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



Thursday, May 13, 2021

The funeral of Ösel Tendzin. Deliver us from cults.

My friend Barbara O’Brian alerted me to this article by Steven Butterfield, When the Teacher Fails. In 1990 when Ösel Tendzin died in San Francisco where he’d come for treatment of advanced HIV disease, I was living at Hartford Street Zen Center and working at Maitri AIDS Hospice. It felt important for some reason that Maitri, a Buddhist program set up for helping ease the pain of the AIDS epidemic, should be present for the funeral of an important Buddhist teacher who’d died from the disease. 

Shambala was going to conduct the elaborate funeral ritual at their center on 16th and Mission. So we phoned, asked if we could attend, and were given a time; we put on our rakusus and climbed to the second floor above a Jack-in-the Box. I can’t actually describe my shock. It may have been the first Tibetan ritual that I’d attended, but when we entered the hall and made our prostrations, there was Ösel’s corpse kind of trussed up in an awkward meditation posture, full regalia, barely masking the ropes and poles required to hold the body upright. I’d sat with many men who died of AIDS so it was not that the body itself showed the ravages of the disease which were not hidden. It was not that the ritual seemed foreign or exotic. It was, but it was a Tibetan ritual and I wasn’t expecting some low church Episcopalian service. 

What overwhelmed me was the absolute veneration of a man who had knowingly infected others with AIDS. Shambala had tried to mitigate the damage with some mystical smokescreen. It was rumored that some had spread the lie that the guru’s Vajra powers bestowed by the lineage would prevent reinfection, or that it was even an opening for the great enlightenment. But there was at least one teenage boy involved, a young man whose life was now cut short. Everyone present, and there were several hundred, knew that their Regent had knowingly infected people with HIV and that their deaths would be soon upon them. Somehow it was all supposed to be OK in the great scheme of things. The drums beat, the chanting began, and finally Steve Allen got up and motioned for us to leave. On the way down the stairs he said, “All that was missing was the bones in their noses.” 

We returned to Hartford Street, and I got up the next morning to take care of Bernie and JD, and the 5 other men in our care. And I have never picked up “Cutting through Spiritual Materialism” again or recommended it to anyone, and I never will.




When I was searching Google for a picture of Mr.Thomas Rich, I found this on vajraregent.org. I think that some people are still in deep denial. 

This is offered with love, appreciation and gratitude to Vidyadhara, the Venerable Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche, and his Vajra Regent and dharma heir Ösel Tendzin, for the benefit of their present and future disciples, and all beings.

Through hearing, seeing and contemplating these teachings of the Vidyadhara through his Vajra Regent,

May we realize the essence of transmission from teacher to student.

May we hold precious this seed planting of Vajrayana dharma and Shambhala vision in the West.

Through their gestures and words, may we wake up on the spot.

May we not become confused by spiritual materialism in any form.

Now, practicing moment by moment until the end of this life and beyond, may we free all beings.

Tuesday, May 11, 2021

Volunteering in an AIDS Hospice

This is a short piece I wrote about my experience living and practicing at Maitri Hospice for a German Buddhist magazine, Ursache & Wirkung, in an edition about "Buddhismus unter dem Regenbogen."



Tobias Trapp asked me to write a few words about volunteering during the AIDS epidemic. I jumped at the chance because it gave me an opportunity to acknowledge Frank Ostaseski and Issan Dorsey Roshi as well as to encourage others to accept the invitation to be with another human being at the end of their lives.

In 1989 I lost a very dear friend, a woman who’d been like a mother to me. Her daughter asked me to donate the hospital bed that she had in her room at the retirement home where she’d spent the last years of her life in San Francisco.

Through a series of phone calls, a gay friend who was doing design work for the Zen Center Hospice Project, gave me Frank’s number. Could the Hospice use the bed? Frank said he’d love to have the bed. How could we move it across town to the Hospice? I had a truck. Frank said let’s meet and be delivery men. We set a time.

I liked Frank immediately, bright, up beat, not my picture of a deathbed priest. He was also very persuasive--between the time we’d loaded the bed in my truck and unloaded it at the Zen Center, I was signed up for the Zen Hospice Volunteer Training Program.

That afternoon also set the tone for volunteering, listening and responding to simple requests, taking
of what was at hand, and working with others. No special knowledge was required.

Within 6 months, I met Issan Dorsey Roshi, and became a volunteer at Maitri Hospice. Guided by Issan’s compassion, taking care of almost 100 men changed me. I cooked spaghetti and painted walls, I helped men sort through a lifetime of personal letters and called their mothers. Not every task was easy, but the rewards were immense.

I could not have known that this simple trip would lead to the first Buddhist Hospice for people with HIV/AIDS. I was just helping a man carry a bed across San Francisco. Thank you Frank, Issan, J.D., Bernie and the other men who came into my life. Your gifts were amazing.


Friday, May 7, 2021

When the Breath Ends

The case: Hekiganroku Case 3

Master Ba Is Ill

Great Master Ba was seriously ill. The temple steward asked him, "Master, how are you feeling these days?" The Great Master said, "Sun-faced Buddha, Moon-faced Buddha."


I knocked on Issan’s door, and heard a faint “come in.” He was on the phone. He waved his hand towards the seat next to him, inviting me to sit down.

“Oh,” he said, “let me write that down.” And he picked up the small ballpoint on his desk and began to write carefully in his neat hand.

"The inbreath is the first breath of my life."

"The outbreath is the last of my life." He paused.

"Just to make sure that I have this correctly: when I breathe in it’s as if I were taking the first breath that I’ve ever breathed, and when I breathe out, it’s like the last. And soon it will be the last one.” He laughed. “I’ll probably be terrified.”

“Good bye, Roshi. Thank you. I love you too.”

As he put down the phone, he looked at me and said, “It’s important for me to write these practices down. They’re so simple but I’m not quite myself these days. Sometimes I'm confused or forget. I have to try to do my best.”

Yamada Kuon fills in some of the detail for Case 3 of the Blue Cliff Record: The "sun-face Buddha" is the 202nd Buddha who is supposed to have a life-span of 1800 years. The "moon-face Buddha" is, on the other hand, the 858th of the thousand Buddhas, and has the extremely short life of just one day and night, only 24 hours.

Objectively speaking Issan was towards the moon-face Buddha end of the spectrum. He would be dead within 10 days. But he was also 57 years old, and Richard Baker Roshi had just counseled him that his whole life changed with each breath. What changed? The memories? I know that Issan cherished some and perhaps regretted others. The cells, diseased and healthy? We know that the disease was winning. Loves lost and forgotten? All very present. The pain of the moment, or the cessation of that pain? Yes, that too. Just follow the breath.

My friend Jakushu Gregory Wood jaywalked into this koan conversation and started talking about last breaths and cutting off emotions. He cited Chan Master Shen, imperial attendant of the western capital. Shen picked up a quill, and wrote this poem for Case #36 of the Book of Serenity*:

When the breath ends, it cuts off emotions
Arousing the mind there is no path of mind
Without even the strength to bat an eye
Never do I go out the door


Issan was not prematurely or artificially cutting off any emotion, but on the other hand I didn’t see him exaggerate them either in a kind of swan song. I did hear the faint note of nostalgic farewell in those moon-face days, but he’d been a professional drag artist so that might have just been for the limelight. The practice just indicated following the inbreath as the first breath and the out breath as the last. There is no instruction to stop anything. As Master Shen points out that’s not a roadmap either.

I stood up to leave, and as I opened the door, Issan asked if I would be back before lunch to remind him to take his medication. He invited me into this last part of his life. I tried to breathe with him, residing as he often said, in our “breath-mind.” That gesture of friendship changed my life.

Hakuin warns, “There'll be a lot of fatalities if people take a view of emptiness to be the Sun Face Buddha.” Don’t worry old man, Issan didn’t allow for any confusion. He wrote it down very carefully with a ballpoint pen.

Thank you, Issan. Your best was wonderful.

 

Issan Dorsey (March 7, 1933 — September 6, 1990) with Ken Ireland (May 26, 1944 to ...)


Hotetsu's Verse:

Listen, I will tell you the good news: you're going to die.
You don't have to get everything fixed, figured out.
It's not up to you. You're off the hook, Dead One Walking.
You only have to be present to the sky's shining faces.
If you say, "no time soon, I hope," you might as well be dead already.
1800 years is just the same as one day.
Right now, the only eternity there is, they're just the same.

 

 


Wednesday, April 21, 2021

Zen Bland!




In the Spring of 2011, I did a Zen retreat at a former catholic convent, the Angela Center. As I was unpacking my bag, I noticed that my “cell” was just a slightly less Spartan, more feminine version of the one where I was isolated from the outside world for two years as a Jesuit novice 45 years earlier, the same bland institutional architecture thrown up to accommodate the flood of men and women entering religious life after the Second World War.

In the Jesuit house of formation, we got up at 5:30 and went to bed at 9. Now my concentration started an hour earlier and lasted an hour later, but it seemed to re-stimulate both the ecstatic and painful memories of my novitiate, for me an extremely difficult initiation into religious life. I couldn’t stop a flood of memories, tastes of prayer, study, and feelings that soon included my 11 years of Jesuit indoctrination as well as the aftermath.

After breakfast on the morning of the 4th day, as I was walking back to the room, my actual perception of the building suddenly sh
ifted. I was just walking on a linoleum floor that was just a floor, the walls of lightly plastered-over cinder block were just walls. Nothing more. No sounds but the sound of my feet, no visions but what I saw through my eyes—just pictures on a wall, just a door, just a room, just a grey carpeted floor with black cushions. It was not a dramatic, flashing-bright-lights insight, no angels descended from heaven with all the answers that I was hungry for, or had told myself that I really sought. Rather bland for a mystical experience.

But then I began to notice something very powerful open up inside me—every burden that I had been carrying since my Jesuit training was gone. It was extinguished, not conceptually but actually. My past life as a Jesuit was gone, completely gone. Not that it didn’t happen, not that it had no effect on me, but I understood in a non-intellectual way that anything I carry into the present moment was for me to carry. It doesn’t drag itself along. Actually there’s nothing there. It’s not real.

Suddenly in that moment of bland Zen, I was totally and irrevocably free—no one, no thing, no outside authority, no god, no doctrine, no experience could ever enslave me.

Three cheers for bland Zen!


 

Ken’s verse

 

She might have even been as Spartan as Father Ignatius

if her taste had not run to plastered walls, a few modest chintz prints

and poignant photos of helpless children.

You could have fed a child in Haiti for that price, Sister.

 

Alok asked me about priest-craft—

appeasing hungry ghosts with big bellies,

tight mouths, and one might presume assholes,

not to mention pussies. Forgive me, Sister.

 

The antidote contains no eyes, no ears, no tongue,

no body, no mind, no assholes

no thought, no perception, no old age, no ending of old age and death

—and no sex. You know that practice, Sister.

 

I knew, or at least said, more than I ought.

Phil told me that the rite was no more than sleight of hand:

chocolate, cardamom tea, ripe kiwis,

none of it really satisfying or nourishing.

 

Hungry ghosts think it’s dinner.

Anything looks like dinner when you’re starving.

Big bellies and big ears arise simultaneously –

evidence, your pictures of starving children in Sudan.

Trick them. Stuff them with dharma.

No bellies. I know about greed first hand.

 

If you’d had just a little more imagination, Sister,

I might have discovered a unicorn in your garden,

a mythical beast. But no. It had to be a nasty tigress.

Her bad breath nearly killed me.

 

But right then and there

I stuck my head into her mouth,

to fulfill the requirement for courage,

no fear, no lipstick, no kisses.

Then I heard a small voice demanding attention –

Don’t be an asshole. Don’t arm your daemons.

No Crusades, no swords,

No preaching, no stones, no death.

 

And we were saved.

Thank you Sister.

 

 

1 November 2011


Originally posted December 21, 2011, revised during the Coronavirus lockdown, March 25, 2020.

*The title of this reflection comes from a piece my friend Laurence Platt wrote, “Zen Bland,” which was not at all bland but very juicy. He argues that simple and unembellished language is the only authentic way to describe deeply moving, transformative experiences—living life here and now, speaking about it simply, not altering our experience trying to make it into something else! 

 

Dedicated to Chris Wilson, head of practice at Spring sesshin, a generous, guiding spirit and friend.


Tuesday, April 20, 2021

Case 32: A Philosopher Asks Buddha

Stepping out from under the shadow of God


The case

A philosopher asked Buddha:

"Without words, without the wordless, will you tell me the truth?"


The Buddha kept silence.


The philosopher bowed and thanked the Buddha, saying: "With your loving kindness I have cleared away my delusions and entered the true path."


After the philosopher had gone, Ananda asked the Buddha what he had attained.


The Buddha replied, "A good horse runs even at the shadow of the whip."


Mumon's Comment


Ananda was the Buddha's disciple, but his understanding was not equal to that of the non-Buddhist. I want to ask you, what difference is there between the Buddha's disciple and the non-Buddhist?


Mumon's Verse 


On the edge of a sword,

Over the ridge of an iceberg,

With no steps, no ladders,

Climbing the cliffs without hands.


___________

A friend asked, “If convert Western Buddhists just set up a competing cult, what’s the value in that?’ Then, because it was a rhetorical question, he answered himself, “The West doesn’t need another religion.” My first impulse was to agree, but when I realized that the koan was about asking questions, that put every answer into a new perspective. I believe some of the answers to my own questions; others I rebel against; some cannot be answered.


Although we cannot identify with certainty the “philosopher”—sometimes it’s rendered, “the pagan” and one teacher even calls him a “Hindu”—this much is clear, the Buddha’s questioner is not a member of the sangha or a lay follower. Hindus, philosophical atheists, pagans, Unitarians, even Jesuits, people who may not even be interested in learning about the Buddhist Path, I have many friends in all those categories.


When I first heard this koan, I took it as validation of my strongly held opinion that no one, not even Buddhists, should try to convert anyone. Who am I to convert anyone? I have a hard enough time with myself. And as the Lord Buddha himself didn’t have anything to say, it was further proof that I was on the right side, or if I were a betting man à la manière de Blaise Pascal,* that I’d picked the right pony.


The Buddha kept silent. For a meditator this is an invitation for introspection and not a confirmation of some rule not to proselytize. But the Buddha also did not pass over the philosopher’s question in silence. What if I began to examine my own questions to see how much they were merely a reaction to the unspoken admonitions of my training both as a Jesuit and an ordinary human? 


I entered the Jesuits just after Jean-Baptiste Janssens’ tenure as Father General. His letters to the brethren were filled with more admonitions than Saint Paul. He began sentences with the Latin heads up, “Taceo--I pass over in silence reports that many Jesuits are smoking,” which was in no uncertain terms an order: “stop smoking.” 


Father Janssens was a remarkable man, the recipient of the title, “Righteous among the nations” for his courageous act of hiding a large group of Jewish children in the Provincial's residence in Brussels, and he was not known for a lax interpretation of Jesuit discipline. Needless to say, examining the restrictive Jesuit norms brought a great sense of freedom, almost as much as rebelling against them. But even Buddhists agree that behavioural norms can promote liberation. 


And now to another type of question. During our last meeting Avery Dulles said to me: “I hear that Buddhists haven’t settled the God question.” Of course he knew the answer—most Buddhism is non-theistic; it does not entertain the question of divinity, neither affirming nor denying a supreme deity, certainly not in the same way that Christians do. In the realm of dogmatic theology these kinds of statements about the nature of divinity are the coin of the realm, and for Avery the existence of a godhead, a personal deity, was central. 


Avery was the renowned, learned Jesuit whom, when he was 82 years old, Pope John Paul II named a Cardinal of the Roman Church, a very high honor indeed and validation of his theological work. He had also been my spiritual director during my theology days, and remained my friend for more than 30 years after I left religious life. Despite all the demands on his time, he never visited San Francisco without calling and inviting me to dinner. 


But that afternoon, despite our friendship, or perhaps because of that bond, I felt as though Avery was trying to pry out an answer that would undermine my Buddhist “beliefs.” His tone was friendly and loving, not disapproving or forceful. He may have been trying to push me towards a more traditional faith, but I couldn’t respond of course I still believed in God, because honestly I was leaning more towards the agnostic end of the spectrum, an answer that would surely have disappointed him. My love for the man overrode any other considerations. Again, we’re back to questions and answers. 


Avery however was a Jesuit through and through, and I might have countered his proposition with an invitation to inquiry, but I didn’t have the skill to turn a rhetorical or speculative question into an opening for spiritual discovery. I didn’t know how my friend would take it, perhaps almost as blasphemy although my real fear was that he would have just made fun of the question—and me.


We might have waded into the tricky currents of sweeping, generalized truth statements that leave one floundering on rocky shores, or to return to my original thoughts about placing my bet on the right ponny, the kind of restrictive notions about God that Jesuits liked to argue about with M. Blaise Pascal and the Jansenists.


Working with the koan opened up that opportunity again.


Avery had framed his statement as a tautology. In logic it’s known as the excluded middle: the law (or principle) of the excluded third, principium tertii exclusi. Another Latin designation for this law is tertium non datur: "no third [possibility] is given." Ludwig Wittgenstein says this constitutes a statement empty of meaning.  


Framing the question as Avery did cuts off the possibility of even seeing or imagining anything but God-or-no-god. Despite what’s almost universal acceptance of monotheism at this point in time, it is simply one formulation that won the cultural and political “god” debate. It wiped out a huge range of numenistic experience, or reduced it to a series of distinctions within the “God, Yes or No” conversation, turning monotheism into a kind of shibboleth* that separates believers and excludes atheists and materialists.


The questioner (my questioner) couldn’t force the Buddha to either take that position into account or exclude him or herself from the Way. That would be simply asking a question looking for a wrong answer. Our philosopher doesn’t misstep.


There is an old adage in spiritual life that there are no bad questions. Frankly in my view this is little more than just trying to ease any inhibition from asking whatever questions might pop up. Given no picking and choosing, bad questions do not exist, but in the realm of good questions, there are better or more ‘useful’ questions when we are seeking to clear our path.


I’ve always felt the empathy, compassion and acknowledgment in this story. I am a former Jesuit, and to be clear, I left the Jesuits and the Roman Catholic Church. However it is impossible for me to change that part of my training, no matter how much I find myself outside the tradition. For me the practice of meditation has been more like stepping out of the shadow of God. There are innumerable spiritual possibilities hidden in between dogmatic statements, mixed in with syncretism and heresy. They exist in a kind of shadow world that is a rich vein for exploration. Maybe Jesus wasn’t bodily resurrected from the dead, but the myth still opens a window into the human psyche. I can happily remain agnostic and explore that possibility.


After the philosopher leaves, Ananda asks the Buddha what the philosopher had attained. Poor Ananda. He missed the opportunity to ask someone who might have pointed him towards a useful answer. If he’d asked the philosopher, for example, how meditation had changed his worldview, we’d be in practice territory.


So Ananda just gets to wrestle with a puzzling shadow. Perhaps that was a gift. 


I know I need balance. If not, I get lost in a long theological rant and call it spiritual practice. Sitting quiets my mind just enough so that I can hear other voices besides my own. The rants calm down. Hearing and listening, however, are just the first steps towards understanding, and ultimately compassion. I encourage anyone, no matter what beliefs they cherish, to practice meditation with their whole heart. 


There are several “philosophers” who have attained fluency in Zen practice, Christians, Jesuits, other Catholic religious, a Unitarian minister, and one UCC minister, a friend, who have followed this path and become teachers in the koan tradition. I won’t even try to predict where their practice will take them or their students, but may their practice help relieve suffering and free all beings.


Father Ignatius would have approved of the Buddha's “shadow of the whip” answer. I think that it might point to the heart of the Jesuit-Zen connection. Go ahead ask the question of your own self: "Without words, without the wordless, will you tell me the truth?"


I have translated Wittengenstein’s answer into Latin.


De quibus loqui non possumus, nobis tacendum est.

[About what we cannot speak, we have to remain silent. Or

What we cannot talk about, we must pass over in silence.]


I will let the Jesuit poet Gerard Manley Hopkins cap this conversation (from The Habit of Perfection):


Elected Silence, sing to me

And beat upon my whorlèd ear,

Pipe me to pastures still and be

The music that I care to hear.


Shape nothing, lips; be lovely-dumb:

It is the shut, the curfew sent

From there where all surrenders come

Which only makes you eloquent.



Avery died on
12 December 2008; I was told that among the few personal items he carried with him when he went into hospice care was the image of a painting I did when we lived together in New York. Your friendship was a precious gift. Thank you.















___________


Because this has become a Jesuit koan, footnotes are mandatory (and jokes are also helpful). 


*Shibboleth comes from the Hebrew for “ear of corn.” In the Book of Judges we learn that the Isrealites used it as a password because it was difficult for foreigners to pronounce. Mispronunciation didn’t just exclude. It marked them for death.


*Here is Pascal’s bet. 

“If there is a God, He is infinitely incomprehensible, since, having neither parts nor limits, He has no affinity to us. We are then incapable of knowing either what He is or if He is....

..."God is, or He is not." But to which side shall we incline? Reason can decide nothing here. There is an infinite chaos which separated us. A game is being played at the extremity of this infinite distance where heads or tails will turn up. What will you wager? According to reason, you can do neither the one thing nor the other; according to reason, you can defend neither of the propositions.

Do not, then, reprove for error those who have made a choice; for you know nothing about it. "No, but I blame them for having made, not this choice, but a choice; for again both he who chooses heads and he who chooses tails are equally at fault, they are both in the wrong. The true course is not to wager at all."

Yes; but you must wager. It is not optional. You are embarked. Which will you choose then? Let us see. Since you must choose, let us see which interests you least. You have two things to lose, the true and the good; and two things to stake, your reason and your will, your knowledge and your happiness; and your nature has two things to shun, error and misery. Your reason is no more shocked in choosing one rather than the other, since you must of necessity choose. This is one point settled. But your happiness? Let us weigh the gain and the loss in wagering that God is. Let us estimate these two chances. If you gain, you gain all; if you lose, you lose nothing. Wager, then, without hesitation that He is.

"That is very fine. Yes, I must wager; but I may perhaps wager too much." Let us see. Since there is an equal risk of gain and of loss, if you had only to gain two lives, instead of one, you might still wager. But if there were three lives to gain, you would have to play (since you are under the necessity of playing), and you would be imprudent, when you are forced to play, not to chance your life to gain three at a game where there is an equal risk of loss and gain. But there is an eternity of life and happiness. And this being so, if there were an infinity of chances, of which one only would be for you, you would still be right in wagering one to win two, and you would act stupidly, being obliged to play, by refusing to stake one life against three at a game in which out of an infinity of chances there is one for you, if there were an infinity of an infinitely happy life to gain. But there is here an infinity of an infinitely happy life to gain, a chance of gain against a finite number of chances of loss, and what you stake is finite.[12]




Thursday, April 15, 2021

Goa, Saint Francis and Me

McLeodganj, Himachal Pradesh, India
April 7, 2014

This was written for the publication of "Spiritual Journeys" by a group of former Jesuits.


One Sunday this past February, Ashish and I went to the English mass at the Basilica of Bom Jesu in Goa. During mass people venerating Saint Francis Xavier wind through the courtyard of the Jesuit residence and pass his shrine, a small Baroque style altar where what’s left of his body is encased in glass. We were initially directed towards that slow moving queue, but after some negotiation, we found our way into a back pew in the main church. 


I began to feel at home with the familiarity of the Jesuit ceremony, and was able to pay more attention. The priest’s sermon was not easy to follow. He struggled to connect Xavier’s religious enthusiasm to martyrdom, comparing the Saint’s remarkable life with the current situation of Christians in India. But Xavier died a natural death and, though they might feel persecuted, Christians in India are generally very well accepted. In fact in Goa, they pretty much control everything.


I gave up on following the Jesuit’s exhortations, and drifted off, studying the congregation, mostly Indians, and certainly, as English speakers, well educated. They were not paying much attention to the sermon either, women looking after crying children, men closing their eyes and nodding, in many ways similar to the Irish American parish of my childhood.


The sermon and the ceremony were also disconnected from what was happening at the side altar where men, women, and children, Christians, Hindus, Muslims, and Sikhs, pushed their way forward towards the barely visible body of the saint. We’d seen almost identical scenes at the many temples, mosques, shrines, gurdwaras we’ve visited across India, people seeking healing, relief from suffering, forgiveness for a personal transgression, blessings for a new marriage, a prayer for a child’s good fortune, or perhaps even a superstitious belief that touching his statue would produce a child. To be honest it felt disconnected from the Catholic, Jesuit saint I thought I knew, but it was real.


I turned my attention back to the altar and suddenly felt deep compassion, even kinship with the Indian Jesuit. He was obviously a competent, educated, thoughtful, even a devout, spiritual man who was sincerely trying to connect our messy lives with another dimension. With any luck, I might have turned out like him, but in that same moment, I also realized why I’d left the Society.


After I graduated from Dartmouth in 1966, over the objections of my parents, I entered the Jesuits, and stayed for more than a decade. When time came for me to be ordained, I took a leave of absence and extended it for 2 years before I asked to be relieved of religious vows. During that exclaustration, I realized that I had to confront, and deal with coming out as a gay man, my addictive personality, and, at the time, I thought that the most effective path was psychological work rather than prayer or meditation.


I had of course done the spiritual exercises of Father Ignatius many times. The experience was rich. When I was trying to decide whether to leave or stick it out, I undertook them again as well as trying to recreate some of that experience through a study of the enneagram, and beginning Buddhist meditation practice. Then for more than three decades, I either wore the designation “ex-Jesuit” as a badge of honor, and disavowed any value in my religious training except on the rare occasion when I ran into someone from that era.


Twenty-five years ago a chance meeting with a Zen priest who was starting a hospice for people with AIDS turned my attention back to meditation practice. It also allowed me to carefully trace the roots of suffering through a spiritual practice that is agnostic with regard to any particular religious system of beliefs.


Today my experience in the Society of Jesus grows dim, like a series of events in a very distant land, but what remains is a sense of intimacy that feels indelible and timeless. Most of the struggles of my youth, coming out in an unaccepting culture, finding a spiritual expression that suited me, have faded into the background. I no longer seek the kind of answers that I demanded years ago. 


I regard spirituality as reflecting on the questions that life presents squarely, and I value seeing things through to the end, even things that did not turn out well. Most of the ordinary language of spiritual conversation feels inadequate. If I describe my particular path as a series of transitions, I feel I’m being melodramatic. Speaking of a path or a journey sounds like I just bought some nifty running shoes to train for a marathon at my unlikely age. 


That morning in Goa, I didn’t feel distant or unconnected, but rather like I’d just grown up and realized that even if my life amounted to only a brief second, in that time I could leave things better than I found them, that I was not alone, and that the universe is vast and awe-inspiring.


Sunday, March 28, 2021

In the Cave of Sister Mary Kevin, Ursuline

November 01, 2011

 

by Ken Ireland

 

She might have even been as Spartan as Father Ignatius

if her taste had not run to plastered walls, a few modest chintz prints

and poignant photos of helpless children.

You could have fed a child in Haiti for that price, Sister.

 

Alok asked me about priest-craft—

appeasing hungry ghosts with big bellies,

tight mouths, and one might presume assholes,

not to mention pussies. Forgive me, Sister.

 

The antidote contains no eyes, no ears, no tongue,

no body, no mind, no assholes

no thought, no perception, no old age, no ending of old age and death

—and no sex. You know that practice, Sister.

 

I knew, or at least said, more than I ought.

Phil told me that the rite was no more than sleight of hand:

chocolate, cardamom tea, ripe kiwis,

none of it really satisfying or nourishing.

 

Hungry ghosts think it’s dinner.

Anything looks like dinner when you’re starving.

Big bellies and big ears arise simultaneously –

evidence, your pictures of starving children in Sudan.

Trick them. Stuff them with dharma.

No bellies. I know about greed first hand.

 

If you’d had just a little more imagination, Sister,

I might have discovered a unicorn in your garden,

a mythical beast. But no. It had to be a nasty tigress.

Her bad breath nearly killed me.

 

But right then and there

I stuck my head into her mouth,

to fulfill the requirement for courage,

no fear, no lipstick, no kisses.

Then I heard a small voice demanding attention –

Don’t be an asshole. Don’t arm your daemons.

No Crusades, no swords,

No preaching, no stones, no death.

 

And we were saved.

Thank you Sister.

 

to read more of my poems

 

 


The funeral of Ösel Tendzin. Deliver us from cults.

My friend Barbara O’Brian alerted me to this article by Steven Butterfield, When the Teacher Fails . In 1990 when Ösel Tendzin died in San ...