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, 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

 

 


Tuesday, March 23, 2021

Issan hears the parable of the Good Samaritan—for the first time!

Originally posted on April 22, 2010. Revised Palm Sunday 2021


Dedicated to Rev. Rusty Smith, the E.D. of Maitri Compassionate Care. Rusty was trained as a priest in the Jesuits. Please visit their website, and consider helping in anyway you can.

 

The Case:

A teacher of the Law came up and tried to trap Jesus. “Teacher,” he asked, “what must I do to receive eternal life?”

Jesus answered him, “What do the Scriptures say? How do you interpret them?”


The man answered, “ ‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your strength, and with all your mind’; and ‘Love your neighbour as you love yourself.’ ”


“You are right,” Jesus replied; “do this and you will live.”


But the teacher of the Law wanted to justify himself, so he asked Jesus, “Who is my neighbour?”


Jesus answered, “There was once a man who was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho when robbers attacked him, stripped him, and beat him up, leaving him half dead. It so happened that a priest was going down that road; but when he saw the man, he walked on by, on the other side. In the same way a Levite also came along, went over and looked at the man, and then walked on by, on the other side. But a Samaritan who was travelling that way came upon the man, and when he saw him, his heart was filled with pity. He went over to him, poured oil and wine on his wounds and bandaged them; then he put the man on his own animal and took him to an inn, where he took care of him. The next day he took out two silver coins and gave them to the innkeeper. ‘Take care of him,’ he told the innkeeper, ‘and when I come back this way, I will pay you whatever else you spend on him.’ ”


And Jesus concluded, “In your opinion, which one of these three acted like a neighbour towards the man attacked by the robbers?”


The teacher of the Law answered, “The one who was kind to him.”


Jesus replied, “You go, then, and do the same.”

 


My friend, Joe Devlin, a Jesuit priest, said Mass in the zendo at Hartford Street early in 1990. Joe was visiting friends in San Francisco, and I asked him to come by to say Mass for the Catholic men in Maitri Hospice. I told Issan about my plan, and he said he was happy to have Mass and very excited to meet Joe. 

 

It was a Saturday evening. Joe was due to arrive at 5. I was scrambling, assembling a few basics, actually just the essentials, bread, wine and a clean tablecloth for the dining room table. Issan, who was at the time in the final stages of HIV disease came downstairs in his bathrobe, to ask when “Father Joe” was due to arrive, and see what I was doing. After I explained, he said with a big smile, but firmly, “Mass will be in the zendo, not the dining room.” Then he took over and directed all the preparations with the same care that he would have given to a full-blown Zen ritual, the table he wanted for the service, the table cloth, the candles, the cup. He went back upstairs, and when he came down again, he was dressed in his robes. He greeted Joe at the door with a hug and kiss, thanking him for coming, and telling him that Mass would be in our chapel, the zendo.

 

Issan and five or six of us sat in meditation posture on cushions while Joe improvised the ancient Catholic liturgy, beginning with a simple rite of confession and forgiveness. I noticed that Issan brought the same attention to the Catholic ritual as he did zazen and Zen services. When it came time to read from the Testament of Jesus, Joe took a small white, well-worn book out of a pocket in his jacket, and said that his mother had told him that the story he was about to read contains all the essentials for a true Christian life. Sometimes even Jesuits get their best theological training from their mothers.

 

 

Then he read from the gospel of Luke, chapter 10, the parable of the Good Samaritan. For any of you who need a refresher course in New Testament studies, this is a story about a man who is robbed, taken for everything he has, savagely beaten and left by the side of the road to die. All the people who might have helped, even those who should have helped, chose to walk on the other side of the street when they saw him—except for the Samaritan. Now the Samaritan in Jesus’ day was the guy whom good upstanding members of the community might have called the equivalent of “faggot” or “queer.” He was an outcast, but he was the only person who actually stopped and took some real action to help the poor fellow out. Jesus teaches us that real love is shown through actions, not words.

 

The next morning—Sunday mornings were the usual gathering of the Hartford Street community—Issan began to talk about Fr. Joe and the liturgy. Catholic Mass in the zendo was not universally welcomed. Actually so many members at Hartford Street carried the wounds of discrimination in the religion of their parents that Christianity was rarely spoken about. And the kind Irish priest from Most Holy Redeemer who came to administer the Last Rites to hospice residents who requested it was friendly, but, how can I describe it? sacramentally efficient. However Issan was exuberant. He’d fallen in love with Joe. He said that during the Mass he had the experience of really being forgiven and that had allowed him to feel peace, even appreciation for his early religious training. 

 

Issan had also fallen in love with Luke's parable. He turned to me and asked, “What was the little white book that Fr. Joe read from?” Startled, I said that was the New Testament. “Oh,” Issan said lightly, “it must have been in Latin when I heard it as an altar boy, but it was exactly how we should lead our lives as Buddhists.” 

 

Issan saw Maitri as much more than just a Buddhist hospice, though it was deeply Buddhist to its very roots. He shaved his head and wore a Soto priest’s patch-work robe, he bowed and chanted in Sino-Japanese, but he understood very clearly that real wisdom, what Buddhists call prajna, is not the sole property of any religion. I actually think he took the Teaching of Jesus to a new, heroic level: the definition of friend included building an inn for the injured traveler when he couldn't find one in town.

 

When Joe and I had dinner together the night before he flew back to Boston, I told him what Issan had said. A few days later, the small New Testament that had been in his jacket for years arrived in an envelope addressed to Issan. Before Issan died 6 months later, during one of our last meetings, he asked me to thank Joe again for the zendo mass after he was gone. I did. And that New Testament which passed from the pocket of Joe’s jacket to Issan’s bookshelf at Hartford Street to my altar, I have since passed on to a person who asked a dharma question about one of the stories in the Gospel of Jesus.

 


Monday, March 8, 2021

The Road to Rohatsu

Ryutan’s Candle and Kenosha

Mumonkan Case 28


The original Chinese Goang

Longtan Chongxin (Dragon-Lake): Because Deshan Xuanjian asked more and more and night arrived, Tan said, "The night is deep. Sir, why don’t you go to lie down?"

Shan thereupon gathered his precious baggage, hoisted the [door] blind, and then exited. He saw the outside was pitch dark, withdrew, turned around, and said, "Outside is pitch dark."

Tan then lit a paper measuring-candle and gave it to him.

Shan intended to accept it, but Tan then blew it out.


I was driving from Santa Fe to Crestone with Baker Roshi for my first Rohatsu sesshin. It was going to be just Baker and me for the four hour drive. I was assigned a lot of packing tasks; his instructions were very exacting. I remember quite clearly that I had to fit the large densho bell into the trunk of the car. There were other bells and zendo items that were needed to keep the schedule and turn the Wheel of the Dharma. 

It was probably between 4 and 5, and already getting dark when we drove out Cerro Gordo Road. We were due by 9 to formally open the sesshin; I thought that we might have been late, but Baker Roshi knew the route very well and had the trip planned to the second. I’d heard about his legendary fast driving, but felt reasonably comfortable.

We talked about Phil Whalen, Issan, the Hospice, and food. Then the conversation turned to losing normal mental ability, Alzheimers, and AIDS dementia. I was somewhat concerned about Issan’s losing his faculties during the last phase of his disease, and asked about the effect of meditation and the blurring of our normal sense of time. I spoke of one guy in the Hospice who couldn’t even remember the past of 5 minutes ago and was completely unable to foresee any future. Given that he was a dying man, it actually seemed to be a blessing.

Baker told me that I probably shouldn’t worry too much. He mentioned something one of his old friends in Japan, Nanao Sakaki, the godfather of Japanese hippies, said when his memory was fading after he crossed 80 years, “I can’t remember what I didn’t need to know anyway.” 

I asked David Chadwick if he remembered if he had any more details about Nanao's condition. David pointed me to a conversation he had with Nanao before he died. David talked about a mutual friend who had colon cancer. Nanao seemed to follow the conversation but asked the same question several times, “What did he have?” "Shiri," David repeated, patting his butt, but said that he’d already answered the question.

Nanao wasn't fazed. "Kenbosho," he said. "I have kenbosho." David asked if that meant senility or Alzheimer's. Nanao wasn't exactly sure. But he was quite cheerful about it.

"Ah, kenbosho is very good," he said. "No need to remember anything anyway. My mind is becoming more empty and free every day! This is a very good thing. I like kenbosho very much."

After crossing Four Corners, the last 40 miles north up Highway 17 from Amoroso to Crestone, the road becomes totally flat, level and straight for as far as my eye could take it to the edge of the car’s headlights. The night was very dark, no light for miles; the sky seemed to be painted a deep penetrating purple that went all the way to the moon, but I didn’t really notice. I thought that we must have been late, and Baker Roshi might have been driving even faster, but it also might have just been my fear. I think we were riding in a BMW, but it might have been a Mercedes. I am not interested in cars; however Roshi's love of fast cars is legendary and actually got him into some trouble. He turned the conversation towards how German engineers make sure that the mechanics of the automobile are tip top because driving on the autobahn was very fast and Germans demanded strict safety protocols and no speed limits. He joked, they at least needed the assurance of safety even if a ruse.

Suddenly the Roshi turned off the car’s headlights. It took a few seconds before my eyes adjusted. I was afraid. We were bolting up the highway at what seemed to be breakneck speed. After a few seconds, perhaps a minute, but certainly far too long in my judgment, Richard turned on the headlights again, and said with a little chuckle that we were lucky that no other driver had decided to turn out the headlights on their car to experience the beauty and depth of the dark night.  



I gradually regained my composure, but my perception of the night had changed. It opened up and I was so aware of the beauty of the night above the Sangre de Cristo Mountains. I was just part of a vast universe, beyond any explanation. 

The Diamond Sutra says, “If there is even a bit of difference, it is the distance between heaven and earth.” If Deshan (Tokusan) had been a better student, and actually understood before he went all out with his over the top melodramatic burning of the scripture, he would have saved generations of Zen students a lot of pain. But perhaps he thought that Longtan (Ryûtan) was equally dense, and the enthusiasm of a teaching moment simply overwhelmed him. It was I who needed to shed my unsentimental Jesuit training in order to catch the beauty of fire.

Within 25 minutes, we arrived on time to a waiting hall of people all sitting in good posture. I found my seat. The days rolled on; the sun came up; the stars appeared again. I heard the Temple bell ring, and I woke up.

I returned to Santa Fe with some other friends, and quickly fell into a round of gatherings and holiday parties. I called Southwest Airlines and postponed my departure several times. I was having fun. 

Then just after dinner at Robert Winson’s house, someone handed me the phone. It was Issan. He’d tracked me down. He asked how I was doing, and how my sesshin had been. I told him that I thought Sante Fe was beautiful and just amazing with all the luminaria and snow.

“Oh yes,” he said; I remember his words exactly, “all those cute little mud houses. You know that the effect of sesshin can be like a drug trip, and it’s wonderful, but we need you here. Why don’t you come home?”

I called the airport and booked the next flight to San Francisco. It was time to return to my immediate experience of day-to-day life at Maitri Hospice where the moment of living life was always in the shadow of knowing that it will end sooner than we might have dreamed..

  

Daido Loori’s verse:


Within darkness there is light;

within light there is darkness.

If you really see it,

you will go blind.


Tarrant Roshi concurs.



Monday, February 22, 2021

Intimacy in the Temple Courtyard

Last night my friend Kumar asked me to share what I understood about “intimacy.” I immediately understood him to be talking about more than just a concept, or a feeling, or the interrelationship of the lines and colors in a design, or even an attribute of human love. One might be able to lay the concept of intimacy on feelings, or relationships, or even the elements of design, and still miss the point.

I love Kumar deeply, and know that he is going through a kind of creative crisis as he formulates the final project for his degree at a prestigious design college. My immediate instinct is to help him in any way I can, but know all too well that he is the creative genius and source of his own inspiration. Trying to be helpful might just block him. I might be able to point in a direction or share my own experience, but I cannot cancel the dilemma. 

I mumbled something about my experience of intimacy being connected to my meditation practice. “Yes,” he said, “I’ve heard that meditation is connected. Can you tell me more?” He’s a young man with different sleep needs, so I begged off and said good night.

When I woke up, I found my mind flooded with memories of that period when I was trying to solve my first zen koan in the meditation hall. I can’t count the times that Aitken Roshi would try to soften the blow of my frustration and disappointment of a failed response with his gentle pointer: “Not intimate enough.” It became like my mantra that I would carry back to the meditation hall. If I tried to forge a “est” business-like plan to achieve deeper intimacy, of course that didn’t help, but it didn’t stop me. When I tried to figure out what “Intimacy” really meant linguistically, that was not much help either. Recalling instances of deep intimacy, usually sexual, lead into the deep thicket of regret and failed relationships. A feeling of intimacy, or a memory of that feeling, was not the key I needed. 

I've spent long hours in the meditation hall. Oftentimes it’s felt like a long tough haul with very few rewards. But somehow I was able to keep sitting. When I learned that sometimes, or often, or perhaps all the time, seeking the rewards of discovery actually stands in the way of practice, it helped enormously. The reinforcement of an opening is usually such a surprise, so rare and hard won, it’s almost like an archeological excavation on Mars digging for the lost continent of Atlantis. If handled well, as for example Doris Lessing writing about the Representative of Planet 8, it might bear fruit. But this is not for mere mortals. We have to deal with what we’re given, and eventually I did have a profound insight into what I have been given which perhaps I will talk about at more length another time.

But it’s the exploration of intimacy, with no agenda, that I want to pursue.

Sometimes, actually often, these few words, “Not intimate enough,” kept coming back, a deep refrain in all my meditation. And they still do.

I’ll turn to another koan (Case 37, Mumonkan): “The Chestnut tree in the Temple Courtyard,” “庭前柏樹子.” 

A monk asked: "Compared to what was the intent of the ancestral founder coming from the west?”

Joshu (Zhou) said, "In front of the hall, a cypress tree.”


I was at the Angela Center in Santa Rosa for a long sesshin. I can’t recall if I was having an easy time or experiencing a lot of pain in my meditation, that really doesn’t matter, but I do remember exactly where my seat was, back in the far northeast corner of the hall, far from the offering table with the Buddha’s statue but right next to the main door. I had gone into Tarrant Roshi’s room twice a day, and my response became clearer and clearer. I will not speak of any “correct answer” or give away something about time honored practice, but after I responded, he just nodded and asked if I was ready to move on. Something inside said no, that there was more there for me to experience. A koan can keep lots of mysteries locked up inside.

So I went back to my seat. After dinner on the third or fourth night, we sat another long period of meditation and then the usual closing ritual. In that moment my mind was having a lot of difficulty staying tightly focused, something that I usually enjoy during long periods, I thought, well it’s the end of the day, why don’t I give myself a wide open field?

Suddenly I was back at San Francisco’s Legion of Honor attending the opening of an exhibit that honored a gift of a wonderful collection of illustrated books to the Museum’s collection by Reva and David Logan, parents of my friend Jon Logan. I was wandering through a series of small rooms, every now and then edging my way through to the front of the crowd to catch a glimpse of a wonderful illustration. The collection was rich. A sampling: 
Joan Miró’s À toute épreuve by Paul Éluard, Pablo Picasso’s Le Chant des morts by Pierre Reverdy, El Lissitzky’s Dlia Golosa by Vladimir Mayakovsky, Ernst Ludwig Kirchner’s Umbra Vitae by Georg Heym.  But the attention required to make out intricate designs on relatively small book pages induced a kind of narrow, tight focus. 

I rounded a corner and had to look down to pay attention to the few short steps into the main hall, but when I looked up, in front of me, an entire wall of Matisse’s paper cutouts. The onslaught of bright color and form took my breath away. These were not framed posters you bought at Ikea, not the lavish prints that I’d treated myself years ago at MOMA in New York, these were the actual shapes that Matisse himself cut out and arranged on larger pieces of paper when his hands could no longer hold his brushes steadily enough to paint. There he was, an old man, holding his pencil taped on the end of a long stick to etch the lines of leaves, slowly, carefully, but freely, with the skill and care of a practice that traced back hundreds and hundreds of years. I had traced back their root to that legendary tree in the temple courtyard.

  
It was of course a kind of illusion, what zen meditators call makyō, and usually something to be handled with caution, like dreams. John was just leaving the hall after the service, and I reached out and touched his shoulder. He grabbed my hand, and we returned to his interview room. He asked me what had happened, and I blurted out a bunch of words. Then he asked me to show him the chestnut tree in the temple courtyard, and yes, really, there it was.

Thank you M. Henri Matisse for getting so intimate with your colored paper, your pencil and your scissors. Thank you David and Reva Logan for your generosity. Thank you Bob Aitken for just pointing to where I might find intimacy, Joshu for pointing to the chestnut tree, and John Tarrant for grabbing my hand as I was about to wander off. And thank you Kumar Abhishek for asking me about intimacy and then letting me fall asleep in your arms. May you shape your design faithfully, lightly and freely.

Words cannot describe everything.
The heart's message cannot be delivered in words.





 

Tuesday, January 26, 2021

Case 5 of the Mumonkan and Step 1

1/13/17


Case 5 of the Mumonkan


Mumon, Wu-men Hui-hai (無門慧開), the Chinese Ch’an Master says, "If you can respond to this dilemma properly, you give life to those who have been dead and kill those who have been alive." 





Here is Case 5, "Hsiang-yen: Up Tree." 


The priest Hsiang-yen said, "It is as though you were up in a tree, hanging from a branch with your teeth. Your hands and feet can't touch any branch. Someone appears beneath the tree and asks, `What is the meaning of Bodhidharma's coming from the West?'”


If you do not answer, you evade your responsibility. If you do answer, you lose your life. What do you do?"

______


It has been at least 6 years since I took up the case. I told another story about Hsiang-yen in a piece I wrote about a difficult and wonderful conversation that I had with my mother a few months before she died ("The Gift of Tears"). Hsiang-yen must have been an immensely gifted teacher if he continues to inspire others to be honest and human more than a thousand years after his death.


Today I find myself totally swept up in the hanging man's dilemma as I begin to re-work Step 1 of the 12 Steps. The Big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous puts the first step in simple, straightforward language: "I admit that I am powerless over [alcohol, drugs, food, sex]—that my life has become unmanageable." It's just the first step on a journey, and there is a story connected with my personal surrender.


Even if I'd never heard of Bodhidharma, there are questions in my life that I can't evade—my life depends on my answer. It might not be entirely clear to a 21st century reader that the question about Bodhidharma coming to the West carries enormous weight for anyone practicing with a Zen master. My answer unlocks the wonder of practice and the Buddha Way.


At my first 12 Step meeting, when asked "are there other alcoholics/addicts present?" I automatically said, "yes." I didn't grasp that the question was a life or death issue, that it carried all the weight of the person hanging by his or her teeth. I certainly didn't realize that it would turn my world upside down. I was about to learn that answering it truthfully meant that I was about to lose a life I'd become comfortable with, a life of deception I loved in a weird perverted way. I'd learned to talk my way around my addiction so well that I even believed its lies.


I had been practicing meditation for decades, but I missed the immediacy and urgency in that question—right now, right here, people in this room were suffering real biological and psychological effects of drug and alcohol abuse. If I'd been paying closer attention, it might have been easier to see the delusions I'd have to give up, and admit that I'd lost control of my life which is the baseline for any real conversation about sobriety. Another question follows an honest yes: could I examine the roots of my addiction clearly and move beyond denial? My sponsor was very direct, “Cut the bullshit and get real.” We all need real friends we can talk with, men and women who leave any pretense at the door.


Both the spirituality of the Big Book and Zen, I think, start from the same place: what in my experience got me stuck? It’s my dilemma, not the person on the cushion next to me, or the homeless guy stinking of urine on the bus that I can’t move away from. In zen I am never asked to believe anything outside my own experience, not even for a split second.


What transformed this question for me from an intellectual consideration about the nature of addiction and alcoholism to one with all the force of Bodhidharma's coming to the west and facing the wall for 9 years in meditation? My roommate committed suicide, and I found myself hanging from the branch by the skin of my teeth.


I came home to discover my roommate's bloated body dead for at least three days. Just the smell of the house was overwhelming. The shock sent me spinning emotionally and psychologically. The police and medical examiners suggested that I call a friend. The man I called came right over, put an arm around my shoulder and listened without any judgment to whatever came out of my mouth as they carried Dean's body down the stairs. 


My response was to lapse into an uncontrolled rage of using drugs and drinking. As I look back over those few days and weeks, Ash proved the depth of his friendship even more: he wouldn't allow me to play the victim, "Oh you poor guy, how horrible!" or indulge any self importance or fake heroism to let myself off the hook. He told me that even if I was just a guy who happened to be standing by when a tragedy unfolded, I still had to clean up the mess before I could move on. I had no other choice if I was going to choose life. He encouraged me to face the circumstances without drama, and get it done. And he took me to a meeting. Friends don't get any better.


A long meditation practice follows me into the 12-step work, not as baggage but as a friend. When I listen to someone in one of the rooms coming to terms with the concept of a Higher Power, having been told that his or her program depends on acknowledgment and surrender to Something greater than the self, I can only admire the struggle and right-mindedness of their effort. My own experience was very similar. At some point the practice of meditation, or maybe just growing older with more life experience, I dismantled most of the conceptual notions I had believed and put my trust in, but what replaced it was a far more intimate sense of how I am, at the core of my being, connected to the profound inner-workings of the universe.


And even though my own inner experience started to become clear only after long hours on the meditation cushion, I know that this path is open to anyone, even in a blink of an eye. So meditate. Just do it.


The instructions to enter the koan’s world are really quite simple: Sit down, straighten out my spine so that I can stay awake and alert, focus on my breath, pay attention. That’s enough meditation instruction to get started. Then as I settle in, if I choose, I can get real about how I respond to Hsiang-yen’s question, what do you do when you're hanging from a branch by your teeth? My life depends on my answer, where really, no kidding, I'm going to fall into an abyss when I open my mouth. I don’t believe anything, not even for a split second, that I have not experienced myself, but I have also come to trust, thanks to my teachers and my own experience, that the koan will shake an honest answer loose.


Perhaps our answer allows us to simply fall into the unknown and follow the example of the trees' own leaves in the Fall. Thank you, Lucille Clifton, for the capping verse:


The Lesson Of The Falling Leaves


the leaves believe

such letting go is love

such love is faith

such faith is grace

such grace is god

i agree with the leaves




"Finding God in All Things"

June 2, 2021 Bonnie Johnson Shurman Jan. 20, 1944-June 2, 2011 Today is the 10th anniversary of Bonnie's death. I am among t...