spout their ideas and tie people in knots…. Fellow believers, what are you looking for? This man of the Way who depends on nothing, here before my eyes now listening to the Dharma–his brightness shines clearly, he has never lacked anything.”

To be continued…….














The Hidden and the Manifest Revisited

These two terms–“The Hidden” and “The Manifest”–are exceedingly important in spirituality, mysticism, and theology. However they are also very little understood, very little appreciated and almost exceedingly unknown. Most all of the spiritual life can be delineated between these two poles; most all of theistic mysticism requires that we take account of these two terms: “The Hidden” and “The Manifest.” Their meaning and significance is not apparent from the everyday usage of these terms. They are lost in a vortex of paradoxes that can make one dizzy if you try to rationally “unravel” their meaning. Consider: in the human–divine encounter what is most hidden is most manifest, and what is most manifest is most hidden. But one might rightly ask, exactly what is it that is Hidden, and exactly what is it that is made Manifest? Suffice it to say for now that these two terms refer primarily and most of all to that Absolute Mystery which we call God, and secondarily they refer then to the Divine-human interaction and Divine-human life. Let us reflect a bit on this–and here of course we are concentrating on the theistic traditions (Christianity, Islam–especially the Sufis– and Jewish mysticism, which we have hardly ever touched upon in this blog). We will not reference either Buddhism or Hinduism to keep things from getting too complicated. There is one other tradition, however, that might help us a lot in appreciating “The Hidden” and “The Manifest,” and that is ancient Taoism but I will leave that for another time.


In Catholic circles, years ago, life in the cloister for monks and nuns was commonly called a “hidden life.” The individual person kind of did vanish inside these religious communities, at least as regard to normal social interactions in society. And there were some truly holy and remarkable people within this “hiddenness”–there was also a lot of pretending and play-acting a role that was, alas, only that, a role, a pious mask that one put over one’s ego self. But these institutions, the monasteries, were themselves hardly a hidden reality within traditional Catholic culture. They were held up for communal and ecclesial admiration and approbation—“the Special Forces of Catholicism!!” The monasteries did not hesitate to play this up and use it for fund raising purposes! Nevertheless, given all this, you could still see within this whole complex picture the iconic nature of that life as it gave a hint–and I use that word deliberately because that is all I can attribute to that life in its institutional nature–a hint of “The Absolute Hidden,” and the “The Absolute Manifest.” Truly, like I said, there were individuals who could go very, very deep within these institutions, who were truly “hidden in God,” and who had intimate knowledge of “The Hidden” and “The Manifest.” But the institutions as a whole were only feeble icons of this great Mystery, and yet in a very ironic way they still managed to “hide” and to “make manifest” what it is they were suppose to be all about. But as we write all this we are still at the most external periphery of this Great Mystery.


Among the Russian Orthodox there is this incredible and beautiful tradition of the “fools for Christ.” How I love these people!! These are people who hide their intimacy with God (and one could say that they at the same time by this hiddenness “actualize” that intimacy) by putting on a “mask” of “foolishness,” “dumbness,” “irrationality,” yes, even madness. They are further clothed in profound poverty, homelessness and a solitude that is difficult to articulate. Certainly they are not beacons of religious formalism, of a well-ordered religious life, of social or religious respectability. (By the way, during the peak of Russian Orthodoxy in the 19th Century some have estimated that these “fools” numbered in the hundreds of thousands over the vast expanse of Russia. Compare that to current USA where there may be up to ten thousand contemplative religious, and that includes all the informal and experimental groups that have sprung up in recent decades.) The chief virtue of the “fool” and his/her most apparent posture is that of an unspeakably deep humility, a humility that itself is a form of hiddenness and manifestation. To all rebukes, to all curses, to all rejection, to all meanness, their one and only response would be a profound prostration and in the spirit of Dostoyevsky’s Father Zosima they would ask forgiveness from their assailant and for their assailant, for as Fr. Zosima said, the essence of the divine life in us is to always in every circumstance forgive and seek forgiveness even from those who hurt us. What madness, the world will say! Here we are not in the world of logic or of rational connections! And these “fools” were found everywhere: yes, in the monasteries, but also in the streets of the large cities; on country roads, in villages, and even as wild hermits in the great forests. But the essence of their hiddenness was never one of location or social setting, a kind of institutionalized hiddenness; but rather it was a radical inversion, a turning upside down of the usual ego attempt to establish a “fortress” of social identity, even a religious identity, and by this inversion transforming that whole process into a kind of non-identity which we witness as a profoundly deep humility. True, within Russian culture the “fool” seemed to have an accepted place that other people at least thought they recognized; but also at the very same time, the “fool for Christ” was a person with no-place at all. And in our culture this notion of the “fool for Christ” is totally incomprehensible and inconceivable–so this reality goes “underground” and reappears in ways that will be equally bewildering but perhaps even more hidden in its religious significance.


Then there are the Sufis. These are the true masters of “The Hidden” and “The Manifest.” Their tradition is replete with holy figures whose holiness and intimacy with God is profoundly hidden and most often hidden by everyday life, perhaps the deepest kind of hiddenness. On the outward surface of things they might be engaged in all kinds of usual human activities, like trade, crafts, etc.; they could even be married; but in the depths they are people of great silence, deep humility, of intimate knowledge of that Absolute Mystery within the Heart and focused on THAT with unspeakable intensity.  They also have their “fools,” and very often their holy figures have also in common with Western monks and holy people, a kinship with deep poverty. Two words associated with the Sufis have their root meaning in a total poverty (like Francis of Asissi): “fakir” in Arabic; and “dervish” in Persian. To illustrate that this poverty is not ordinary and not a matter simply of subtracting items from one’s belongings, consider that there were several Sufi holy men who were men of great wealth and power(rare cases, but still there), but they held these positions as if they owned nothing, with not a trace of these realities leaving even a fingerprint of possession on their hearts. They were totally transparent and impervious to the lures of such things but simply exercised a certain responsibility of stewardship. When you witness in monastic life how monks can get very possessive over a favorite item or book, well, then you begin to appreciate the nature of this hiddenness.


In Jewish mysticism, among the Hasidim, there are the legendary Zaddikim, the 36 hidden holy men in the world, whose holiness keeps the cosmos together. This is close to the Sufi ideal above in that these figures are hidden in ordinary life–one could be a butcher, another a merchant, etc. What’s extra special here is that in some cases the hiddenness is of such depth and profundity that the person himself is not aware that he is doing anything special. In fact, he may be bothered by some possible character flaw or shortcoming. In other words he is even hidden from his own eyes! He has not chosen the path of hiddenness, but is totally on it due to the Divine Reality itself.


Now we begin to get into some very deep waters! And that brings us then to this new level of hiddenness–this is where “The Hidden” is not so much a choice on our part but something that God bestows on us–you might say that it is God who does the hiding! It is certainly not the equivalent of a choice in lifestyle or way of life.   And this applies then not only to these secret Zaddikim, but also to the Sufis, the “fools,” Christian monks, and so many other holy people in ordinary life, among all of whom there are these profound icons of God’s Presence even as they might be thoroughly hidden in a “cloud” that only at rare moments one has the privilege of seeing into. I think each of us has on occasion run into some such figure, on a street corner, in a monastery, at home even, wherever….I think there are certainly more than 36 such figures but it is they who truly hold this universe together. Their holiness is not something that can ever be put on display because it is the Divine Reality which conceals them.


Time to get a bit theological. Earlier I had raised the question: what is this “Hiddenness” and what is this “Manifest” stuff? There is a primary meaning to these terms and a secondary meaning; and it was the secondary that I have been discussing. By looking at some very special examples of very special people, we begin to see that what is both Hidden and Manifest is their holiness if you will. There is a very profound paradox here. What is most truly and deeply hidden concerning the holiness of these people is also the most manifest; but access to that which is truly manifest about their holiness is only available to one who enters their profound hiddenness. The “two” are not two “stages” in life, or two “aspects” of life, or anything of that sort; no, they are both one and the same Reality in which the Heart abides, sometimes by choice, sometimes by realization that THAT is who they are, sometimes even without knowing anything at all….


When I use the word “holiness” here, I am afraid it sounds a bit abstract or some quality of personhood that one can somehow achieve or produce. Nothing of the sort. Let us backup a bit. Recall that the Bible tells us that only God is holy. When we attribute holiness to a person, it is not as if he/she gets somekind of character stamp or merit badge. No, holiness in the real sense is the very Presence of that Absolute Mystery which we call God. And when we call someone “holy” all we really mean, or should mean, is that this person conveys to us something of that Absolute Mystery. It is the very Reality of God that is present.


Now this Reality is both concealed and unconcealed within the same dynamism of Presence–and I say “dynamism” because that Reality is never a static presence. As Aquinas termed God: Pure Act. It is as if God enjoys, so to speak, in concealing Himself so that we go looking for Him, so to speak.   This is the basis of the erotic language of the Song of Songs in the Bible and the language of various western mystics. And furthermore God so enjoys manifesting Who He Is that we have all of creation for that. The Sufi mystical theologians speak of all creation as a true self-manifestation of the Absolute Self of God which is truly and also absolutely unknowable in itself. Like one of our hymns proclaims: All the earth proclaims the Lord. Indeed, but this “proclaims” is not like the proverbial finger pointing at the moon; no, it is like the Russian icon, a bearer of the reality which it speaks of.


So the Reality of God is both concealed and unconcealed in everything! Take a pebble, a beautiful little flower springing up wild, the twinkle in a dog’s eyes as you hold a tasty treat, the lovely smile of a child, the hearty laugh of a friend, a compassionate gesture, the act of sex, a whisper of wind, the loud boom of thunder, etc., etc…..all these hold within themselves The Hidden and The Manifest. But the Sufis push this even to greater depths(naturally!). What if a disease strikes you; or you are financially ruined; betrayed by someone you trusted; slandered by someone; what if your child dies due to an accident or disease, etc., etc. Is God concealed and unconcealed in all this? Many of the Sufi mystics would say, most certainly. But this is not something that one should take upon oneself to say to another in some casual, superficial spirit. It is a Reality that is beyond ordinary discourse and rational concepts and not for the “casual observer.” The Sufi mystics’ approach is something like this: they have a saying that goes along this line: It is one thing when the veil is lifted to behold the Divine Reality; it is quite another to behold the Divine Reality within the very veil. Indeed! One has to be blessed with a very special eye for that!!


And where this does come to a remarkable focus, at least for Christian theology and mysticism, is in the person of Jesus Christ. The Absolute Mystery is most hidden, you might say, in this person: after all he is a Jewish male living in a backwater country where nothing important is going on, far off from our modern world–serious limitations, one could say, to “manifesting” anything much less the Divine Reality. Even in the words of the Gospels he is only a carpenter’s son, from Nazareth, not much of anything significant comes from there; he does not even have the proper credentials within his own religious culture to be a significant religious personage. Go figure!   But Christian faith and theology also claims that this person of Jesus Christ is also the most complete manifestation of the Absolute Mystery (which by the way he called “Father,” which in itself leads to another dose of paradox upon paradox in this round of hiddenness and manifestation). The Gospels then are this textual interplay of concealing the Divine Mystery and unconcealing it, all in the person of Jesus Christ. And where this comes to a crescendo is, of course, on the cross–the crucifix, not just the empty cross, the most remarkable symbol, in my opinion, in all of human culture. In that moment of crucifixion, one of the most horrible events anyone could ever witness, we find the Divine Reality most hidden, most concealed. Who could ever see it there? Yet, and this is almost too much for words and language, and yet, paradox upon unspeakable paradox, it is there that the Divine Reality is most manifest. Blessed are you truly who have seen what you have seen……




Ecclesiastes & Lamentations

So we will be reflecting on two of the most unusual and difficult books of the Hebrew Bible.  Nothing scholarly; nothing pious; more of a kind of orientation to dealing with these texts.  At first I was going to spend a separate posting on each one, but then both practical matters and just wanting to “move on” to other things inclines me to this more shortened version.  Both texts do present us with some of the issues that we discussed earlier:  the very nature of the Bible, how we read it, etc.

  1. Ecclesiastes

What an unpleasant book!!  At least that is the opinion of this writer.  I suppose you can try and salvage it by quoting some “nice lines” from it–because it does have them–some of which even formed the lyrics of a famous folk-rock song from the early 1960s.  But I think you seriously miss the point if you pick and choose your “nice phrases, pleasing lines, and positive stories” out of that whole morass, but that is what so many people do with the whole Bible.  Nowhere in the whole Christian Tradition at least does it say that ONLY the “nice parts” are “inspired” and the rest is “throw-away” material or filler.  No, it says the whole text is “inspired” and this of course leads us to all kinds of headaches!  Now of course all this hinges on what we mean by “inspired” and if by this we intend to say that God “writes” this text, then, yes, we are in trouble.  But there is a more subtle, more nuanced, much deeper sense of “inspired” that we want to appeal to.  The text then becomes a kind of a privileged paideia and a pedagogy of our identity in God.  We read the text as we learn and unlearn our misreadings of our own lives in God. 

It is hard to summarize the thematic content of this work.  “Vanity of vanities! All is vanity.”  Some have pointed to its “Buddhist flavor” and indeed there are certain passages that have an interesting resemblance to primitive and fundamental teachings of the Buddha–but certainly not to the later metaphysical elaborations of Indian and Tibetan Buddhism.  Consider lines like this: 

“The eye is not satisfied with seeing, nor the ear filled with hearing”(1:8).

“I have seen everything that is done under the sun; and behold all is vanity and a striving after wind”(1:14).

And so on.  The emptiness of it all.  The futility of desires that fill our being. We are driven by desires that ultimately lead to more frustrations and then more desires.  We cannot not only satisfy these desires but we cannot overcome these desires.  The desire to transcend desire is simply another project doomed to futility.  You might say that this is the central koan of Buddhism–what do I do with my desire to transcend desire.  (How do I get the goose out of the bottle without breaking the bottle and without harming the goose!?)

Some of these sentiments are echoed in the Gospels by Jesus as he points out the futility of wealth and its pursuits.  But here even the pursuit of virtue and knowledge is lamented as futile.  There is this intense almost morose focus on the “emptiness” of human activity.  And by emptiness we don’t mean it quite in the Buddhist sense which actually has a more positive quality.  Here the author drills home the utter futility and vacuity of all human endeavors.  And the key to getting a “handle” on the “message”  is the really cranky, dismal persona who is venting all his dark feelings here.  Not a happy camper to say the least!!   The fact is that this whole text is a testimony and witness to how life looks like from the standpoint of the ego self when that is the only sense of identity that we have.  Yes, this ego self can be “very religious” as in the text–this grouchy persona has constant reference to God and “religious values” as it were.  He is commendable in his clarity; that is, if you only recognize the ego self as your identity, this separate hard core of self and God “Over There” somewhere and the world as this stage for this ego to act on, well, then this dark, dismal view is what you are really left with.  There is none of that “rosy delusion” of modern consumerism with all its gadgets to entertain you.  It’s all vanity after all!!

But of course our ego identity with all is desires and hang-ups and fears and frustrations is not all there is to us.  Who are you if you are not simply the sum total of all these?  Who are you in God?  There is No-name for that, and here we would have to leave this book and move on.

  1. Lamentations

Another difficult work, but much simpler and more straightforward.  It is unrelenting in its grief and despair.  Historically it appears to be a communal lament over the destruction of Jerusalem  by the Babylonians around 586 B.C.  The darkness of the book is not everyone’s cup of tea!  Hardly anyone reads this work except as a kind of historical document.  For many Christians the sentiments of this book are “inappropriate” for “Resurrection People.”  However, the New Testament itself quotes this text in several places.  It is also the liturgical text of Good Friday and you really can’t have Easter Sunday separate from Good Friday.  Jesus knew Lamentations from the inside and he was One with God.  So it’s ok to have these feelings, this level of grief, this depth of sorrow, even this awesome despair.  Events and circumstances can really hit hard and you are allowed to “cry on God’s shoulder” as it were. 

 Speaking of which, not too long ago there was a remarkable story about Pope Francis that was mostly neglected by the larger public.  It was from his trip to Asia, and the headline read: “If You Do Not Learn to Weep, You’re Not a Good Christian.”  Here is the link to it:

 Here he is not referring to “weeping for your sins,” but the weeping that comes from seeing totally unexplainable suffering and misery befall even the truly innocent like children.  The Pope encountered a child, a young Filipina girl, who came to him straight out of Lamentations with a question: Why?  And to his credit, the Pope did not give some theological lecture or mouth some pious platitude but pointed to the simple fact of weeping in the face of the unexplainable.  Here is the author of the article:

“As a young, inexperienced priest, I remember walking into a hospital room with a mother caring for a dying child. I wanted to help, but felt totally inadequate with nothing to say.

Yes, I had learned all the canned explanations: It’s God’s will; God has a plan; she will be happy in heaven; we have to bear the cross God gives us. I was smart enough not to inflict such trite responses on a grieving mother, but I did not know what to say.

Glyzelle Palomar and so many children suffered through the devastating typhoon that hit the Philippines last year. “Why did God let this happen to us?” she asked the pope, covering her face with her hands as she sobbed.”

And: “The pope did not respond with a theological lecture on the mystery of evil. Rather, he affirmed her tears, saying, “Only when we are able to weep about the things that you lived can we understand something and answer something.”

 And finally: “The mystery of evil is beyond my comprehension. The answers that I have heard I find unsatisfactory. I don’t find any words in the Bible that explain it. I have concluded that since it is beyond our comprehension, Jesus came not to explain suffering but to weep with us and to suffer with us. I prefer to see the cross not so much as reparation for our sins, but as God’s way of joining us in our suffering. Instead of preaching from the sidelines, he gets down in the dirt and suffers with us. That is real love.”

 No religion, none of them, has an “answer” to this mystery of evil.  And what Lamentations tells us and what Jesus tells us is that weeping may be the first step in recognizing the Reality of God within our own suffering and the suffering of others.  With that we are way beyond any “answers.”


Merton et al.

  1. We are coming near the anniversary of Merton’s death in December of 1968. It is hard to believe that this tragic event took place 46 years ago! Merton was only in his early 50s–to think what he would have written after his Asian trip….if he had only lived at least into his 60s like Abhishiktananda…. Sad too that he never met Abhishiktananda when he was in India. The two men were very different in some significant ways and had some very different interests–Merton was ranging far and wide with his interests in the Sufis and Buddhism and Christian monastic sources and social movements–not very much interest in Hinduism, showed little penetration of the Upanishads; while Abhishiktananda focused almost exclusively on his India and Hinduism and even there almost exclusively on the Advaita of the Upanishads–ignoring the very real dualistic schools of India.   But I think the meeting would have been something exceptional.


  1. Some of Merton’s writings seem now a bit dated; others are not only still very relevant but truly prophetic pointing us to a future not yet realized. Also in light of Abhishiktananda’s journey and explorations, Merton’s seems more cautious, more conservative, not so much “pushing the theological envelope.” But in his encounter with Tibetan Buddhism I think he turned a certain corner, and you wonder where he was headed for….! I think his main contributions can be summed up as: a.) focusing us on the contemplative and mystical dimension of Christianity and Christian monastic life (as opposed to a simple institutional “belonging” or some exercise in piety and morality); b.)showing the deep connections between the contemplative and social concerns; c.) helping bring back the whole hermit tradition in Christianity; and d.) opening to the great world religions and willingness to learn from them.


  1. In his Asian Journal Merton relates this encounter with a Tibetan Lama:

“The Khempo of Namgyal deflected a question of mine about metaphysics…by saying that the real ground of his Gelugpa study and practice was the knowledge of suffering, and that only when a person was fully convinced of the immensity of suffering and its complete universality and saw the need of deliverance from it, and sought deliverance for all beings, could he begin to understand sunyata…. When one read the Prajnaparamita on suffering and was thoroughly moved, ‘so that the hairs of the body stood on end,’ one was ready for meditation–called to it–and indeed to further study.”


  1. As is well known Merton was very much attracted to Tibetan Buddhism once he was exposed to it. Tibetan Buddhism is a very beautiful and profound religious path and currently a very vital tradition with many true practitioners (one can’t say the same about Chinese Zen or Japanese Zen at this time). However, I think it has one “weakness” which keeps some from fully engaging with it and it earns it a kind of superficial mystique that distracts from its real truth: its enormous complexity and the manifold and systematic elaborations. On the one hand this leads to an atmosphere of “esoterica” and hidden knowledge; on the other there is that feeling that one is climbing this endless mountain with endless steps on the way “up.” A lot of this has been demystified by the Dalai Lama and other deep practitioners–without taking away the truly laborious nature of the path–they point to the basic goal: utter selflessness, unspeakable compassion, an unfettered view of the world, true peace, etc. The ultimate goal of Tibetan Buddhism is really utterly and unspeakably simple(just as in every major spiritual tradition, the Ultimate Reality is always Absolutely Simple)–so simple that in fact paradoxically the “way there” can seem very complex. Merton handled the complexities of Tibetan Buddhism in an interesting way. He had this incredible gift for peeling away the secondary and tertiary matters to get to the “essence” or the heart of the matter at hand. In his conversations with some of the lamas when they talked of mandalas or something downright exotic, etc., he would note it down in his notebook later on but then he would add something like, “That’s not for me;” or “I don’t think I need that.” I don’t know how that would have worked out in the long run, whether he could have really gotten to the core of Tibetan Buddhist meditation–this is what he was most interested in–not any theological or philosophical speculation, whether he could have done that without that elaborate apparatus, we will never know.


  1. On their part the lamas also had an interesting response to Merton. Most of them could see that he was an “accomplished meditator,” not the usual Westerner that approached them. Both from his discourse, the questions he asked, and from his presence they could tell he was a deep person spiritually, although they were surprised that was possible for a Christian!! Mostly Christianity was seen as an external, institutional religion (which by the way the Dalai Lama very much respects). Recall his meeting with Chatral Rimpoche, the lama he deeply connected with (in addition to the Dalai Lama). Here is Merton in his own words:


“We started talking about dzogchen and Nyingmapa meditation and ‘direct realization’ and soon saw that we agreed very well. We must have talked for two hours or more covering all sorts of ground, mostly around the idea of dzogchen, but also taking in some points of Christian doctrine compared with Buddhist: dharmakaya…the Risen Christ, suffering, compassion for all creatures, motives for ‘helping others,’–but all leading back to dzogchen, the ultimate emptiness, the unity of sunyata and karuna, going ‘beyond the dharmakaya’ and ‘beyond God’ to the ultimate perfect emptiness. He said that he had meditated in solitude for thirty years or more and had not attained to perfect emptiness and I said I hadn’t either. The unspoken or half-spoken message of the talk was our complete understanding of each other as people who were somehow on the edge of great realization and knew it and were trying, somehow or other, to go out and get lost in it–and that it was a grace for us to meet one another. He burst out and called me a rangjung Sangay (which apparently means a ‘natural Buddha’)…. He told me seriously that perhaps he and I would attain to complete Buddhahood in our next lives, perhaps even in this life, and the parting note was a kind of compact that we would both do our best to make it in this life. I was profoundly moved, because he is so obviously a great man, the true practitioner of dzogchen, the best of the Nyingmapa lamas, marked by complete simplicity and freedom. He was surprised at getting on so well with a Christian and at one point laughed and said, ‘There must be something wrong here!’”


  1. No one know where Merton would have ended up, both physically and spiritually. After India and Bangkok there were plans to go and visit some Zen masters in Japan and then a little -known venture was planned to go and visit some Sufis in Iran, before returning through Europe to Gethsemani. One wonders where he would have settled after that. My guess is that he would have tried to live as a hermit at Redwoods where many would have come to see him. No matter where he went, there would have been a crowd! And I think he needed that in spite of his search for “more solitude.” He really flourished when he was interacting with other spiritual seekers.
  2. Let us conclude with another quote from the Asian Journal, among his last words, from that famous “enlightenment moment” before the great Buddha statues. These are also among his most beautiful words:


“I am able to approach the Buddhas barefoot and undisturbed, my feet in wet grass, wet sand. Then the silence of the extraordinary faces. The great smiles. Huge and yet subtle. Filled with every possibility, questioning nothing, knowing everything , rejecting nothing, the peace not of emotional resignation but of Madhyamika, of sunyata, that has seen through every question without trying to discredit anyone or anything–without refutation–without establishing some other argument. For the doctrinaire, the mind that needs well-established positions, such peace, such silence, can be frightening. I was knocked over with a rush of relief and thankfulness at the obvious clarity of the figures, the clarity and fluidity of shape and line, the design of the monumental bodies composed into the rock shape and landscape, figure, rock, and tree…. Looking at these figures I was suddenly, almost forcibly, jerked clean out of the habitual, half-tied vision of things, and an inner clearness, clarity as if exploding from the rocks themselves, became evident and obvious. … The thing about all this is that there is no puzzle, no problem, and really no ‘mystery.’ All problems are resolved and everything is clear, simply because what matters is clear. The rock, all matter, is charged with dharmakaya…everything is emptiness and everything is compassion. I don’t know when in my life I have ever had such a sense of beauty and spiritual validity running together in one aesthetic illumination. Surely with Mahabalipuram and Polonnaruwa my Asian pilgrimage has come clear and purified itself. I mean, I know and have seen what I was obscurely looking for. I don’t know what else remains but I have now seen and have pierced through the surface and have got beyond the shadow and the disguise. This is Asia in its purity, not covered over with garbage, Asian or European or American, and it is clear, pure, complete. It says everything ; it needs nothing. And because it needs nothing it can afford to be silent, unnoticed, undiscovered. It does not need to be discovered. It is we, Asians included, who need to discover it.”


Good words to end with.   Good words to begin with.






Traildogs, Trailheads of the Heart, Han-shan & Shih-te & John Muir

Part I   Introduction

Spent 14 days in the wilderness of the High Sierra country–Yosemite to be more specific, the land of John Muir, the Range of Light. Some time back I wrote about a previous experience here, so this will be a revisiting.

Yosemite Valley is one of the most spectacular places in the whole world. Its awesome beauty is beyond all description. However….the crowds there are also beyond most anything you will experience unless you make it a habit of large urban rush hour congestion. Best to go there in the winter when the crowds have radically diminished. All you need is camping gear that can handle the cold weather.

So it was the High Country for me, and away from the crowds. I camped at Tuolumne Meadows Campground at over 8000 ft. The campground was full but it was marvelous how quiet it was. John Muir was right–it feels like a church up there. There is a sense of a Presence–though very few would admit they were aware of any such thing, and most people there talk in quiet tones. Most everyone seems more peaceful and thoughtful. In this forest of giant pine trees, among the grand cliffs and snowy mountain peaks, you intuit a sense that there is much more here than just “here.” (However, if it were up to me I would have everyone turn in their cell phones, Tablets and Pads at the entrance. But I suppose the young people would be totally discombobulated!!)

Like in all human activity, there are quite a lot of different kinds of people in the High Country with very different reasons for being there. For example, one early morning I was sitting at Tenaya Lake, this pristine High Sierra lake that is easy to reach because of Tioga Road. This was one of John Muir’s favorite lakes, and it is stunning in its beauty, its clarity, its surrounding cliffs. After a few hours there, a bus load of German tourists appeared. They got off the bus all with cameras, took their pictures, and off they went back on the bus and onto the next stop. This is a common occurrence–more often it is just a small group in a car. Even so….I am sure that somehow someone’s heart is touched by the reality he/she witnesses and it is not just a moment of “capturing” an image for a collection of experiences.

Needless to say the campers also come in all “shades and flavors”–all kinds of reasons for being there. Most stay 3 or 4 nights and take in the beauty of the place by hiking the innumerable trails. But regardless who they are and what reason brought them here, the wilderness speaks to them. She speaks in a language that to most is incomprehensible yet very soothing, inviting, peaceful, calling them home to their own heart. I think many intuit this but are unable to put it in words what it is they experience. They feel this inarticulate peace upon which they perhaps do not even stop to reflect.

Part II Trails, Trailheads of the Heart, & Traildogs



Trails there are here!! So many and such variety that whatever be one’s inclinations or capability, there will be a trail for you. There are the modest day-hike trails of 2 to 6 miles in length. Then there are the more challenging overnight hikes of 10 to 40 miles where you sleep in the wilds. These take you into the remote backcountry of the High Sierra where you might not see anyone for several days. These require some backpacking skills and gear, but the rewards are enormous. Then, of course, there are the Great Trails–I mean the John Muir Trail (the JMT) and the Pacific Crest Trail (the PCT). The latter runs from the border of Mexico to the border of Canada. What a journey!! The JMT may be one of the top most beautiful trails in the whole world. Tuolumne Meadows is a starting point for the JMT (and it terminates at Mt Whitney in the Southern Sierra), and it is a rest and resupply point for the PCT. There’s a store here and a post office where many long distance hikers send packages to themselves to pick up when they finally reach this point. I talked to a young couple who were starting off again after 2 days rest. They had started at the beginning of April at the Mexican Border. They were not even half way done!

What I find fascinating is that all these trails become a beautiful, physical metaphor/symbol of the spiritual journey–indeed some call it a path. I am not one to say that all such trails lead eventually to the same place. I prefer to think: THAT is to be determined “later.” However, what is key is to be on that trail that leads to the Heart where you and I and God are One. No duality of any kind. Just the joy and ecstatic play within this Oneness. Even if the words pointing at this Reality are different on different trails, the important thing is to be on one of these trails. A good part of every spiritual journey is to find the “Trailhead to the Heart.”
Now just as with campers and people in general who come to Yosemite, the hikers also do their hiking for a myriad of reasons and motivations. (Indeed people come to monastic life for such a variety of reasons, and the whole point of growth in monastic life is to shed all the false reasons and find that one true quest buried in the heart.) There are those who take up these trails–especially the JMT and the PCT–as a kind of challenge, something to prove to themselves or to others, another “conquest” to add to their list (or resume), another credential to show “who they are,” etc. As a matter of fact, I read a mountaineer lament that Everest has been beset with these kind of people also–usually well-off who can pay $50 to $60 thousand dollars to get a guide to take them to the top to satisfy their ego.

But many, many hikers hit these trails, the short and the long, because they are drawn by the beauty of the wilderness, by what She speaks to their hearts. Some of those on the long trails speak of a transformative experience. Their sense of self and who they are and their vision of the world changes by the time they finish the long journey. Then there are the few “Traildogs,” people–both men and women–who seem to live on the trail. They have in a sense become one with the trail. They leave the trail only to resupply and then off they go. The trail is not a means to an end, an instrument for some goal; another experience alongside a collection of some such “adventures.” They somehow get around the “permit limitations” that the National Park Service and the Forest Service puts on them for they seldom seem to leave these trails. I met one remarkable such Traildog, a woman of about 70, who stays in Fresno during the winter months and then during the Spring to Fall she is in the mountains with only a backpack. I think she buys food with her social security check. She had the face of an ancient Chinese sage or one of those Native Americans so eloquently photographed by Edward Curtis.

And here let us conclude this section with a word from Edward Abbey:

“May your trails be crooked, winding, lonesome, dangerous, leading to the most amazing view. May your mountains rise into and above your clouds.”

Part III The Wilderness Speaks

Earlier I had said that the wilderness “speaks” to us all, whether we can understand her or not. Actually I think it would be more accurate to say “she sings” to us. It is like hearing a beautiful, haunting music from far-off and a song whose words most of us can’t make out. But it gathers our attention peacefully and totally, enveloping us with a serene sense of Presence. From Han-shan to John Muir, there have been these sensitive souls who are attuned to that music. Once you are within that song you realize that actually there is no “inside” or “outside”; there is only the Presence. And your heart and your very being become manifest as one with the song. To be better prepared for what the Wilderness sings to you, I would recommend meditating first on Merton’s poetic work, “Hagia Sophia.”

Part IV Han-shan & Shih-te & John Muir

I brought a number of things to read when I went camping in the High Country. I had Shankara, the Upanishads, the New Testament, and Abhishiktananda’s “The Further Shore.” I also had the complete poems of Han-shan, Cold Mountain, translated by Red Pine (Bill Porter). But interestingly enough I couldn’t get into anything else except Han-shan. All else seemed too wordy, and somehow nothing seemed to resonate with the wilderness more than Han-shan. So I kept company with him during my whole stay. Just went “with the Flow” as a good Taoist!!

For those who don’t him, Han-shan is a most remarkable fellow who seems to have lived in China in the late Tang Period, around the 8th Century. We don’t know too much about him because he hid his identity very well. He seems to have been a “somebody” in upper Chinese society, a learned man and a scholar, a government official early in life. But at a certain point he “flees” all this–either out of necessity (some scholars believe he had to flee for his life) or out of utter disillusionment. In any case he ends up in one of the remote areas of ancient China, living in a cave as a hermit. In this regard he reminds one of the Christian Desert Father Arsenius who had been a “somebody” in ancient Rome and fled all that.

What is striking is that Han-shan never became an official monk, never entered a monastery, never had a spiritual teacher as such(in that regard he is even more “stark” than Milarepa who did have a spiritual teacher at least). He shows a great awareness of the Buddhist and Taoist Classics, and his spiritual path is a typically Chinese amalgam of the two paths. He wrote over 300 poems/songs, short pithy things showing great poetic skill that of course cannot be captured in translation. What is amazing is that this obscure, lonely figure is one of China’s most popular figures(he is also revered in Korea and Japan).


As I said, Han-shan was never officially a monk, but he often visited a monastery that was about a 2-day hike from his cave. There he had a very good friend, Shih-te who was his equal in spiritual maturity but not quite the poet that Han-shan was. Shih-te was also not a monk but a layworker in the monastery kitchen. Amazing how often that happens and where you will find the deepest people….!! In any case, Shih-te would give Han-shan some food and supplies to take back to his cave, and the two would have these great poetic conversations and constantly laughing and having a good time together. In later Chinese art they are often depicted together.

photo 1

Han-shan’s name can be translated into English as “Cold Mountain.” Whenever you see that reference in his poem, it actually has three meanings. First of all, of course, it refers to that geographic location of the cave–its name was and still is today: Cold Mountain. Then that term refers to his hermit identity. We don’t know what his name was in Chinese society, but now his new identity is indicated by that term: Cold Mountain. Finally, and more subtly, “Cold Mountain” refers to Han-shan’s state of mind, his awareness, his heart.

So let us begin by listening first to one of Shih-te’s few poems(all translations by Red Pine):

Woods and springs make me smile

no kitchen smoke for miles

clouds rise up from rocky ridges

cascades tumble down

a gibbon’s cry marks the Way

a tiger’s roar transcends mankind

pine wind sighs so softly

birds discuss singsong

I walk the winding streams

and climb the peaks alone

sometimes I sit on a boulder

or lie and gaze at trailing vines

but when I see a distant town

all I hear is noise



This is very much in keeping with the spirit of John Muir but written a 1000 years before him. Han-shan also has that keen sense for the wilderness, a sensitivity to its beauty, and a definite preference for it as opposed to so-called civilization. So here’s a few of my favorite reads of Han-shan while I too was in the wilds:


Towering cliffs were the home I chose

bird trails beyond human tracks

what does my yard contain

white clouds clinging to dark rocks

every year I’ve lived here

I’ve seen the seasons change

all you owners of tripods and bells

what good are empty names


Comment: Of course the “tripods and bells” refers to both ritual religion and economic well-being.



Looking for a refuge

Cold Mountain will keep you safe

a faint wind stirs dark pines

come closer the sound gets better

below them sits a grey-haired man

chanting Taoist texts

ten years unable to return

he forgot the way he came


Comment: Remember that every reference to “Cold Mountain” has three referents.



People ask the way to Cold Mountain

but roads don’t reach Cold Mountain

in summer the ice doesn’t melt

and the morning fog is too dense

how did someone like me arrive

our minds are not the same

if they were the same

you would be here



Comment: Very similar sentiments in a very different cultural and geographic setting by the Desert Fathers of Scetis.



Who takes the Cold Mountain Road

takes a road that never ends

the rivers are long and piled with rocks

the streams are wide and choked with grass

it’s not the rain that makes the moss slick

and it’s not the wind that makes the pines moan

who can get past the tangles of the world

and sit with me in the clouds




The layered bloom of hills and streams

kingfisher shades beneath rose-colored clouds

mountain mist soaks my cotton bandana

dew penetrates my palm-bark coat

on my feet are traveling shoes

my hand holds an old vine staff

again I gaze beyond the dusty world

what more could I want in that land of dreams


Comment: Both of the above poems illustrate Han-shan’s sensitivity toward the wilderness and his kinship with John Muir. Indeed, Muir himself could have written these words as he was living in Yosemite.



My true home is on Cold Mountain

perched among cliffs beyond the reach of trouble

images leave no trace when they vanish

I roam the whole universe from here

lights and shadows flash across my mind

not one dharma appears before me

since I found the magic pearl

I can go anywhere everywhere is perfect

Comment: Interesting image of the “pearl”—it appears several times in his poems and of course it refers to his realization of his “Original Mind,” his Buddhahood, his enlightenment. The Gospel also uses this image of the pearl: recall the Pearl of Great Price which someone who wants it needs to give everything he has and is to obtain it.




I recently hiked to a temple in the clouds

and met some Taoist priests

their star caps and moon capes askew

I asked them the art of transcendence

they said it was beyond compare

and called it the peerless power

the elixir meanwhile was the secret of the gods

and they were waiting for a crane at death

or some said they’d ride off on a fish

afterwards I thought this through

and concluded they were all fools

look at an arrow shot into the sky

how quickly it falls back to earth

even if they could become immortals

they would be like cemetery ghosts

meanwhile the moon of our mind shines bright

how can phenomena compare

as for the key to immortality

within ourselves is the chief of spirits

don’t follow Lords of the Yellow Turban

persisting in idiocy holding onto doubts



Comment: Han-shan was critical of the established religion in China which was mainly Taoism but also the complacent Buddhist monasticism of his time. Already the Taoism of the Tang Period was slipping into decadence and corruption, into a kind of magical superstition and a search for personal immortality that was no more than a perpetuation of the ego-self through some kind of “deus ex machina” process. Instead, Han-shan is always pointing at the luminous Self that you already are—that’s all that matters.




On Cold Mountain Road

no one arrives

those who walk it

are called ten names

cicadas sing

crows don’t screech

yellow leaves fall

white clouds sweep

rocks are huge

I live here alone

I’m called the Guide

look around

what are my signs


Comment: According to Red Pine, the “ten names” refers to the ten titles that each Buddha has. “Cicadas” are hermits; “crows” are the regular monks. According to the Buddha, the whole earth preaches the Dharma.



I’ve always loved friends of the Way

friends of the Way I’ve always held dear

meeting a traveler with a silent spring

or greeting a guest talking Zen

talking of the unseen on a moonlight night

searching for truth until dawn

when ten thousand reasons disappear

and we finally see who we are



Comment: One of the very attractive features of Han-shan is that he never presents himself as a Teacher or Guru or Wise Man. He is always “with you,” a fellow seeker and searcher.



And finally let us conclude with a bit from John Muir:


“I am often asked if I am not lonesome on my solitary excursions. It seems so self-evident that one cannot be lonesome where everything is wild and beautiful and busy and steeped with God that the question is hard to answer—seems silly.”



In June of 1869 he concluded his account of one of his early forays into the High Country, and he sums up how I felt at the end of this June:


“And so this memorable month ends, a stream of beauty unmeasured, no more to be sectioned off by almanac arithmetic than sun radiance…a peaceful, joyful stream of beauty…Looking back through the stillness and romantic, enchanting

Beauty and peace of the camp grove, this June seems the greatest of all the months of my life, the most truly, divinely free, boundless like eternity, immortal…one smooth, pure, wild glow of Heaven’s Love, never to be blotted or

blurred by anything past or to come.”














David Foster Wallace

A most remarkable young man with a tragic ending. A writer of great talent who may have developed into one of America’s truly great writers and visionaries. (I personally was not a fan of his writing but I admire talent—and especially a deep, thoughtful heart– wherever it may be found.) At this time I just want to focus on one moment of his short life: a commencement address he gave at Kenyon College in 2005. It is almost a legendary commencement address by now. He did not speak in platitudes or in the usual clichés thrown at graduating seniors. His surprising theme: the key to living a compassionate life. Not the usual topic for a commencement address. Here I would like to touch on some issues that he raises and try to connect these to our own spiritual journey and even to our own religious institutions.

The first point of advice he gives to the young graduates: Ruthlessly question your own beliefs and assumptions. In some respects this sounds like an intellectual cliché, but he is pushing it into areas of life that people are not comfortable with. This from a piece on Wallace in the Huffington Post:

“Wallace is quick to dismantle our preconceived notions about the liberal arts cliche that education “teaches you how to think,” and makes it the goal of his discussion to illuminate what this platitude really means. And it’s not just about critical thinking or the ability to analyze or argue well.

An important part of truly learning how to think, he says, is becoming “just a little less arrogant” — having some awareness of how little we actually know, and behaving accordingly.

“To have just a little critical awareness about myself and my certainties,” Wallace explains. “Because a huge percentage of the stuff that I tend to be automatically certain of is, it turns out, totally wrong and deluded. I have learned this the hard way, as I predict you graduates will, too.”

“I don’t know” can be a very profound position in life! We are all little tyrants of certainties that are anything but that, but alas our egos require certainty as one of its credentials. There is a built-in arrogance in the self-centered vision that we all normally carry about. So something maybe does come along and shakes this up a bit and knocks some of that arrogance off. The ancient Greek tragedians already had an inkling that knowledge (which they loved) easily brings hubris and arrogance, and it is only suffering that brings wisdom(and they knew that from experience!) Now by this we do not mean to put “ignorance” on a pedestal or laud a perpetual invocation to everyday agnosticism. If you are designing a bridge, please do get it right! “I don’t know” will NOT do! No, what we are talking about is more like the human dilemma of being human, of talking about the things that matter most to our hearts, of that which relates us to each other and to that Ultimate Reality which speaks to our hearts. Yes, certitude and real knowledge can be found even here, but it will only be on the other side of a Great Divide that is usually only crossed at great cost, in the giving of one’s whole self, in the embrace of both life and death, through unspeakable suffering. So this “certitude” and this “knowledge” will be so different from what usually passes as such in this world that it will almost be unrecognizable—but it will be marked by a profound humility, it’s only clear sign.

Now we can push our line of pondering in yet another direction: what if we apply these same words to our collective personas, our nation and our church. The United States of America and the Catholic Church are two institutions that especially live wanting to “breathe certainty” in all they say and all they do. This inevitably leads to a hubristic posture with sad and even tragic consequences. But the ability of an institution to question its own assumptions and beliefs and the language it uses to convey these is limited by the ability of its members to do that on an individual basis within their own lives. So the usual thing is that they come to accept that institutional certainty as totally natural and a true state of affairs and so nothing changes.

The next point Wallace raises: Growing is a movement from narcissism to connection. Here is the HuffPo writer on this: “We live and think from a completely self-centered place, says Wallace — and of course, it’s natural to perceive all things relative to ourselves. This is the way we automatically engage with the world — self-centeredness is our “default setting.” A very monastic perspective. A very Buddhist notion. Here again is Wallace: “”It’s a matter of my choosing to do the work of somehow altering or getting free of my natural, hard-wired default setting which is to be deeply and literally self-centered and to see and interpret everything through this lens of self.” Each of the great spiritual traditions wants to take us on this journey from narcissism to connection, but it is clear that our society and social order as a whole works totally against that kind of growth. So this is heavy medicine for these young graduates, who are so at home with the connections that their electronic gadgets bring but who for the most part are very much unprepared for the deeper connections of life that require a real self-sacrifice.

Then Wallace makes this point: Stay present and open. Here he is very Buddhist. Here again from the HuffPo article:

“Wallace’s address touched upon an ancient truth: The mind is naturally unruly, and if we are to live with a sense of freedom and peacefulness, we must take some measures to gain control over it. Wallace quotes the old cliche, “The mind is an excellent servant but a terrible master.”

‘It is extremely difficult to stay alert and attentive,’ says Wallace, ‘instead of getting hypnotized by the constant monologue inside your own head.’”

Wallace further makes the point that for true compassion true attentiveness is necessary. But we live in a culture and society that values distractions, that wants to keep us distracted by creating false needs and fantasy images. At the very end of his address Wallace puts it very succinctly and very cogently: “The really important kind of freedom involves attention and awareness and discipline, and being able truly to care about other people and to sacrifice for them over and over in myriad petty, unsexy ways every day.”

He makes one other point that may make some people very uneasy and be easily misunderstood by many others. He says simply: Create your own meaning. What does he intend by this statement? He is referring not to simple everyday meanings but to the “Big Picture” of our life. In a sense we have a choice, like in the Life of Pi, what story will we accept and live by. But he takes an especially sharp turn with these words: “You get to consciously decide what has meaning and what doesn’t. You get to decide what to worship.”

“In the day-to-day trenches of adult life, there is actually no such thing as atheism. There is no such thing as not worshipping. Everybody worships. The only choice we get is what to worship. And the compelling reason for maybe choosing some sort of god or spiritual-type thing to worship — be it JC or Allah, be it YHWH or the Wiccan Mother Goddess, or the Four Noble Truths, or some inviolable set of ethical principles — is that pretty much anything else you worship will eat you alive. If you worship money and things, if they are where you tap real meaning in life, then you will never have enough, never feel you have enough. It’s the truth. Worship your body and beauty and sexual allure and you will always feel ugly. And when time and age start showing, you will die a million deaths before they finally grieve you.”

Indeed! Good advice and not only to young graduates from a beautiful person. Sad that David Foster Wallace was later overrun by mental illness and is no longer with us. His luminous words stand out and still speak to us and his presence is with us wherever any small act of love takes place, unnoticed and unrewarded, but marking again and again that the darkness cannot overcome the Light.





Movies and the Spiritual Life

Get out the popcorn,“Monk’s Way, Sannyasi Way, Human Way” goes to the movies!  There’s a couple of movies I would like to talk about, but first let us consider movies in general as relating to the spiritual journey.  At the deeper levels of the spiritual life it must be said that things like movies are purely a diversion and a distraction and can simply get in the way.  At the deepest level it won’t really matter but there is a bit of a journey before one gets there.  But mostly it is like all of societal life, a feeble substitute for what the spiritual life opens up for us.  Go out into the midst of society, into the streets, the stores, the homes, the gathering places and look and listen to what people are doing and saying and what they are concerned about and what interests them; and you will find it’s all Plato’s Cave.  Recall: a group of people trapped in a deep, dark cave, sitting facing a wall watching the shadows dancing on the wall cast by a fire behind them.  They believe these shadows are reality.  This was Plato’s comment on our condition.  Very apt still, perhaps even more so.  The shadows are simply more technically sophisticated, but they are still shadows.  If one person happens to liberate himself and make it out of this dark cave and emerge into the sunlight, he/she will then see Reality and if that person goes back to tell his/her fellow “prisoners” about this, he will not be believed.  There is no other reality for these people.  Such is the condition of most of societal life, and it is easy to see this if you just look around you.  Thus the spiritual journey is very difficult in the midst of society, and thus so many who have gotten a sense that there is way out of this cave tend to remove themselves to a certain degree from “business as usual” society.


Movies more often than not are simply just another aspect of this “life in the cave of shadows.”  But there is one significant difference.  Before one reaches the deeper levels of the spiritual life when in fact you should just simply put away such diversions, some movies—very few, but some—can give you a sense of what is deeper than the mere surface reality.  There are movies that can indicate that there is more to “here” than this “cave of shadows.”  That is a true function of all great art, and some movies can play the same role.  Now some people might point out that there is this thing called “religious movies.”  What they mean are movies whose very content is emphatically and clearly “very religious”–Biblical movies for example.   With very few exceptions these are to be avoided at all costs(like a lot of religious art)!!  These are mostly the products of very distorted hearts  which project their distortions onto the movie screen.  Of course the whole process starts by a profound misreading of the Biblical text (which is problematic in itself and not as fundamentalists claim: “the truth, nothing but the truth, the whole truth”!) as if it were history or science or biography and then taking that narrative and using it as a vehicle for their own distortions.  Actually Christianity and Judaism have done a lot of that long before there were movies, but now we are talking about movies.  There are a few notable exceptions, and one would be Pasolini’s Gospel of Matthew which was done in the early ‘60s and is still very timely and not out of date.   For many, this movie was a surprise because Pasolini was an unbeliever, a homosexual and a Marxist—so this quiet, poetic, austere, ultrasimple presentation of Jesus in the simple unembellished words of the Gospel came as a total surprise.  Pasolini wanted to make a move about Jesus truthfully, and he used the Gospel of Matthew as his script.  So actually it is very faithful to the Gospel text in a very unusual way—you see the words in a representation of how that world would have looked and sounded.  It is done in the style of Italian neorealism with no established big actors in any role.  He used “real people.” This was not to be some distorted pious holy-card world.    A remarkable portrayal of Jesus that you usually don’t meet in Church!   Also this is not the “mystic Jesus” of Abhishiktananda, for example; nor the Risen Christ of true Christian theology; but it was and still is a very important aspect of Jesus’s life, this portrayal of a gritty, poor Jesus who is not “soft and meek” but a champion of the underclass.  Not someone who simply comes to rubber-stamp your own desires for success, especially if you are rich.  So a movie like this can serve a good purpose if it leads you to question a kind of surface piety and starts you searching for something deeper. A good religious movie can be a launching point for “spiritual depth” but not necessarily so and certainly not very often either.


Now most Biblical movies, whether you call them religious or not, are actually a block to any real spirituality.  Like I said, they are mostly a misreading and misrepresentation of the Biblical text and its many problems and difficulties in interpretation and on top of that they become projections of the moviemakers own distortions which in turn feeds on the distortions of the movie viewers.  (In that regard movies are only carrying on what fundamentalist ministers, priests and rabbis have been doing for centuries.)  A very good example of that is the new movie “Noah.”  A truly horrible movie.   It shows a gross misunderstanding of that Biblical story and furthermore it adds all kinds of elements to “enhance” the story making it simply another Hollywood disaster flick of which there have been many in recent years (one wonders what is going on in our collective unconscious!).  I was curious what some movie reviewers did with that movie and what kind of impact it might have, so I consulted one reviewer and what I found confirmed my worst fears and expectations.  This was written by Bob Grimm, and I will quote extensively:  “I did my share of Bible reading when I was a kid and teen.  In fact, I read it multiple times from cover to cover….  Of all the literature I read as an impressionable youth, none was more violent and more insane than the Bible.  Actually, I will go as far as to say the Bible is the sickest book ever written when it comes to death and destruction.  If you count the predicted Apocalypse, the whole world dies more than once in that particular piece of literature.  That’s a huge body count.  Whether you are religious or not, the Bible is, no doubt, a pretty sweet platform for over-the-top cinema.  With “Noah”, director Darren Aronfsky has concocted a totally crazy, darkly nasty disaster film befitting those few pages in the book of Genesis.”  And so on…!


But there are “spiritual movies” that are not at all at first glance religious or spiritual, certainly not “Biblical,” and these are the ones which are the most interesting, have the deepest impact and bring us to the edge of a real spiritual journey.  I would like to consider two such movies.  The first one is the “Life of Pi,” an award winning movie with an incredible story and very popular both because of the inherent interest in the unusual story and remarkable photography, and also something much deeper….  It is a truly spiritual movie but not in an obvious way—even though it has quite a few overt references to religion in it.  It is a truly spiritual movie in a way that probably makes conservative, orthodox believers in all religions feel a bit uncomfortable even if they don’t quite get the real point of the story.


So what do we make of the “Life of Pi”?  It is an incredible tale of survival of a young Indian man by the name of Piscine Molitor Patel—shortened to Pi.  A would-be writer visits him in his adult home in Canada and requests to hear his strange story of survival.  Pi tells him his whole life story from his childhood.  He asks the writer if he believes in God.  The question is not irrelevant because the whole childhood of Pi is enveloped by the “story of God.”  The writer professes a kind of agnosticism, so Pi tells him that one needs a story to introduce one to the reality of God.  And each and every religion presents a kind of story that introduces one to that Reality.  Pi of course begins his life with the “story” of Hinduism in the person of Krishna, but he is a young man with an open and deep heart (and monks would say, a pure heart) so he is open to learning the other great stories that lead to God.  And so when he learns about Christ he is deeply puzzled and troubled but drawn deeper and deeper into that story.  Then comes the story of Islam.  He takes on each story without abandoning the previous one.  His father chides him about that.  His father is committed to the “story” of science and rationalism.  It is a powerful story that makes things happen, where you control the world, etc.  His father is not interested in any other story.   So this is the first part of the movie and sets the stage for what is to come.

The next part is what most people get interested in—this incredible tale of survival on a large lifeboat with a wild tiger in the middle of the Pacific.  He spends months on this lifeboat with this tiger and a few other animals that get eaten early on.  Pi has quite a few adventures during these months at sea, but when he is finally rescued and the investigators come to talk to him about the shipwreck that killed everyone, including his family, they do not believe his story—it is so incredible.  Thus he begins to tell them a story that they might believe, a very rational, logical but grim account of how his family and a few crew members fought against each other for survival and the use of the few survival resources.  So the investigators are left to believe or to accept either story—they have a choice between these two stories.  At first they choose the obvious, the more rational story that fits their limits of understanding and imagination.  It makes “sense” within their limited perspective.  But it turns out that ultimately they write down the “incredible tiger story” as the true explanation of what happened.  They choose the more wondrous story.  And then Pi asks his visitor, “which  story of the two do you prefer?”  And the young writer also says, the one with the tiger.  And Pi then gives the main line in the whole movie: “And so it is with God.”  The young writer is struggling with his unbelief, with his agnosticism, but Pi points out to him that he is not compelled to believe anything, but of the stories he has heard, the various ones about God and the logical rational scientific one, of these which one would he prefer as the “ground story” of this world, the basis of it all.   The writer does not answer but you can see the smile on his face, a smile of relief.  So, first of all faith is not compulsion and there is no “proof” of anything in the spiritual world.  What we have is a different explanation for the meaning of it all, and that is a start.  But then, and this is what makes the conservative movie viewer very uneasy, the movie seems to be saying that all “stories of God” lead to God.  Here too you have a choice—no compulsion—you will NOT have made a mistake if you choose the “wrong one.”  There is no wrong choice.  Pi somehow absorbs all the stories of God into himself even as he seems to be an Indian Christian.  How can he do that? How can he hold in his heart the “story” of Hinduism, the “story” of Christianity, and the “story” of Islam all at the same time?  God is a Reality so far beyond any story that this Reality is totally beyond our understanding, but we Christians find that we best approach this Reality through the person of Jesus; but that doesn’t mean that we cannot at the same time learn much from the stories of Islam and Hinduism and others and approach God with the greatest intimacy through these stories.     So this is a movie that opens one on a long spiritual journey which transcends the logical rational world both of science and of theology.


Finally there is another movie I would like to consider, one that is even less “religious” than the “Life of Pi.”  This is a short little piece called “Return to Balance: A Climber’s Journey.”  This is not a major movie but a small production that you can probably pick up at your local library on a DVD.  It features world-class rock climber Ron Kauk and it is set in Yosemite.  The movie has no explicit talk of God, of religion, of spirituality, etc., but it is a deeply spiritual movie with a fundamental tone of Taoism and Native American spirituality.  First of all just the scenery itself evokes “something wonderful” underlying all our lives.  It is a beauty and an evocation right from the Chinese Taoist and Buddhist scroll paintings.  It is a picture of a world that Han-shan knew quite well.  And then there is the story of Ron Kauk.  He began his young climbing life in a very competitive spirit, in attempts to “conquer” the mountain, in impressing people, etc.  But climbing turned out to be a spiritual path that transformed his heart.  Now he dwells in the wilds and on the rock walls in a way that very few can appreciate.  He is in a very different space now than where he began, and that’s a true sign of a spiritual journey.  He uses that word “connected” a lot in this movie.  I thought of all those young people in our cities who are constantly texting trying to feel connected, and here is a man who is so deeply connected that they have not a clue about this reality.  “Connectedness” does not come from some gadget but from the heart.  Anyway, this is a very simple, understated movie with few words and no “special effects,” but one with a deeply penetrating insight into the real need of your heart.

The Homeless Christ

In the past few months there have been several news stories about this piece of sculpture by the Canadian sculptor, Timothy Schmalz.  The title of this work of art is “The Homeless Jesus,” and it depicts a figure lying on a park bench all wrapped in a cloak or blanket of sorts, all covered, even the head, so you can’t tell who the figure is except that the feet are partially sticking out and you can see the marks of crucified legs, the nail-scarred feet.  You can see the photo of this sculpture in the news stories that I link to below.

As you can well imagine this work of religious art shook up a lot of people.  This is not a depiction of Jesus like on the holy cards, Easter Greetings, Hollywood movies, etc.  This is not a Jesus that the “Gospel of prosperity” people can even begin to recognize.  Not even the baroque Crucified Christ found in many Catholic Churches disturbs as much as this vision—for the baroque image is often surrounded by a plethora of gold and decorations and seems strangely “removed” and distant from peoples’ everyday struggles and suffering.  This is the Homeless One we see every day.  In fact Schmalz was inspired by seeing a homeless person sleeping on a park bench.  A subtle but important point is that there is enough room on the park bench for you to sit down next to it.  It is not “enshrined” on some altar.


Schmalz offered the sculpture to two Catholic cathedrals: St. Michael’s in Toronto and St. Patrick’s in New York City.  Both churches turned it down because it was “unsuitable.”  Indeed!  This is not the image of Jesus that fits their “comfort zone” perhaps!  The sculpture finally found its place in front of Regis College, the Jesuit theologate associated with the University of Toronto.    And Pope Francis apparently has blessed an image of this sculpture.  But there is even more to this story.  Somehow a small Episcopal church in North Carolina acquired a replica of this sculpture as a gift and the pastor put it in front of his church, and that has caused a bit of a controversy.  The church is St. Alban’s in Davidson, a very upscale parish in a small college town, Davidson College, a very liberal parish from all indications.  But the image is a bit too much for some of the parishioners.  One of them called it “creepy” and “macabre.”  Another was just patronizing saying that “it reminds us of those who are not as fortunate as we are.”  Truly!  I hope it does more than that!

Here are the links to two news stories and images of the sculpture:


Now I would like to share some reflections that this sculpture invites us to.  Like any true work of art, it can take us in several different directions and touch us at several different levels of our heart and mind—seemingly all at the same time also!


  1. It feels embarrassing to say this because it is so obvious but the sculpture is a radical indictment of the inhumanity of a socioeconomic system that allows this kind of homelessness.  We live in a world that has almost become numb to such human degradation and cruelty.  Whether it be war and famine or being driven out as a refugee, whether it be financial disaster, or whether it be even personal failing and personal weakness, whatever be the cause, no society can be said to be just and humane and civilized that allows such human suffering.  And the solution is of course not the proverbial soup kitchen or overnight shelter—these are merely there to keep someone alive for the moment—but the solution lies in a real and deep revising of our great social priorities and our own way of life.
  2. Now all this is on the socioeconomic level, but there is naturally the underlying foundation for all this which is religious and spiritual.  Many churches favor and encourage “acts of charity”—like the soup kitchen, etc—but few address the actual problem that causes such an attack on the children of God.  And if they do it usually is in some bland generic form like “greed.”  All the large religious institutions are not known for their prophetic voice!  So one thinks of some of the Old Testament prophets and their sharp words, their call for a kind of “deconstruction” of the social structures that oppressed the poor.  Of course the solution lies much deeper even than that.  One has to turn to the Gospels to even begin to get there.  Consider the parable that Jesus tells about Lazarus (Luke 16: 19-31):

“There was a rich man who was dressed in purple and fine linen and lived in luxury every day. At his gate was laid a beggar named Lazarus, covered with sores and longing to eat what fell from the rich man’s table. Even the dogs came and licked his sores……”

The parable points to “chasms” that we create in the way we view our fellow human beings—the chasm of a kind of “duality” as Abhishiktananda would put it, where we and “our brother” are two, not one—and the social consequences of that are disastrous.  And this “chasm” that we put between ourselves and our brother is the very same chasm that we then put between ourselves and God.  We live within this delusion of “twoness” with really bad consequences.  This is at the heart of the Gospel message.


  1.  But now that we have entered the spiritual and religious significance of this sculpture, let us push even further.  It is clear that the homeless one is of special significance with regard to the Reality of God.  Of course this kind of suffering draws the infinite mercy and compassion of God into special attendance as it were.  But there is more to this.  The homeless one is also a special manifestation of that Ultimate Reality we call God.  The great paradox and mystery is that when we truly see this homeless one we see something of that Ultimate Mystery or we see “into it,” or into its depths.  Thus there are people who deliberately and voluntarily take on this state of being homeless, take on this burden.  Because in it they are immersed in the manifestation of the Divine Mystery. They embrace a true homelessness, physical and/or psychological/spiritual because they are One with the One who is Absolute Homelessness because nothing can be that limitation for the Absolute Reality which is called “home.”  They embrace their namelessness because they are one with the Absolutely Nameless One.  Jesus called him “Father,” “abba,” but this is only an indication of intimate relationality, of infinite closeness.  But there is no name for this Reality.  It is beyond all Names and all limitations, all homes, because in effect this Reality is “all in all.”  Their heart cries out for this Reality and only this Reality.  There is no other home for them but homelessness.  In some cultures, like India, the homeless one is culturally supported in a sense because he has a recognizable “place” within the social cosmos.  This is of course the profound reality of sannyasa.  In Old Russia there was the phenomenon of The Pilgrim.  Then there are people who are simply thrown into this homelessness not out of choice, but then they find within it that Reality which makes them not want to leave it; they find not dereliction but blessedness.  It is as if within homelessness they discover their true home–examples would be the Western saints, Benedict Joseph Labre or Alexius of Rome.  There is one other religious paradigm of chosen homelessness that we need to look at: in ancient Syria, at the beginnings of Christianity.


  1.  In early Christianity, in Syria, about the 2nd Century, there arose a vision of being a disciple of Christ that made homelessness a norm, not an exception.  It was a radical Christianity to say the least.  Radical in its asceticism; radical in its demands for being a “true Christian.”  Baptism was an extremely profound moment, and from that moment when you came out of the water (like in the initiation into sannyasa) you became a homeless wandering monk.  We will have to ponder this Syriac Christianity at some point later, but for now let us just focus on this point.  Baptism meant a kind of uprooting at various levels of your being.  By the way, its radical nature meant that for all practical purposes many put off being baptized until they felt they were “ready” to take this step.  To be sure, when you were baptized you did not simply go home and pick up your life as before.  Gabriele Winkler, a scholar of early Christianity, puts it this way(after having quoted a poem by Tagore to illustrate a similar sentiment):  “In the Gospel Jesus invites those who have this great power of love to stake all they have, and having staked their last penny, to stake themselves—here we find ourselves at the heart of early Syrian asceticism.  The ‘game of undoing’ finds its equivalent in Jesus’ challenge to become utterly uprooted and newly grounded.  Such radical poverty means: 1. Uprootedness from any comfort, let alone wealth; 2. Uprootedness from past origins and present ties; 3. Uprootedness from whatever could be considered as home or familiar surroundings; 4. Uprootedness from the essence of the ‘I’.  These four conditions are particularly emphasized in Luke”(which comes from Syria).  In both Luke 9:58 and Matthew 8:20 we find those overly familiar words to whose radical nature we have become numb: “Foxes have holes and the birds of the air have nests, but the Son of man has nowhere to lay his head.”  A would-be disciple has just told Jesus that he will follow him, and Jesus basically tells him that this will entail utter homelessness.  We hear no more of that would-be disciple.


  1. Consider this then.  What does “home” mean?  What does it mean to be “at home,” or to “have a home.”  It is an “address” of some kind, a part of an identity-making mechanism that is constantly churning:  I am this…I am that….  And multiplied a thousand times with statements and actions that society will recognize and approve.  Having a home means one has some handle on this process, one is in control, one is thoroughly integrated in the mechanisms of society.   To be homeless is then to be “lost” in a sense.  To be homeless is also to be nameless.  You really become almost invisible to the larger society—unless of course you are culturally “marked” as homeless and given that as your identity.   The sculpture of the homeless one is almost without identity—we cannot even see his face; there is just the lump of a covered body, with the scarred feet sticking out.  The only credentials the Homeless One has are the marks of the Crucifixion.  It is striking that this Ultimate Reality which we call God would choose that as his only identity among us.  We need to see that.


  1.  But, furthermore, “home” means a “comfort zone” of sorts.  This seems to be a basic human need.    It’s a very deep satisfaction that we seek, but ultimately it is a satisfaction we never quite reach—and some expend much money and much effort to reach that “comfort zone” in the illusion that lavish houses, power and praise, possessions, etc. will produce that “comfort zone” of being.  The great fact and the great paradox is that at the core of our being we are truly and profoundly homeless in the sense that nothing of that which is out there—wealth, power, sex, possessions, credentials, etc.—nothing will render our self as being “at home” within itself as this limited isolated self always feeling desire for this or that. (Buddhism speaks eloquently about that.)  Our true home is the Reality of God, the Ultimate Mystery, the Absolute Reality.  The Great Paradox and the Great Mystery is that the Christ who manifests this Absolute Reality has identified himself with the homeless ones to the extent that they and he are not “two” but “one” (“Whatsoever you do to the least… do to me.”) And this sacrament of non-duality invites us to discover and to plunge into the true and profound homelessness of our own hearts and to accept it because it is His Homelessness which is out paradoxical abode.  And then we discover our true namelessness because it is also His Namelessness.   Oneness beyond oneness.   Only the truly homeless will ever be at home in this cosmos.  Only the nameless one will really know who he/she truly is.





100,000 Prostrations, Limitless Freedom, Endless Clarity, Infinite Compassion and No-self

100,000 Prostrations, Limitless Freedom, Endless Clarity, Infinite Compassion, and No-self

Buddhism addresses the human condition in a most remarkable way, and it simply begins with the problems we experience as human beings. Buddha saw the disquieting miseries of human existence and found liberation within that very existence. He discovered a fundamental ignorance on our part that leads to a habitual misapprehension of the nature of reality. This ignorance underlies all our emotional and cognitive states, and this leads to what Buddhism calls “suffering.” The way out begins with a simple question. For Buddhism, as for all the great religious traditions, the human person is fundamentally a “question mark.” And the core question is: “Who am I?” The central experience of Buddhism, which comes from realizing that question in one’s depths, leads to a freedom that nothing can touch, leads to a clarity that nothing can obstruct, leads to a compassion that knows no bounds.

It would be a mistake, however, to idealize the Buddhism found in concrete cultural situations (that would hold true also for all the other great traditions). Conventional Buddhism has plenty of flaws and shortcomings so that superficial Western critics can have a field day if they wish. Every religious tradition finds a need to hide some stuff in a dark closet as it were; every tradition has its own murky history; and every tradition has plenty of false representations (the problem of “false prophets” is an acute one in the Bible!) Furthermore, conventional Buddhist piety has as many limitations as conventional Christian piety. Here is a quote from Thomas Merton about a kind of Christian religiosity whose counterpart can be found in a different language in Buddhism: Christian experience becomes “a sense of security in one’s own correctness: a feeling of confidence that one has been saved, a confidence which is based on the reflex awareness that one holds the correct view of the creation and purpose of the world and that one’s behavior is of a kind to be rewarded in the next life. Or, perhaps, since few can attain this level of self-assurance, then the Christian experience becomes one of anxious hope—a struggle with occasional doubt of the ‘right answers,’ a painful and constant effort to meet the severe demands of morality and law, and a somewhat desperate recourse to the sacraments, which are there to help the weak who must constantly fall and rise again.” (In a sense this is what the Pharisees stood for….)

Given all this negative stuff, it is easy to get discouraged or even to lose one’s way on the religious journey or leave it completely. However, we must always focus on that core experience, previously alluded to, within Buddhism and within Christianity and within Islam and within Hinduism—not to imply that each is the same– and it is this which makes each tradition, and each in its own way, a vehicle of something unspeakably profound, of something absolutely real in comparison to which all else seems unreal, of something that is worth pursuing with all one’s life, with all one’s heart and mind and body. We may get an inkling of the nature of this experience from the various texts of each tradition; we may even have some preliminary glimpse into our own heart and center and find an “invitation” to go “further and deeper”—to the Further Shore as the Upanishads put it—toward a total transformation of person and vision.

However what usually helps us most, both in understanding what the texts call us to and in making “visible” the significance of that core experience, are the living embodiments of each particular tradition’s deepest insights. The deeper the realization the better, but no matter how far that person has gotten on that journey, their life will reveal something of what lies at the core. That’s why spiritual friends are important, for no matter how seldom we see them they become as beacons for our own journey. When Merton met Chatral Rinpoche and the Dalai Lama, he really fell in love with Tibetan Buddhism and began to see clearly what that tradition was about—even though both men confessed readily that they had not reached the ultimate realization and were very much “on the way.” When Merton had only the texts, he was of course intrigued but also didn’t know what to make of all kinds of “weird stuff.”

Let us now turn to Tibetan Buddhism. The first striking thing about it is how elaborate and complex it seems to be. It is a “veritable technology” of consciousness and the mind. You undertake this enormous journey of analysis and there is this unpeeling of layer upon layer of wrong views of oneself and the world. And this is done in a very systematic and thorough way. Consider this: we have this sense of “I-ness,” a sense of identity rooted in our ego consciousness. So we have our sense of self: I am this; I am that, etc. So there is this I to which all reality “outside” is an “other.” Everyone and everything is then enclosed in that subject-object duality—and if you are a Christian you begin to include that Ultimate Reality which you call “God” within that same field of duality. That sense of “i-ness” is like a knot with many strands. We take that knot to be really truly who we are, our very self, and so the knot gets tighter and tighter. But what happens if that knot gets undone? Do we vanish? Who are we then?

Tibetan Buddhism, and all of Buddhism basically, says that at this point we discover the No-self. Sometimes different words are used—Lin Chi (Rinzai), the Chinese Zen Master, calls this No-self: the True Man of No Rank. The experience of No-self is an awakening into a whole new awareness of self. It is actually an aspect of that more comprehensive awakening into sunyata, Emptiness, or pure awareness, not an awareness of, but pure awareness. The “I” which you really are is so much greater, so much more awesome, so much more wonderful than that little constricted ego “I” whom you always thought you were and of which you are aware of moment by moment, day by day, sometimes painfully and anxiously for it always seems so fragile and vulnerable. But this No-self will not be an object of that kind of awareness and so it is called a No-self. This sense of self is not something that will be an object for your examination; it cannot be seen in some mirror when you look there; it will not be an object of any kind for your pursuit or manipulation; it is something totally different and transcending everything you ever thought. Thus it is as if your self is “not there” in the field of objects that your ordinary mind beholds—yet an awareness develops that is pure awareness and not an awareness of objects and this brings a radically new sense of self which is called No-self. Old Western critics of Buddhism looked at this terminology of No-self and sunyata, Emptiness, and proclaimed Buddhism pessimistic, negative and obliterating personal identity. Actually it is the very opposite of all this. It is a richness of identity beyond all compare, beyond all imagining. What is important to realize is that you do not lose your usual ego consciousness and your feeling of selfhood. It is just that your awareness of self now transcends in an unspeakable way all limitations of all dualisms and it is truly indestructible—so there is no need to be constantly “on guard” to defend it. Your “I-ness” is now one with the “I-ness” of the other person, with all other selfhood. And we need to emphasize that this No-self is awakened to in the very ground of your usual everyday mind and self. It is that “pearl of great price” and the treasure buried in the field of your own existential day to day life—not something exotic or totally different. What characterizes this No-self, then, is an unspeakable clarity, an unshakeable peace, and most importantly a boundless compassion.

Not too long ago I saw a series of taped lectures by the Dalai Lama. He based his teaching on two of the greatest of Indian Buddhists: Nagarjuna and Santideva. The Dalai Lama is of the Gelugpa branch of Tibetan Buddhism, and these folk are really into an extensive metaphysical analysis undergirding their various meditation practices. But it all leads to this incredible awakening into the No-self, and Nagarjuna is the thinker and articulator of the meaning and significance of this. And what this Emptiness unconceals as it were is the Great Compassion, karuna—so you have sunyata and karuna as the two pillars of this awakening, and Santideva was the greatest articulator of this Compassion. And by the way this has very little to do with “feelings” as we in the West tend to view compassion. Rather this is about an insight into the true nature of reality and responding in a true way. This then is wisdom, “prajna,” when we have that true awakening into the nature of reality, and this evokes from us a response of compassion, which as Santideva often pointed out, turns our most vaunted enemies, our most hated opponents, into someone very dear to us. We seek only their good because that is the nature of reality and our true identity. You would have to go to the very heart and peak of the New Testament to find anything even close to this!

Now one particular path that the Tibetan Buddhists have is something called Dzogchen or the “Great Perfection.” It is a very direct, deep and utterly simple penetration into that awakening, and at first glance it seems like a “shortcut,” but that is only a deceptive appearance. Actually it is quite an arduous and demanding path requiring enormous commitment. When Merton heard about this Dzogchen he became very interested in it. Here is an extensive quote from an essay by Judith Simmer-Brown about Merton’s interest in all this:

“Very quickly Merton became especially interested in the formless, advanced meditation traditions of Tibet, especially Dzogchen. Dzogchen…is sometimes associated with the culmination of the intricate nine-leveled path of the Nyingma ‘ancient ones’ school. But more accurately, it is based on the single simple point—the direct realization of the naturally abiding enlightenment within one’s own experience. This fundamental experience of limitless freedom, clarity, and openness is at the heart of who we are, and Dzogchen practice merely uncovers this experience. The practitioner ‘descends from above’ with the view—fruitional, lofty and very simple, summed up in one phrase—‘All things are emptiness.’ If we realize this, truly, in our moment-to-moment experience, that is all. It is said not to depend upon study, reflection, or virtuous conduct. Yet the conduct of Dzogchen ‘ascends from below’ with humility, building a foundation for uncovering and realizing this lofty view. The conduct includes foundational practices, meditation retreats, and the practice of discipline. The Dzogchen tradition has characteristic features. First, it relies on a personal, doubtless an intimate relationship with a qualified teacher, a master who has deep experience in this kind of meditation….Second, Dzogchen practice requires extended and profound resting of the mind in its empty nature, without concepts, words , or movement. It is important not to fabricate anything, and to rest in naturalness, letting awareness be completely naked. Then it is possible to experience the true nature of the mind. For this reason, Dzogchen places strong emphasis upon solitary retreat. “

When Merton talked to the Dalai Lama about Dzogchen, the latter advised him that this path is not easy and to get a good grounding in the thought of Nagarjuna, the Madhamayika, or the Middle Way, which expounds the meaning of Emptiness—and this has nothing to do with the usual negative connotations that this word has in the West. And now this from Harold Talbott, who guided Merton on a lot of his trip in India: “I like it that Merton said that his meditative practice was ‘walking in the woods.’ I am just convinced that the ‘naked,’ natural, utmost simple practice of Dzogchen on the true nature of the mind was his dish. And I think he was thrilled to discover the vast and complex treasury of forms and practices that confront the observer of the Tantric Tradition of Tibet was all an expression of an awakening that is in itself so utterly simple.”

And then there is this from Harold Talbott: “Dzogchen practice starts with an introduction to the nature of the mind from an enlightened Lama. Then you practice meditation to maintain, strengthen and extend that awareness. The introduction to the View of the absolute nature produces an abrupt empty openness, which afterwards registers as amazement, then a subtle vast luminous experienceless dwelling of the mind in emptiness. The Dzogchen introduction and the subsequent meditation practice are utmost simplicity, the freedom of the mind from concepts, habituations, thoughts, and emotions. But it cannot be entered into without a grounding into extensive devotional practice. Devotional practice is all. Even enlightened Lamas are perpetually leading others in devotional practice and thus conveying their blessing. “

Among the many initiatory and preliminary practices required before Dzogchen practice can properly begin is a series of 100,000 prostrations. I have seen on film Tibetans doing this, and it is a very moving image that forever stays in my mind. The beginning of that unraveling of that knot of the ego self begins by throwing the whole body into it. Do those prostrations a 100,000 times and your whole body begins to participate in the undoing of that knot. Now one may ask, to whom or to what are you prostrating? Afterall it is a gesture meant to show complete surrender to someone or something, one’s whole being. I remember even the Dalai Lama prostrating before the “throne” he sat on to give his formal teaching. In a sense you are bowing to that Reality which is that Total Awareness and in which you participate with your whole being. In a sense you are bowing to the Reality which you are.

Now imagine this situation: you are driving on a highway, perhaps a bit too slowly for the likes of some speedy drivers, and a road rage incident develops. A driver whizzes by you, swearing at you, giving you the finger, and perhaps he might cut you off in trying to cause you to have an accident. What you then do is mentally visualize yourself prostrating before him, seeking with your whole heart his well-being, seeking in the depths of your being his liberation from his own anger, thanking him for unconcealing even the slightest traces of anger in your own heart. This is what Santideva was all about, and this is what the Bodhisattva tradition is like. But, and this is important, this does not mean that the feeling of anger has no validity. Anger is a human emotion that has its place in certain situations, but from the viewpoint of The Awakening one then sees right through this anger the true situation and responds appropriately for the good of the person you are supposedly angry at. What superficial Western critics of Buddhism often misrepresented in Buddhism is this point—it is as if The Awakening made one numb to feelings, that feelings vanished, that one had this expressionless face, etc. And, alas, a number of American Buddhists seemed to fall for this kind of appearance and tried to emulate this incredible caricature that has absolutely nothing to do with the reality.

A 100,000 prostrations….let us begin…. We bow in gratefulness for the Reality we are, you and I and all else.

Gate, gate, paragate, parasamgate, bodhi, svaha!

Gone, gone, gone beyond, gone completely beyond, awake, wow!