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

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



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.

The funeral of Ösel Tendzin. Deliver us from cults.

My friend Barbara O’Brian alerted me to an article by Steven Butterfield, When the Teacher Fails . It was published in 1989 while Ösel Tend...