One of the reasons I believe in jazz is that the oneness of man can come through the rhythm of your heart. It’s the same any place in the world, that heartbeat. It’s the first thing you hear when you’re born — or before you’re born — and it’s the last thing you hear. — Dave Brubeck

Friday, September 1, 2023

The End of The World as We Know It

And The End Period

Dasui Fazhen, "Shenzhao "

Case 29 Blue Cliff Record

Case 24 of The True Dharma Eye

Dasui and the Kalpa Fire

Some say the world will end in fire,

Some say ice.

If koans have consequences, I would label this case a supremely consequential koan. Can I approach the end right now? Traditionally it is ascribed to a monk who lived in a hollowed out tree and gave away tea at a roadside stand, and who, at least judging from the teachings that have come down to us as they are held in several competing schools, was almost obsessed with finishing up. He came from the area that is now Sichuan and lived just before what we now consider the Golden Age of Chinese Zen so he was a bit too early and a thousand miles too far north to make it to Chan sainthood. But for Mr. Dasui Fazhen time and space were a secondary consideration.

The koan called “The Kalpa Fire” shows up at least three times in the collections, every time with a slight variation showing that the end of Everything will be total and complete even in the way we hold the question. The teaching goes deep, and follows different streams.

In the Blue Cliff Record, a monk almost seems to be musing about the final conflagration of the universe and wonders if anything will be left. Will this too perish? “This perishes,” said Dasui. “If so,” persisted the monk, “does it follow the other?” “It follows the other,” said Dasui. Like night follows day, it will be entirely gone. Even night will no longer follow day. This could be the theoretical physicist’s answer.

In the version found in Andy Ferguson’s Zen's Chinese Heritage, the questioner monk refuses to hear the answer and goes off to consult another teacher who is able to turn his head around. The teacher tells Reverend Thick Head No End to rush back and apologize to Dasui. But by the time he arrives at Dasui’s hollowed out tree, he had perished. The monk rushes back to Touzi Datong who had set him straight but, alas by the time he arrives, Touzi had also perished. Perhaps he’s hinting that even the source of the teaching perishes along with everything else if I allow myself a metaphysical interpretation of the story line. The theoretical is starting to take an existential twist with perhaps a caution to listen to your teachers carefully.

Perhaps two hundred years later when the story reaches Japan, Dogen does not let the questioner off the hook at all. In his version, Case 24 of The True Dharma Eye, the monk questioner asks Dasui: “Can you tell me if this very place will also be destroyed?”  

Dasui said, “It will.” 

The monastic said, “If so, will I be part of it?” 

Dasui said, “Yes, you will.”

From an abstract, objective acceptance of the harsh reality that the reverse Big Bang will end up in oblivion, through the gratitude we owe to the teachers who had the courage to insist on the truth of the teaching, and the fact that they too are subject to the same law, it gets really personal: yes, you will also perish. Gone are the questions of time and space, past and future and very distant future, so far out it is an abstraction I don’t really have to worry about, or certainly hope I don’t. In each moment when the moment ends, how does it end and how much carries over? Can I allow the moment to disappear in the fire of the kalpas and be free, and allow just what arises to come forth and support the next moment until it too no longer does. 

Has Dasui served me a cup of Freedom Tea for free at his little stand?

Do I know enough to acknowledge a great man? Will I even know him? Someone asked Dasui “What is the sign of a great man?” Dasui answered, "He doesn't have a placard on his stomach." Having thrown another wrinkle into the conversation, I will leave it at that.

Saturday, May 13, 2023

Buddhist Heaven

Three Cheers for Grandmother Zen!

“It is much more difficult to control one's mind than to control the weather.” --Yeshe Dorje

A lonely sheet of paper lies on the top of my desk with some scribbled notes. I picked them to see if I could get back to the moment when it felt important to jot them down. Now they just look random but I tell myself that there is some rhyme and reason. There has to be, or does there?

There seems to be some notion floating around that if it ain’t hard nosed, tough no nonsense practice, it ain’t Zen. It certainly can’t be compassionate--or something.

To any macho Zen priest out there having a hard time adjusting to becoming a hospice monk, too bad, or as they say, suck it up. If you saw Issan in the kitchen trying to get his recipe for chocolate chip cookies right, with a temperature over a hundred and sweat on his shaved head, you might change your mind. You might even call it courageous Grandmother Zen.


One of my dearest friends, Michael, was suffering a long, painful and slow death from AIDS. His partner was an older, very proper, even stuffy, English queen. When I suggested that they might come and visit Maitri to see if it might be a good place for Michael’s final days, the partner was emphatic. He said “never.” He called it “The House of Death.” I was shocked.

Great pain and denial go hand in hand.

I vacillated between those two views many times every day. Before I moved into Hartford Street I imagined that I would be doing some modern version of the ancient Tibetan practice of living in the cremation grounds. The reality was somewhere between cooking mashed potatoes to suit a resident’s particular taste and making sure the cable bill was paid.

The Tibetan Yogi, Lama Yeshe jporje Rinpoche, the Dalai Lama’s rainmaker, visited Maitri. Issan welcomed him with a big hug and a kiss, to which the startled Tibetan sage responded with a huge grin. I’m told there was immediate chemistry. Issan took him from room to room, probably pointing with his light but careful attention to their detail, the convenience of the bathrooms, light filling the bedrooms in the early morning hours, things that made Hartford Street feel like home, really more like your grandmother’s house. Yeshe-la was so impressed that he blurted out that Issan had created Buddhist heaven.

Stories of the rainmakers' visit were repeated so often they assumed the status legend. I asked Issan if Yeshe Dorje had even talked about Buddhist heaven. Issan said, “Yes,” he remembered their conversation very well. “He was a lovely guy,” but added “he didn’t pay the electricity bill.”

Whether or not Yeshe Dorje was capable of confounding the clouds, he certainly had experience trying to push out the bounds of the order of things. Beyond incantations and spells, a rainmaker needs to be able to read tell-tale signs in the sky that escape ordinary sky-gazing, not so much to control as to see which way the wind is blowing. When a storm is brewing, seek safe shelter.

In the various cultures that have invited Buddhist teachings to stay a while, even as a guest, we find at least several, if not many versions of heaven. Currently the most prevalent myths about this transition between life and death in the West is a kind of instantaneous shift, an escape, shaking off the bonds of our earthly body. New Age Spirituality has us as spirits temporarily inhabiting a corporeal form. At this stage of my life, I find this very odd notion, and very much at odds with the Buddhist notion that the gift of the human body is the result of eons of conscious efforts to wake to the path of liberation.

This popping out of the bottle story line is, I think, a hangover from our 19th century bout with American and European Spiritualism. More ancient Western myths are deeper and more nuanced. The narratives and anecdotes of the gospel of Jesus have defied easy classification; Ovid persisted into the Medieval world, and of course Dante was no shape-shifter. We can trace these stories of the transition back to Homer and the wealth of half-remembered lore that animated the ancient world. Most of them are more in line with a fairly consistent tread throughout Buddhist teaching--that the path from this life to the next is determined by our choices, limited and difficult they may be, and the depth of our practice.

The New Age holds accounts of near death experiences in awe, and, perhaps I am being harsh, imagines death as a kind of “This is Your Life” TV rerun. There may be some truth in the analogy, but it also is colored, fatally in my view, with easy admonitions about loving beyond petty grudges, good over evil, heroic virtue idealized. I admit that “This is Your Life” captivated my childhood imagination, but I think that was more due to the genius of its writers, and their sentimentality, rather than a glimpse into Perennial Philosophy.

Still there are stories that connect us with who we are, ordinary places where we can recognize who we really are.

I remember a rather handsome younger man who often visited his friend in Maitri, a sweet man who had the small room at the top of the stairs on the second floor, facing the street. Like so many of us in the early 1990’s, this young man spent an enormous amount of time visiting friends in several of the places where they were dying, Coming Home Hospice, the Missionaries of Charity’s Arc of Love, Garden Sullivan, Wards 86 and 5B of San Francisco General Hospital. When the time came, he attended their memorial services as most of us did--we all struggled to honor the deep connections that linked us with so many friends who were dying way too young. He was so grateful for the care his friend had received that he wanted to give something back. He came to me and asked how he could help.

The room needed a quick paint job if we could get it done before the bed was filled again. I said if he could help me paint it we could do it in a few hours. As we worked together, he told me that he sensed something different at Maitri. He said he always felt like he was visiting his grandmother. I knew he wasn't talking about the “This is Your Life” version of grandmother.

Yeshe Dorje was right. Issan created Buddhist Heaven. 

Three Cheers for Grandmother Zen.

Come home to the empty house
Longing for the warmth of a fire
Or chocolate chip cookies

You notice your picture hanging on her wall
Right where she left it
Her uncompromising love that seeks only your happiness

It is a blessing
To touch this heart of grief and create a miracle
Fill that house once again

This is the great way

Saturday, April 8, 2023

Out of Bounds, Off Limits

May be an image of 5 people
This is where Issan "Tommy"Dorsey Roshi began his career as a drag artist.

In a friend’s kind of online bio she said that “Zen is essential to my practice, but I'm not a Zen teacher. It turns out I'm too heretical for institutions and that's a good thing. There's much seeping in that doesn't fit the forms. The ecology of erotic emergence overflows.” I thought of her and Issan when I saw this picture of military police preventing entrance to a legendary San Francisco gay bar. If I am perhaps distorting her remarks to dig down deeper into something she intimates about the groupthink that seems to go hand and hand with the kind of rigorous practice that is normally delivered and fostered in western zen centers, forgive me.

“The Black Cat” was one of San Francisco's first gay bars to offer regular drag shows. It was the San Francisco jumping off point for one of the great first generation American Zen teachers, Issan ”Tommy” Dorsey Roshi.

These days Issan wouldn't have a chance in certain parts of America, the country he put his life on the line for. But he seized on the chance of practice as soon as he encountered it and that gave him another life.

Rei, it’s always out of bounds and off limits or it ain’t Zen.

Monday, November 21, 2022

Blue Cliff Record Case 22

This is the case of the portion of the commentary that I used for my piece 

A Weed Wacking Roshi goes to Mass

The Case (Sato)

Xuefeng, instructing the assembly, said, “There's a turtle-nosed snake on the South Mountain.[1]

All of you should look at it carefully!”[2]

Changqing said, “Today in the Zen hall there are many people who have lost their body and life.”[3]

A monk told this to Xuansha,[4]

who said, “Only my Elder Brother Changqing could say something like that.[5]

However, I wouldn't talk like that.”[6]

The monk asked, “What then would you say, Master”?[7]

Xuansha replied, “Why does it have to be 'the South Mountain'?”[8]

Yunmen threw his staff in front of Xuefeng and acted frightened.[9]

[1] "Turtle-nosed": i.e., poisonous. The “South Mountain” [Nanzan] was the place where Xuefeng resided.

[2] Or: "You should have a good look at it" (Sekida); "you people must watch out for it" (Cleary); "All of you had better look out!" (Wick)

[3] Or: “Today in the Zen hall there is a great person who has lost his body and life” (Sato note); "Today, in this temple, there is obviously one man who has lost his life" (Sekida).

[6] Or: "even though he's right, I do not concur" (Cleary); "as for me, I am different" (Sekida).

[9] Or: "made a gesture of fright" (Cleary); "gave the appearance of being afraid" (Wick).

The portions of the text of Yuanwu’s Commentary (Cleary) that I used for my own commentary:

[Hsueh] Feng went on. “Later when I got to Te Shan I asked. ‘Do I have a part in the affair of the most ancient sect, or not?’ Shan struck me a blow of his staff and said,’What are you saying?’At that time it was like the bottom of the bucket dropping out for me.” Thereupon Yen T’ou shouted and said, “Haven’t you heard it said that what comes in through the gate is not the family jewels?” Feng said, “Then what should I do?” T’ou said, “In the future, if you want to propagate the great teaching, let each point flow out from your own breast, to come out and cover heaven and earth for me.” 

(He was greatly enlightened etc.Feng goes back and lives at Elephant Bone Mountain, and writes a poem that comes down to us. At this point I will return to the commentary)

Usually Hsueh Feng would go up into the hall and teach the assembly by saying, “In every respect cover heaven and earth.” He talked no more of mystery and marvel, not did he speak of mind and nature. He appeared strikingly alone, like a great fiery mass. . . . “

(Skipping ahead through several bouts of drinking tea and getting whacked, we move onto what Hsueh Tou’s disciple has to say about the matter going back to their root teacher Yun Men.)

You must be a master snake handler.

“How many lose their bodies and their lives?” This praises Ch’ang Ch’ing’s saying, “In the hall today there certainly are people who lose their bodies and lives.” To get here, first you must be thoroughly versed in snake handling.

Hsueh Tou is descended from Yun Men, so he brushes the others away at once and just keeps one, Yun Men: Hsueh Tou says “Shao Yang knows, again he searches the weeds.” Since Yun Men knew the meaning of Hsueh Feng’s saying, “On South Mountain there’s a turtle-nosed snake,” therefore “Again he searches through the weeds.”

After Hsueh Tou has taken his verse this far, he still has more marvels. He says, “South, north, east, west, no place to search.” You tell me where the snake is. “Suddenly he trusts his staff.” 

From the beginning the snake has been right here. But you must not then go to the staff for sustenance. Yun Men took his staff and threw it down in front of Hsueh Feng, making a gesture of fright. Thus Yun Men used his staff as the turtle-nosed snake. Once, though, he said, “The staff changed into a dragon and has swallowed the universe; where are the mountains, rivers and the great earth to be found?” Just this one staff--sometimes it’s a dragon, sometimes it’s a snake. 

(Then some detailed snake handling instructions.)

Since ancient times, how many people have picked up the snake and played with it?

A Weed Wacking Roshi goes to Mass

Blue Cliff Record 22.1

My friend James Ford recently wrote a heartfelt piece about attending a service in Boston's Kings Chapel. I’ve been looking for a response. I had several questions about his almost lyrical reflection on the juxtaposition of hearing mass using a truncated version of the English Catholic Reformation's arcane liturgy in a handsomely endowed Unitarian church.

I emailed him to say as long as it has some singing and dancing, I suppose I could hum along, but I confess, I was initially put off by a koan master’s flirtation with 15th century ritual. The practice of Zen, at least in my experience, has tended to strip away some of the mystery surrounding these observances.

But further examination exposed a new level of entanglement and possibility.

Seekers and Quakers, Ranters, Diggers and Collegiants

James is a well trained, thoroughly modern koan master. He is also an ordained Unitarian Minister, so he has set aside some Church orthodoxy and its insistence on creedal formulations of the mysterious. All well and good. He, I and the Boston Unitarians are on the same page.

I also know from our conversations that he is trying to look at the tumultuous spiritual landscape of right now from a Zen perspective. His interests include traditional Christian denominations, evangelical churches, fringe spiritual movements, and the relatively small but growing number of western Buddhist practitioners from various Asian schools. After some digging, I discovered that King Henry’s abrogating the authority of Rome unleashed a tidal wave of non-conforming religious expression that was similar and even more stormy than our own, but most of the ramifications lay hidden beneath the doctrinal garb of our inherited religions.

I stumbled upon a YouTube series of lectures by Alec Ryrie, Professor of Divinity at Gresham College, London. He’s a committed Christian, and he’s also brilliant. Of course I had studied the history of what we call the early Reformation, at least enough to satisfy my Jesuit examiners, but my training was focused through the narrow lens of the Counter Reformation which my order spearheaded.

I had carefully examined Lutherans, Calvinists, Methodists and, I suppose by extension I can include Jansenists to get ecumenical, but there were also many many smaller splinter sects; historians call them the radical reformation. Who were they? They included the first radical Quakers, but also Seekers, Ranters, Diggers, and Collegiants. They questioned the very foundations of the Christian enterprise.

The events of these few decades were momentous. So much transpired that continues to shape our spiritual lives; the language of prayer; the separation of religious belief from philosophical discourse (I didn’t know for example that Baruch Spinoza had been a member of the Dutch version of the Quakers); the far reaching economic impact of King Henry VIII’s confiscation of Church assets led to secularization and the end of the total domination of the church-state.

Alec Ryrie says that battles are rarely determined by the pacifists. Who can dispute that? However I am loath to give up my cherished position as a Skeptic.

John Earle. (c. 1601 – 17 November 1665) whom I regard as an English Pascal (19 June 1623 – 19 August 1662) and his contemporary, also felt that one has to take sides. But he is far less rarefied than Blaise. Earle presents the famous philosophical wager as a conundrum with a nihilist resolution: “Whilst he fears to believe a miss, he believes nothing.”

Can I believe anything and do I really have to?

An Age of Atrocity

If I were an actual actor in the real drama of the early Reformation, I might have been forced to take a stance about my beliefs. I remember a conversation I had with my friend Avery Dulles (not sure if this was before or after he was elevated to the rank of Cardinal) but he was serving on some high level ecumenical commission. He told me that he'd worked long hours on some presentation papers. Then came the meeting. It began with a prayer petitioning the God of the doctrinal points they knew they could agree upon. Then Avery stated and explained the Roman Catholic position. He was thanked and applauded. Then the other side’s theologians presented a similar paper outlining their position. They sat down and were politely applauded. Then together they worked out the closing statement: we can agree on X for Y reason and we continue to disagree on the following points for Z reason. We were happy to have this exchange, and pray for our continued growth in the Spirit.

During the Reformation, one of those parties might have been burned at the stake. In those bloody times, the untimely deaths of the heretics or martyrs, depending on your side, could be made into myths, to warn succeeding generations, to train them in some self sacrificial virtue or remind them that some truths could never be compromised. The Inquisitions made decisions about who needed to be celebrated, who needed to be blamed and what lessons the survivors needed to draw.

Thousands were tortured and executed. The authorities of the newly reformed English Church did it as well as the Catholics. In the Spanish Inquisition it was a  matter of life and death for the Jews, conversos, and dissenters who were murdered. 

A lot has changed in the course of a few centuries, but I don’t think that I can erase that part of history that is an affront to the sensibilities that are the product of my own time and religious culture. The Jesuit Saint Robert Bellarmine may have saved Galileo from the stake but I am deeply troubled by his role in the execution of Giordano Bruno and Friar Fulgenzio Manfredi. The temptation for revisionists is to write out the parts of your history that don’t conform with your myth.

Koan Practice for Tudor England

We are already living in the 21st century. Before I introduce some koan practice, I would like to introduce perhaps a consideration, or a caution. Following Foucault, “. . . you cannot find the solution of a problem in the solution of another problem raised at another moment by other people.” (Michel Foucault, quoted in Dreyfus and Rabinow,“ On the Genealogy of Ethics,” 229. In this context the other people were the ancient Greeks.)

By chance, I started working with this elliptical koan that I unfolded from Yuanwu’s Commentary for Case 22 of the Blue Cliff Record.* I tried to apply Foucault's question about understanding bridging history. I began using a Buddhist technique to cut away the weeds. It dates from medieval China about contemporaneous with William the Conqueror. Can the record of an ancient Zen master help me decipher the experience of an arcane ritual dating 5 centuries after 1066, during the reign of King Edward VI?

Theology and science fiction love time travel. Let’s see if religious studies linked up with Zen practice can be equally anachronistic. Paraphrasing Yuanwu, can a 21st century Westerner have an authentic Zen experience? At least this might be fun.

A koan: The Family Jewels

When [Hsueh] Feng got to Te Shan he asked. “Do I have a part in the affair of the most ancient sect, or not?” Shan struck me a blow of his staff and said, “What are you saying?” At that time it was like the bottom of the bucket dropping out for me.”

(Allow me to decode some of the language: in 9th Century China "enlightenment" in Zen practice--according to the ancient sect is possible. Feng reports that he experienced it, but apparently that doesn’t settle the matter. Can I might include a modern Zen Roshi using the ancient prayer of the Church of England?)

Yen T’ou shouted and said, “Haven’t you heard it said that what comes in through the gate is not the family jewels?” Feng said, “Then what should I do?” T’ou said, “In the future, if you want to propagate the great teaching, let each point flow out from your own breast, to come out and cover heaven and earth for me.”

(The part of propagating the great teaching is not coded. We get the part about flowing from your own heart. Skipping ahead through several bouts of drinking tea and getting whacked, we move onto what Hsueh Tou’s disciple has to say about tracing the matter back to their root teacher Yun Men and mastering the art of snake handling. What is he talking about?)

“How many lose their bodies and their lives?” This praises Ch’ang Ch’ing’s saying, “In the hall today there certainly are people who lose their bodies and lives.” To get here, first you must be thoroughly versed in snake handling. 

Hsueh Tou is descended from Yun Men, so he brushes the others away at once and just keeps one, Yun Men: Hsueh Tou says “Shao Yang knows, again he searches the weeds.” Since Yun Men knew the meaning of Hsueh Feng’s saying, “On South Mountain there’s a turtle-nosed snake,” therefore “Again he searches through the weeds.”

After Hsueh Tou has taken his verse this far, he still has more marvels. He says, “South, north, east, west, no place to search.” You tell me where the snake is. “Suddenly he trusts his staff.” From the beginning the snake has been right here. But you must not then go to the staff for sustenance.

Yun Men took his staff and threw it down in front of Hsueh Feng, making a gesture of fright.

Thus Yun Men used his staff as the turtle-nosed snake. Once, though, he said, “The staff changed into a dragon and has swallowed the universe; where are the mountains, rivers and the great earth to be found?” Just this one staff--sometimes it’s a dragon, sometimes it’s a snake.

(Then after some detailed snake handling instructions, Yuanwu tries to encourage us by asking one of those pesky Zen Master questions.) Since ancient times, how many people have picked up the snake and played with it?

I personally prefer opera

James Ford attended a truncated Book of Common Prayer service in a revered Unitarian Church. I hope that at least part of the motivation was aesthetic. And that’s perfect. He’s a Unitarian. I am what’s politely called a lapsed Catholic and an ex-Jesuit to boot. I find that after years of meditation, my love for the ritual of the mass has waned, but I won't rule out the power of the experience. Actually I prefer opera, but then I am also gay so it might be genetic.

But after doing some introspection, I am left seeing the similarity with my own situation as well as wondering about the huge waves that lie just beneath any attempt to deal with the numinous ocean that supports our lives. I am a skeptic as much as I am a Buddhist. There is a war inside about what to believe, what is worthy of belief and what beliefs are pointers and which ones might simply be a smoke screen. I would like to remain neutral, but also realize that I don't want to set myself up, in the words of John Earle, as “a hapless peacemaker trying to intervene in a duel getting shot by both sides.”

The contribution of the Zen practice here might be to clear the weeds from the battlefield and perhaps reveal the turtle nosed snake. I can carry a staff, at least in my imagination. “The staff changed into a dragon and has swallowed the universe; where are the mountains, rivers and the great earth to be found?”

For my verse, I’ll echo James with the two stanzas from from Leonard Cohen’s “Treaty” that he uses to close his meditation:

I've seen you change the water into wine
I've seen you change it back to water, too
I sit at your table every night
I try but I just don't get high with you

I heard the snake was baffled by his sin
He shed his scales to find the snake within
But born again is born without a skin
The poison enters into everything

* Here is Case 22 and the portion of the commentary that I used.

Thursday, October 27, 2022

Blue Cliff Record, Case 23: Baofu and Changqing Go on a Picnic

When Baofu and Changqing went on a picnic in the hills, Baofu pointed to the top of a hill, saying, “That’s the top of Miao Peak.”1

“That’s true, you are right,” said Changqing. “But a pity,” he added.

(Xuedou: What are you doing, going on a picnic with him?

I can’t say there will be no one like these two a hundred years from now, but there will be very few.)

Later Baofu told Jingqing about this. Jingqing said, “If it were not for Master Changqing, skulls would appear in every field.”

1 Miao Peak is the Peak of Wonder, the center of Paradise, according to the Huayan or Avatamsaka Sutra.

It was one of those crazy things you do when you travel with a fairly open agenda. We'd been visiting Angkor Wat for almost a week, and didn’t have to be in Ho Chi Minh City for another two. While in Siem Reap we’d heard about an adventurous boat trip, billed as once in a lifetime: You crossed the southern end of the largest freshwater lake in southeast Asia, Tonle Sap, and then followed a long shallow river upstream to a former French provincial capital, Krong Battambang.

We booked, but so did about 200 other people, mostly European kids. After arguing with the tour organizers--we were not going to sit on the hot metal roof of a flat river boat in the blazing sun for the 8 hour trip, they relented and hired another smaller boat to take the overflow. Once on board we discovered that even in a smaller boat the trip would be arduous, the river was low but flowing swiftly against us. Three added hours under a metal roof were just as hot as sitting on one, but we were spared sunburn. In the smaller boat, we were less than 30. We met and chatted with a lovely young German couple who were on their way to work for several years in New Zealand. The journey was tough going, but company helped.

The next day was Mardi Gras, and we arranged to have dinner with them. Ashish found a highly rated restaurant called La Pomme d'Amour. I know the exact date, February 12th 2013. Sometimes larger events help mark the calendar accurately. The day before when we were cut off from the world on our river boat excursion, Benedict, the oldest person elected to the papacy since the 18th century, announced he would be the first pope in centuries to resign. 

Our new friends told us. They were actually shocked. They still considered themselves Catholic even though they were an unmarried couple, but they were definitely Bavarian. One of their own was doing something unimaginable. I was startled by the news of Benedict’s resignation, but I think that I was more amazed at how our young friends had packed for their trip. The man wore incredibly crafted lederhosen with a pressed white shirt and his very beautiful girlfriend had on an exquisitely embroidered traditional dress. Ashish and I only carried the basics. Our European friends dressed for the occasion.

One thing about the French colonies, they have retained a tradition of cuisine. Even in this small Cambodian town, even after the unspeakable barbarity of the Khmer Rouge, there was still wonderful food. We enjoyed our dinner and the conversation. We agreed to explore together the next day.

We arranged for a larger tuk-tuk, seats for four, and driver for the day. Cambodians are in general smaller than a big American and a big muscled Bavarian boy, but we all managed to squeeze in. We’d heard about a bamboo train in the nearby hills. There was also a small ruin similar to Angkor Wat about 11 km out of town. We met early, before the sun got too hot. Before noon, we'd taken the train and climbed up to the ruin. We asked the driver what else he would recommend. With limited communication he indicated that he knew a place. 

The small Buddhist temple at Phnom Sampeau was about another 7-10 km across the flat plain. It's nice enough but really just a fairly ordinary concrete temple variations of which dot southeast Asia. We thought that was the end of our trip. But once there, some young boys drove up on their two wheelers and offered to take us up the very steep hill to the caves. They were very friendly, and happy for the work. We were told that there was a pagoda and a very simple Buddhist shrine near the summit. We could just make out the pagoda from the valley floor. At a kind of intermediate temple on the side on the narrow path about halfway up a few monks were chanting and performing rituals, but more just seemed to be hanging out with some Cambodian families. The walls inside were decorated with rather naive scenes from the Lord Buddha’s teaching career. They seemed to be done in acrylics right out of the tube. I noticed that you could commission a wall painting for a hundred US dollars and have it dedicated to whomever you wanted to have remembered and continually prayed for. I made a mental note that I might have one done for my dad. Somehow I began to sense that the whole mountain was about remembering ancestors. 

We continued uphill with our young breakneck drivers, eventually arriving at the top of some wooden steps leading down into a large opening of what seemed to be very beautiful limestone caves. We noticed that a very simple Buddhist shrine and altar had been set up on a level just below us. We had arrived at the killing caves, a Khmer Rouge execution site where they shot, strangled or slit the necks of their victims at the rim of this daylight shaft or ceiling hole, and then threw the dead bodies into the cave. Sometimes we were told, towards the end of their atrocities, in order to save bullets they simply threw people, teachers, doctors, almost anyone with an education, into the caves. They’d even killed children. If their victims were lucky, they died when they hit the floor. Otherwise they died of starvation or were killed when other bodies landed on them. There was a glass box containing skulls and some bone fragments. I can’t remember if anyone mentioned an estimate of how many people were killed there, but between 17 April 1975 – 7 January 1979 nearly two million were executed in a small country, so the number of people killed here was perhaps tens of thousands if not more. 

We were shaken.

We climbed back up the steps and continued towards the summit on foot. We separated. Ashish and our friends headed towards the viewpoint. It seemed like just a few steps from the opening of the cave I saw an elevated path towards the pagoda and small shrine. Inside a monk was sitting on the floor. When he saw me approach the door, he gestured for me to come and sit with him. 

He was perhaps in his late 30’s, early 40’s, Cambodian. I calculated that he would have either been born during the period of the Khmer’s slaughter or just after it ended, after millions were killed. He didn’t say. He was alone. He was too young to be the abbot of the community, but he wasn’t the duty monk. A rather forlorn layman by the shrine in the killing cave collected donations. The monk spoke meticulous, fluent English. There’d been many Americans in Cambodia after the war, helping rebuild the country. Perhaps he'd been part of that effort.

He asked where I was from, and how I got there? He didn’t see many foreign tourists. I asked him where he’d learned such good English. He told me that he’d been to Catholic school. He’d been Catholic. I think I remember him saying that he’d even been a Catholic religious. Yes, of course he knew some Jesuits. They were mostly in Phnom Penh. 

I asked him what he did. He said that he mostly just sat and practiced in the small shrine room. Sometimes people came by. Sometimes they asked him to chant memorial prayers for their relatives who’d died in the caves, but not often. Senior monks did that. There would have been a donation involved. Some people just had to talk; he was there to listen; sometimes people just sat with him. I felt a real connection with my fellow former-Catholic Buddhist.

After about a half hour, Ashish called out that it was time to get back down hill. It was getting dark. The motorcycle boys were anxious about the narrow path. There was a long tuk-tuk drive back to Battambang. I bowed and left.

Grâce à Google I was able to find some pictures of Phnom Sampeau. It’s almost exactly as I remember it with perhaps a few additions over a decade. Grâce à the koan, I am able to picnic with Baofu and Changqing on a peak of wonder. Grâce à my friend, we were able to help some of the skulls in the Killing Caves lose their power over people’s lives, my own included. 

La Pomme d'Amour still gets good reviews for lovely food. I stayed in touch with the young German couple for a while on Facebook. When I lost track of them, they were no longer a couple, but apparently both happy. I hope they are still thriving. I have no idea what became of my wonderful solitary monk. I trust that he’s still making skulls, in one form or another, disappear from every field. The koan says there's some chance.

Even if you haven’t been to the Killing Cave, the pictures I retrieved from Google tell the story well.

I don’t recall the large statue of the Buddha’s parinirvana. My feeling is that it covers the actual lip that they used to throw the bodies into the cave.

© Bo Løvschall

The path to the pagoda and shrine, exactly as I remember it.

My skull clearing monk was sitting in the shrine room at the top of these steps, behind this door.

The intermediate temple, with the naive paintings.

Wat Phnom Sampeau on the valley floor,

Phnom Sampeau from across the fields. It is a high mountain for southern Cambodia.

This would have been the first stop of the day.

Thursday, July 14, 2022

"Too Many Words"

What I learned from Phil Whalen about writing.

It's a matter of some reassurance

That we are physically indistinguishable from other men.

When introspection shows us

That we have different degrees of intelligence

Varying capacities for knowing morality

We lose something of our complacency

    --Scenes of Life at the Capital

One morning in July of 2022, Google’s algorithm decided that I needed to hear James Dalessandro, bestselling novelist, journalist and filmmaker, tell me about ”The Beat Poets and the Summer of Love.” Or to do justice to the algorithm’s intrinsic value, I was to pay 25 dollars to listen to Mr. Dalessandro’s wise words. When I read the blurb, he told me that Lawrence and Allen and Jack would spill light on the short lived revolution. 

In 1967 more than 100,000 young people descended into the Haight-Ashbury, donned tye-dyed tee shirts or just stripped off their clothes, took lots of drugs, had lots of sex and proclaimed a new age. The Summer of Love was also the end of Phil's sojourn in Kyoto, so it is possible that he had returned to San Francisco. But Jack had already departed the scene, renounced a lot of the Beat philosophy which he thought just gave people permission to be spiteful. I think it highly unlikely that Phil would have shared his friend Allen’s enthusiasm for a revolution. Phil’s hedonism was more restrained. Very much more actually but that didn’t stop him from loving Allen. 

Still I find it abhorrent that the Road Scholar Scholar didn’t include Phil; perhaps the platform insists that their experts focus on hot money makers. 25 bucks is 25 bucks.

I lived with Phil for about 4 years after he’d received dharma transmission from his teacher. I sat with him in sparse zendo, recorded his talks, got yelled at, went to sesshin, sewed a rakusu, listened to his gab, went with him to Walgreens and took lay precepts under him. I was as close to Phil as most of zen friends, except for the very few he really allowed into his life, Allen for one, and I know that he was in love with Lew Welsh, but aside from that, Phil was a lone wolf. We could be friends, but when I got to a place where real intimacy might have been possible, he ended it abruptly. I know others who had the same experience. He wrote “When introspection shows us/ That we have different degrees of intelligence,” and he thought of himself on the high end of that scale.

And despite his remarkable intelligence and way with words, Buddhist Phil could be incredibly dull. He once taught a class on the Heart Sutra and my head didn’t burst with the astounding insight into the interplay of form and no-form, full and empty, thinking and the end of thinking. I had to fight off sleep. Phil preferred his Buddhism boring. He could be as doctrinaire as any squawking human being, and then some. Today however, as the clouds drift down from the mountains, and internally I begin to count between the thunder and the faint flash to locate where it has struck, I am reading his verse with joy and gratitude. He was a genius. 

Morning is fading and the clouds have covered Moon Peak. I can only see as far as my closest neighbor, a small Indian hotel called “Heaven’s View,” 25 meters to the East. Monsoon is closing in. When I knew Phil and was his student, his eyesight had failed to the point where, if I can weigh his words and match it with what I can recall of his gait and gaze, he could only see vague cloud-like formations, and that had to be enough. Misdiagnosed glaucoma would take away the joy of seeing words dance on the page. He was not resentful, or if he was, he didn’t show it. The more immediate concern was how words, which had been the center of his life, the real source of his joy, would continue to nourish a voracious appetite for clarity. It was also an inventive appetite, so we experimented. I was enlisted into a small army of amanuenses. 

We would read to him. I could see him concentration latch onto a passage and hang there. Sometimes there would be a request to return to the beginning of a passage. We could not stop until instructed or we heard the han for zazen. 

Once in while there would be a request from some recondite journal which Phil could never turn down. It usually meant reworking an older prose piece. There would be no more poems. He would find a short piece that came from years back--one that I remember was about dancing around a bonfire on the beach near Bolinas. I read it once. Phil had me shift the order a few clauses, then I read it again. We put some back into their original order. I read the passage again. And then again. Finally in what sounded almost like a sigh, “Too many words. Too many words.” That was the point where work began in earnest. 


Tuesday, June 7, 2022

An Unauthorized Death

When Maylie Scott’s mother died at home in Berkeley, she called me. Apparently after my stint at Maitri Hospice, I had the reputation as the go-to person for dealing with Buddhist death rites. Personally I found the designation of hospice priest slightly uncomfortable. I had done my best to distance myself from any sacred ritual after spending several of my Jesuit years fussing over post Vatican 2 updating. But as we say, that was my personal issue.

Actually I made it up as I went along. I had to. I’d fallen into my role taking care of men dying from HIV without any formal hospice training. The crisis trained us all, often brutally. The same for taking care of the Last Things. If there was a handbook, it was untranslated or came with tons of cultural baggage. This is a story about some of what we did, why we did it, and where our hands were tied.

When Issan died, Steve Allen asked Kobun Chino Roshi to perform the exacting Soto ritual done at Eiheiji for their most revered priests. Kobun had served in an official capacity there, teaching ritual and chant. He himself had been well trained; his seemingly endless chanting was mesmerizing but certainly beyond our language ability not to mention voice control. He could not train us. I drifted off and realized that it probably wouldn’t make any sense to translate it anyway. It was perfect for that moment, and that was enough. It had to be. Later there were a few odd ceremonial gestures, like pouring salt on either side of the doorposts, that I understood even less. The salt heaps seemed to be Japanese superstition, perhaps to ward off marauding Yōkai. I didn’t want to believe that they had crossed the great waters with the Dharma, but I might be wrong.

Issan had arranged for his own cremation with the Neptune Society. We followed their car to the crematorium. It was a bare, ugly industrial space; the workers were dressed for work around the hot furnace. Though not disrespectful, it was utilitarian which came into sharp contrast when Kobun, Philip, Steve, Shunko Jamvold, Angelique Farrow, David Schneider and David Bulloch put on their formal Okesa. The usual work of burning bodies was interrupted by our chanting. I could see that this was outside the usual practice, and it cost extra. 

Steve and Shunko returned several hours before Issan’s body was reduced to ashes. Usually the crematorium would grind any remaining bone fragments into a powder in what looked like a giant food processor before returning them to the next of kin. Steven had requested that Issan be spared this process so that he and Shunko could sift through his ashes with ceremonial chopsticks, looking for small gem-like fragments to keep as relics.

Several weeks later there was an elaborate funeral at Zen Center. Hundreds of people gathered; Richard Baker Roshi, Issan’s teacher, was the head priest, but Kobun, as well as Mel Weitzman, Blanche Hartman, Norman Fisher and Reb Anderson were also present. Towards the end Richard Schober, the chair of Maitri and not a Buddhist, turned to me and said it felt like high mass for a bishop.

Between 1989 and 94 I was part of so many services for men who died in the hospice as well as others for Issan’s friends that I lost count. Almost 90 men and one woman died during Maitri’s first years. I tried to school myself, attempting to discover an appropriate level of formal ritual. Issan, Steve and Phil performed the Soto memorial service that included food offerings, and chanting, particularly the Daihi Shin Darani, an invocation for the compassionate intervention of Avalokitesvara. There was also a period of spontaneous sharing about the person’s life and loves, something that Richard Baker may have added at San Francisco Zen Center. Several times I helped gather a minyan so that we could recite Kaddish, and there was one Roman Catholic Mass in the zendo. On at least 4 occasions Issan, Steve or Phil performed Tokudo for men who wanted to join the sangha and shave their heads before they died.

The Book of the Dead

In 1989 at Lone Mountain College, I went to a teaching regarding the Tibetan Book of the Dead by Jamgön Kongtrül Lodrö, coupled with the bardo initiation. There were only six to eight of us who attended all the teachings. The lama sat on a high throne in the neo-gothic chapel for three hour sessions twice a day for three days. Despite all this formality he was very approachable, answering questions in an informal, personal way. I remember a long argument he had with an animated, forceful Jewish woman who said she could not forgive Hitler but felt she had to. Jamgön Kongtrül’s resolution, as I recall, was if the Talmudic leaning woman could stop harming herself no matter what she wanted to hold onto, opinions and positions would inevitably fall away.

When on the evening of the last day, time came for the empowerment of passing through the bardos, the audience swelled to overflowing, mostly gaunt men with HIV. I knew in my heart that many of these men were engaged in some kind of magical thinking. The fear of death was palpable. Jamgön Kongtrül Lodrö performed the ritual in the manner of someone steeped in tradition. Perhaps death’s sting had not dissipated by the last chant, but if the pain of the men who lined up for his blessing was even slightly mitigated, it was a success. In my own life, the sting would linger for years, a kind of survivor guilt. Along the way ritual became less important, though it did not entirely vanish.

Normally an initiation ends with some practice instruction. On that last evening Jamgön Kongtrül concluded with a plea for everyone to live their lives as fully as possible for however many minutes, hours, days, weeks, months, years remained. He said that would be the best practice; that bardo practice was noticing what happened in the “in-between” gaps in our experience. Many of these men would be dead in a few months. His instruction was a kind gesture of compassion.

Joshi, Kennett Roshi, and bending the law to death’s favor

Paul Joshi Higley was the first Zen priest in the community to die after Issan. He was one of two men and one woman Issan ordained. Paul had been a student of Chogyam Thrumpa, and held some level of Shambhala Training. He came to the hospice with a six month life expectancy and lived for nearly two years. He became part of our community, and my friend. In his late 30’s, dying of AIDS, he had a strong will to live fully. Determined to take full advantage of anything that medicine could provide during that first terrible decade of the epidemic, he didn’t die in the hospice but at Garden Sullivan Hospital out on Geary Ave after an experimental treatment.

The hospital called early in the morning, perhaps 1 AM. I’d promised Paul that his body would not be embalmed and that it would remain undisturbed for at least three days before cremation, but I was not at all prepared to find a way to transport a dead body from a hospital back to what looked like an ordinary San Francisco house in the dead of night. In those days the hospital afforded you 4-6 hours to have a funeral service to pick up “the remains.” I called Paul's father who met me at the hospital and provided the signature required for the release of his son’s body. Then I had to convince a tiny African-American mortuary to transport his body to “a Temple.” This was not entirely a fiction as Maitri was still part of Hartford Street Zen Center, but it was pushing the limits. It was against the law for a body, certainly an unembalmed body, to remain in an ordinary house, not a licensed funeral home, for three days.

We returned Paul’s body to his room at Maitri between 4 and 5 AM. I began to wash it carefully with sweet tea and a few drops of alcohol added, the astringent to help seal the pores; then I inserted some cotton balls into his anus. He’d been my friend so this was both a labor of love and extremely difficult. Issan once told me that in the time of AIDS, we were at war, and the ravages of Paul's last struggle with the virus were visible on his body. I imagined that I was washing them away. It was sunrise when finally Paul’s body, properly dressed, lay undisturbed in his room, dominated by a huge Tibetan style shrine. I turned and saw the last calligraphy that he’d done on large pieces of fine paper hanging on the wall. They read “Yes, Yes, Yes.”

Over the course of the next three days, friends, family and admirers came and went. It was a kind of Buddhist wake.

Phil sent me to Jiyu Kennett Roshi’s Selling water by the river: A manual of Zen training, to review what she wrote about a priest’s funeral. Together he and I sketched out the full ceremony, where everyone would stand, the placement of the altar table, the food offerings, the order of the chanting. Phil was a Soto priest performing the cremation ceremony of a Soto priest. He wanted to make sure that we omitted no part of the ritual performed in the crematorium in Emeryville.

Paul had kept $25 dollars in his pocket to pay for his cremation. After the ceremony, we used it to buy lunch in a Japanese restaurant. It didn’t quite cover the entire bill.

What did we keep?

A few appropriate words!

After all my experience and hard won lessons, I might expect that I could say something definitive about The Last Things. I cannot. As far as ritual, the first thing that comes to mind is Aitken Roshi’s counsel to Joel Katz, Ken MacDonald and me when we carried Dan Dunning’s ashes to a long boat at Queen’s Surf to be spread out beyond the reef. The Old Man said, “a few words would be appropriate.” Dan had been a dear friend for years. As I took the lid off the urn, I mumbled, “I loved you immensely, and I’ll miss you immensely.” Joel and Ken saved the day. They chanted the Enmei Jukku Kannon Gyo, banging rhythm on the gunwale as we rode the waves back to shore. I’m sure Dan loved that professional musicians did the honors, especially since he’d seen Phantom half a dozen times.

Washing the body

Frank Ostaseski taught me the practice of washing a body for the final time. It is an intimate gesture of love and respect. It is also a difficult practice. When not left to morticians or hospital nurses, it can be an act of friendship. It is also a physical act, reminding us that death is real. Thank you Frank.

Don’t touch anything for a while

I had a Japanese friend whose partner died of AIDS. Yoshi wanted to keep the man’s body undisturbed for three days. He bought all the dry ice available in his small Marin town. Early on we decided that Maitri also ought to allow a resident’s body to remain untouched for three days. Cultural conventions certainly did not influence me nor do I have any particular beliefs about the soul traversing to a nether world, but I did sense that trying not to interfere with a natural process was probably a good thing, akin to not interfering with the natural process of thought in meditation. 

I certainly wanted to be respectful. Working in the hospice, I'd become keenly aware of a delicate balance between pushing to get something done and leaving things alone. Although it may feel like a good idea for personal relationships to be as loving, complete and even as robust as possible as death approaches, there may have been damage which requires more healing time than what’s available. On the other hand, having a formal will in place as well as written instructions about funerals etc., is something that has a definite time frame. Sometimes I had to push through denial and procrastination to get papers signed. Thankfully I had the assistance of very well trained social workers from Visiting Nurses and Hospice to help.

But more of a problem was the legality of not removing a body immediately. The law required that we not keep a body more than 24 to 48 hours without refrigeration or embalming. Luckily I found a funeral director who helped with the legal forms, the death notice, so that we could keep a body in the hospice for as long as possible. After some experience we realized that though we didn’t need dry ice, we did need a lot of ventilation. We always seemed to be pushing the limits.

One of the social workers called it “lying in state” when she would ask patients how they wanted their bodies treated after they died. Many, if not most, chose our Buddhist wake. Their friends did come by. It always took its own form. Sometimes there was chanting or some spiritual practice, but it didn’t have the religious formality of visiting hours with the obligatory rosary of my upbringing. Most of the men in the hospice would have rejected that anyway. In almost every case I can remember, it just seemed to fit.

As I sat with many bodies, I began to notice that dying is not instantaneous. Like any process of saying goodbye, life doesn’t just end when the breath stops. It’s not like walking out and closing a door. The legal definition of death may be that the heart no longer beats, but hair and fingernails continue to grow. The skin seems to continue to breathe. Bodies actually change. Over the course of several days I could actually see life taper out. I was not imagining something. It is a reality that I can no longer escape.

Full Circle

After Maylie Scott’s mother Mary died, I'm sure Maylie washed her body with love. Then she called several of us who’d been close to her mother during the last years of her life. We came and sat up with Maylie through the night. Three days later she called the Neptune Society. Within the hour they arrived accompanied by two cops because there had been an “unauthorized death.” Maylie thought that her mother would have been very amused by the ruckus she caused.

Mary’s ashes are kept in the ancient Malling Benedictine Abbey south of London where her other daughter, Sister Mary John, was the abbess. From Eiheiji, through Kaddish and The Book of the Dead, to a small Buddhist Hospice in San Francisco during the time of AIDS, and onto a small abbey of cloistered Anglican nuns. Perhaps a bit wobbly, but full circle. Life and death continue to circle on and on.

Tuesday, May 24, 2022

Khyongla Rato Rinpoche died this morning.

Khyongla Rato Rinpoche died this morning in McLeod Ganj. He was probably 101 years old. The registry of births in Tibet was not very precise when he was born but who’s counting? My landlord Hari Singh who has been his driver at least since the onset of Covid just texted me.

Hari called Rato “The Holy One” out of his deep respect and love. I called him “Chuck Rinpoche.”

Perhaps 8 months ago Hari asked if his wife could use my kitchen to cook a meal for the Rinpoche. He’d made a special request to eat some of Reshma’s home style cooking. The flat was also easier for Rato to negotiate and the seating more comfortable. I said of course. We all had greeting scarfs and Hari lit a smudge pot smoke offering on the steps. About 1 PM, we welcomed Geshe Nicky Vreeland followed by Rato, helped along by his attendant Norbu.

The food was wonderful. Lamb curry North Indian style. I was amazed to watch Rato, Nicky and Norbu eat with such gusto. Reshma prepared the Rinpoche’s dish carefully, with rice, smaller pieces of mutton and lots of gravy.

My friend Alex Kype was also there. He’d warned me to be on my best behavior. The Rinpoche was high up the ladder of Buddhist royalty. I sat next to Rato and Nicky was to his left. Rato's voice was barely audible, but Nicky repeated his words. In the course of the conversion, Rato told a story about when he moved to New York City in 1968 to found The Tibet Center. He rented a small apartment midtown but he had no money. So he went to work as a stock boy* in B. Altman. No one could pronounce his name so he told everyone to just call him Chuck. He started laughing. I jumped in and asked if I could call him Chuck Rinpoche. He laughed more.

Rato’s scholarship and dedication to the Way were remarkable and revered over several incarnations, but he’ll always be just Chuck Rinpoche to me.

Thank you for your visit. We were honored.

*This is an interesting factoid. “Chuck” probably earned minimum wage in '68, which was $1.60 per hour (equivalent to $12.47 in 2021).

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