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



Friday, March 25, 2022

Issan asked Shunko, “Are you going somewhere?”

This story has already made the rounds, as well it should. It is so short and concise that it doesn’t yield to a lot of confusion or elaboration. Good koan material.

Issan knew how to deliver a one liner. He was in fact a true master, but this was delivered with no drama, and when he was in such pain and personal distress, we had to stop laughing and realize that he was not just making a joke but effortlessly pointing towards freedom.


I also know for certain that he was smiling and filled with gratitude. I can almost hear his laugh.



Michael Shunko Jamvold was a Zen monk who practiced for many years. He was known for traveling between monasteries and practice centers. Sadly he died alone in Japan from an untreated or misdiagnosed respiratory disease. He was also one of Issan’s close friends whom Issan called on to take care of him at the end of his life. Shunko responded with devotion and grace.


During the last few months of Issan’s life, as the disease took its physical toll, either Steve or Shunko, but sometimes someone else they asked to help, would sit with Issan and help him with basic needs, food, drink, turning over in bed, going to the bathroom. But basically the day-to-day attendant duties fell to either Steve or Shunko. 


The bathroom was just across the hall from Issan’s room, but he needed support just to navigate the 15 or 20 steps when he needed to use the toilet. Shunko held his arm firmly but gently. 


On one of the return trips back to Issan’s bed, Shunko was overcome with emotion, and blurted out: “Oh Issan, I am going to miss you!”


Issan smiled and asked Shunko, “”Oh, are you going somewhere?”



Friday, March 18, 2022

The Ripple Effect: An Engaged Buddhist Conversation

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 upcoming Zen Hospice Volunteer Training Program. 


That afternoon also set the tone for volunteering, listening and responding to simple requests, taking care 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.


Sunday, March 6, 2022

Lord Kirshna comes to tea.

I knew that Allen was in town when there was a knock at the front door at 3:30 exactly. A young man, 21 but not a month more, clean shaven, holding a book, asked, “Is this the Philip Whalen Zendo?” I invited him into the living room where he sat down and quietly continued his reading. I knew that Allen would be at the door shortly; I could hear Phil beginning to make his way up the stairs. He and Allen shared years of friendship. They were punctual. I began to prepare tea.


I loved when Phil’s friends came to visit. Phil was on his best behavior. Not that he was normally badly behaved though in private moments he could be angry, even insulting. Despite being one of the foremost leaders of a movement that questioned the very roots of believing and behaving that my parents taught me, when he was proper, he was extremely proper. But there was another quality to the conversations with his poet friends. Their language was careful and measured. It was literate. I was always looking for any innuendos, and I loved their laughter. It was poking fun without the slightest hint of slighting someone.


Phil of course knew Allen’s long time companion, Peter Orlovsky, and talked openly about Peter’s drug addiction. Phil joked to me about Allen being a follower of “the Cult of Boys,” and this was the first time that Allen had brought a young lover with him. Phil was not very interested in sex himself, reinforced or dictated by his isolated personal habits, but I knew I would be looking for Phil’s reaction. How would he treat a young lover?


The young man and I sat a short distance from Phil and Allen. There were barely pauses in their conversation. It doesn’t matter what it was about. It could have been Buddhism, Trungpa, Diane de Prima or other poets who passed through the Disembodied School at RMDC, or even where to get the best Chinese food in San Francisco. They were friends, and though we weren’t excluded, we were not included. What was clear is that his young companion admired Allen. He hung on every word, carefully listening to each line, laughing when it was appropriate. Allen for his part was attentive to the young man. Not condescending or at all lecherous, he was careful that his friend was treated like an invited guest, not a hired boy. 


Yes I admit that I entertained the possibility that there was some kind of coercion behind the young man’s presence. The age gap was enormous, and there have always been rumors about Allen’s sexual exploits. I also had a distasteful experience of being manipulated by an older man. But at least that afternoon, I was not sitting with a boy-toy but a bright young man who genuinely liked older men. 


I’d been reading Christopher Isherwood’s tribute to his guru, Swami Prabhavananda, My Guru and His Disciple. Isherwood asked the Swami a hesitant question about a new relationship with a young man. Isherwood confessed that, given his experience in the stiff Victorian world of English Catholicism, he was expecting a censorious pronouncement. Prabhavananda told him to treat his lover like Lord Krishna.


Then it hit me. I’d been to tea with Lord Krishna.


A year later I was sitting with Phil when Allen called to tell him that he was dying. Phil cried. 



Thursday, March 3, 2022

All of You Are Gobblers of Dregs!

Blue Cliff Record, Case 11 (the long version)

One day Huangbo went up in the hall and said, "What do you people want to look for?" 
And he chased them with his staff. 
The assembly didn't disperse, so he said, "The Great Master Nintou Farong [594-657, 5th gen] of Ox Head Mountain spoke horizontally and spoke vertically, but he still didn't know the key of transcendence. These days the followers after Shitou [700-790, 8th gen] and Mazu [709-88, 8th gen] speak of Zen and speak of the Way most voluminously. 

All of you are gobblers of dregs. 
If you travel around like this, you'll get laughed at by people. As soon as you hear of a place with eight hundred or a thousand people, you immediately go there. It won't do just to seek out the hubbub. 
When I was traveling, if I found there was someone at the roots of the grasses, I would stick him in the head and watch to see if he knew the feeling of pain. If he did, I could give him a cloth bag full of rice as an offering. 
If you always take things this easy here, then where else would there be this matter of Today? Since you're called pilgrims, you should concentrate a bit. 
Do you know there are no teachers of Zen in all of China?"

There is a lively on-going debate in an online Buddhist group about the nature of practice and enlightenment. Dosho Port published a piece on August 18th called “The Showa Dispute About True Faith.” He describes the efforts beginning in 1928 to make Soto Zen more compatible with “modernism,” including Christianity, by reframing its belief system. A dispute ensued. One side organized their material under the slogan, ‘Original Enlightenment, mysterious practice.’ The other side, the monk establishment, wanted actual practice verification.

I am vaguely familiar with this dispute about modernization in Japanese Soto Zen before the Second War, and the attempts to "translate" the doctrine, if I can use the word, to make it more understandable. There was an attempt to take a portion of Buddhist literature in Japanese, but also Chinese, and free it from its Medieval encapsulation. I went to Masao Abe's amazing classes when he was teaching in San Francisco at CIIS. He definitely comes from this school. I’m a former Jesuit so I also delved into Kitarō Nishida and the Kyoto School’s adoption of Western philosophical discourse. 40 years ago, we all immersed ourselves in the extensive writings of D. T. Suzuki, who, I have to say, comes across more like an apologist or evangelist.

This may be a bare minimum to butt into this conversation, but I will. These efforts to strip the vehicle down to its essential parts leave just enough to work with. To begin, let me take the debate one step further, and remove the parochial underpinnings.

My pared down augment runs like this: an experience of liberation is possible for humans. We don’t quite know what it is because of the current condition of our minds: our mental acuity, the quality of our perceptive apparatus, a balanced or afflicted emotional state, plus I think we have to throw a good dose of fancy, magical thinking, cultural mythology, plus translation difficulties and the vagaries of language into the mix. My list is not complete--there’s a lot to sort out, but I think we can establish, or posit, three hypotheses:

  • Such a state or quality of freedom exists and can transform our experience as humans.
  • It is possible, even desirable, to achieve it.
  • We recognize that it will take effort, education, what we commonly call meditation, and possibly recalibration to achieve this experience.

We believe that certain people have had this experience, most notably the Buddha, but others too, for example Eihei Dōgen, Linji Yixuan, Hakuin Ekaku, Je Tsongkhapa, Shinran, but perhaps we could stretch our imaginations to include the current Dalai Lama, and maybe that auntie whom Red Pine encountered sitting in a cave in China who never heard of Mao Tse Tung but, forget about her, she never wrote anything down. We’re stuck with the guys, they’re all guys, who wrote, had secretaries, or disciples who took extensive lecture notes.

What did they write: of course we have the Sutras, plus other stories of the Buddha and his disciples; the enlightened guys also wrote descriptions of their experiences, some of which seem to be in coded language; thankfully there’s lots of poetry, balanced with carefully reasoned philosophy of mind and analysis of perception and experience; we have to include the myths, and what we call practice manuals, “how to” lists; there are some riddles that purport to point to the experience; then extensive records of the mental and yogic disciplines that practitioners used to achieve this state of liberation plus prescriptive injunctions and admonitions that have even been codified. There is also a large body of instruction material that has not been written down that is generally reserved for advanced levels of practice.

But there are huge problems with all this literature. First is the language and translation. We're blessed to have an army of very well trained and literate translators, but cultural and archaic understandings of the texts remain. Then there is the sheer volume and diversity of the materials. Even if we could determine their authenticity, be sure we have an accurate translation, and be able to determine their precise meaning, we‘d still be stuck with the question of how to use it, actually lots of questions.

Our Western Zen practice stems to some degree from these efforts to modernize. Harada Sogaku Roshi, and after him, Hakuun Yasutani, Kuon Yamada and the Jesuit Roshis, Bob Aitken and the rest of my crowd come from another strain of that same impulse to modernize so that's what I was handed.

Schools of thought are schools of thought. What do we do with them? Again, for better or worse, they inform our practice.

First I think that there's a logical fallacy in the way we understand these efforts at modernization. Following (any) time-honored system of training that we’ve been handed, we believe that if we accurately recreate the logic of the thinking, the order of the steps, the lineage of the teachers, then we can access the authentic experience of liberation. If we fail, then we did something wrong. Perhaps it is a road map, but we want it to be Google Maps, with the blue dot moving across the dashboard screen. Good luck with that. I will set up a dharma combat: can algorithms become enlightened?

Another knot appears when we identify the criteria for validating the credentials of a teacher from within this arcane body of knowledge, whether it’s inka or transmission or tulku. The checklist resides in experience outside ourselves and muddies the teaching as well as opens the door to abuse and exploitation. Call the dharma police to testify before the High Court.

Is this even good practice? I remember working on the koan “Mu” for years with Bob Aitken. I kept complaining in my very Jesuit way that it was all just a self-referential exercise in a closed system. He'd say, yes, it appears that way, and then he’d encourage me to continue. I did. In 1996 I was living with Maylie Scott on Ashby in Berkeley and still doing sesshin with Aitken and John Tarrant. One Sunday morning I had to drive a rented truck back to Santa Rosa. As I was returning to where I’d parked it the night before, POW. All that self-referential mind swirling stopped and I got it. It didn't matter if it came via some well-intentioned modernization efforts in a Soto Shu University in the 20's. It hit me. There was no turning back.

Of course that experience faded soon enough which presented its own dilemma, but it was enough to set me on my own path. I remember saying to Phil Whalen once what a shame it was that the library at Nalanda was destroyed--all that knowledge lost. He smiled and said, “Don’t worry, kid. Enough remains. Just enough.” I feel the same about any attempts to update our practice and make it modern or palatable or whatever. Enough remains, Just enough. And, as thanks to Phil I’ll add: “With any luck if we’re lucky.”

I don't want to take a path based on pious dreams and hopes, magical thinking, myth or wild speculation. When coupled with a few token morsels of experience that we might be able to recognize in ourselves if we’ve spent any time on the cushion, we enter dangerous territory. I was lucky to be able to see something authentic in several teachers, among them Issan Dorsey, Phil Whalen, Maylie Scott, Bob Aitken, John Tarrant. I trusted them, and was able to just stick with it until I began to catch a glimpse for myself that something else is possible.

Wednesday, March 2, 2022

An Invitation

[This is a part of the Introduction to *The Record of Issan]


Please come and sit with me. I invite us both to sit quietly as we can. Issan will also join us. Oh how he loved a good conversation, especially the jokes. Together we can explore what holds us together. The story of his life and Zen teaching are the glue.


I started to say “binds us together'' but that is not the correct word. It makes me think of prison or captivity. The purpose of this exploration is to be more free and spontaneous. Issan would prefer something far more gentle and affectionate, more like the caress of love or the hug of friendship. 


Perhaps this conversation will help both of us see more clearly what we are about. This is not the ordinary course of a conversation. Sometimes we just want to go over old times and have a good laugh. That’s probably just fine for certain times and places, but most times it’s a waste of time. Issan loved to quote Suzuki Roshi, “Don’t invite your thoughts to tea.” Disappointment and regret are sure to follow. Regret has its place, but not in this conversation. There are thousands of things that all of us should not have done, but tears or dreams of what might have been cloud our eyes and obscure what is right in front of us.


And Issan would probably suggest that we be on our best behavior, at least try to pay attention to what is being said. This requires an alertness of body and mind. We can listen to glean information, to satisfy our curiosity, or actually to try to find some answers to the questions that matter. How we listen determines what kind of answer we find.


Issan died on September 6th 1990. He continues to speak to us when we hear the words as if he were speaking to us. I have heard many students tell stories about him, some of them are recorded in this book, and they all have the very clear signs of words that were said to an individual person in a particular time at a definite place. If they have one consistent thread, it is Issan’s encouragement: Do the best you can. Listen and respond with every bone in your body. Don’t think too much of yourself, but certainly be yourself. No apologies are necessary. 


Sunday, February 27, 2022

I didn’t shout but I’m still a big phoney.

Blue Cliff Record Case 10

Let me begin with a snippet from the few introductory lines that Hsueh Tou calls the pointer: “If on the other hand, you neither face upwards or downwards, how will you deal with it? If there is a principle, go by the principle. If there is no principle, go by the example.”

The koan

After Mu Chou’s formula introductory question, “Where are you from,” in a reversal of roles, the shouting teacher gets shouted at.
Then Mu Chou said, "After three or four shouts, then what?"
The student had nothing to say.
Mu Chou hit him and said: You thieving phon[e]y.


It was sometime in the Fall of 1993. If Mu Chou asked me where I’d come from, I would have said “Hartford Street Zen Center,” but he would not have recognized our lives there. A small temple in the heart San Francisco’s gay ghetto, it had never been your typical Zen Center even before AIDS. After I moved in 1989, more than 80 men and one woman died in its 13 bedrooms. Our everyday life was centered around doctor’s appointments, dispensing medications, talking with friends and family about wills and funerals, performing funerals, cooking food as well as two periods of zazen every day plus a pretty standard Soto ritual. We tried to organize some of the more formal Buddhist study typical in Western Zen centers, but the grief support groups had more attendees. I have to add that my daily ritual usually ended with a bout of heavy drinking in a local bar a block away. It was more than a full time job.

The concern of our zendo was the pain and fragility of life. It was inescapable. You could try to run away, and we all did from time to time in our own way. But now Issan was dead; Steve Allen had resigned as abbot, and left for Crestone. And it was the end of Maitri Hospice being part of the Temple. Phil told me to get rid of it. It was Issan’s project, and he had other ideas about Zen masters’ dying. In retrospect I think that he hated trying to live his life with everyone dropping dead around him. He might have accepted Issan’s invitation to move in because they were old friends; they had been in Santa Fe together, and they were Dick’s first real dharma heirs. But actually I really think that one of his main motivations was that he was homeless and had nowhere else to go. He had set himself to master Zen, and though he had done his work deeply and thoroughly, he was still a human, and a frail old man.

We had been sitting all day, and I went into Phil’s room just before the closing bell. I remember quite clearly what transpired. It could be fairly labeled passive-aggressive. From time to time, I have been less than proud of my behavior although I let myself off the hook with the recognition that I am also human.

I forget the exact reason I was so pissed off, but I was. Of course I was burned out and disappointed, perhaps something about the changes at Hartford Street, perhaps Phil’s brushing me off, but we all were a bit “reactive,” Phil included. That is the way with anger’s confusion--whatever remains, the angry mind latches onto like a life raft in a raging sea. With all that experience of dying, anger turned out to have been a clever student and strategized its survival with the cunning of a fox.

I remember that I’d determined beforehand that in this dokusan I would not say anything. Just sit like a fat lump and keep my mouth shut. If I felt even the slightest inkling of the beginnings of a word, much less the formulation of a question, I would shut it down. I would kill an errant thought before it even showed its face. I would not recommend this strategy for inching towards happiness, but on occasion it is interesting to test if it is even possible. Perhaps yelling the nonsensical “Katz” has some salvific result as it involves more of the spontaneous, emotive parts of the psyche, but my Mother had taught me that shouting was always bad manners. Despite the fact that we learn that great Zen teachers favored this theatrical gesture as a pedagogy, I still believe my mother. Western teachers have tried to polish this skill, but when I hear them affecting a Katz shout, it feels contrived. Or embarrassing. It is still better than cutting off fingers and other outlandish external “shoves” designed to facilitate the dropping off of body and mind. Shouting is not a principle in Zen, nor is it really an example of anything but the coordination of breath and vocal cords.

So for whatever reasons I could never be a shouting student, and I sat. It would be an exaggeration to say that I was shouting inside, though I did feel a few interior bumps. And once in a while Phil began to look up and begin to say something, but then he stopped too. And so on for a very uncomfortable span of time.

Then Phil faintly smiled and said, “Let’s go back down to the zendo and join the others.” I remember or imagined a feeling of disappointment in his voice. That was it. He didn’t call me a phony. Do you spell it with an “e”? Did he see through to my anger? It makes no difference. All things considered, he was very generous.

I said in the beginning that Mu Chou would not have recognized our lives at Hartford Street Zen Center. Perhaps I’m selling him short.

Thursday, January 27, 2022

Buddhism doesn’t need saints

And by the way, don’t cry too much over Thích Nhất Hạnh.

Dorothy Day said: "Don't call me a saint, I don't want to be dismissed that easily." Of course Timothy Dolan, the Archbishop of New York, proposed her for canonization as soon as he could. The old left wing Catholic in me finds it ironic that a man who is the complete antithesis of the kind of life Day proposes for a modern Christian calls her Blessed Dorothy. She might accuse him of dampening her radical voice, even silencing the anarchist grandmother who confounded comfortable notions, but I wouldn't hesitate, not even for a nano second.


Pushing for sainthood lets purveyors of religious doublespeak, cults, snake oil and associated pyramid schemes off the hook for their flagrant sins. I will also argue that the whole rigmarole of canonization is just lip service to what Jesus calls Christians to do. We don’t really have to go and take care of lepers. Saint Damien did it. Pray to him that we be spared. Or in the case of the Founder of the Catholic Worker, someone can take care of the castoffs our materialistic culture dumps on the Bowery as long as it’s not me or my kids.


One of the reasons that the leaders of the Protestant Reformation dismissed saints was to end the superstitious practice of encasing some bones in the local cathedral to entice lucrative pilgrim spending as well as defund the Papal ponzi scheme of selling indulgences to cover the extravagant cost of building Saint Peter’s in Rome. Every organized religion needs a building maintenance fund so this might be just have been marketing but it has always felt a bit underhanded to me.


There are some people who want to make Issan Dorsey into a Buddhist saint--gotta have a saint in high heels. Of course we could do worse. 


Before I started work at  Maitri Hospice, the Dalai Lama’s rain-maker, the Yogin Yeshe Dorje visited. He and Issan got on very well, one of those connections. The rainmaker grabbed Issan and said, “You’ve created Buddhist Heaven.” Issan laughed. Later when I asked Issan about the visit, he smiled and said, “He was a very nice man, but he didn’t pay the water bill.”


All that is just a preface to something that has been creeping to the surface as the tributes pour in for Thầy, “The Saint of Mindfulness, Beloved Thích Nhất Hanh,” and I need to say it. Whether he really was a very nice Buddhist dude, or even if he was just an ordinary flawed human like the rest of us, don't for a minute think that the work of being mindful, practicing, looking after our interconnected world can be done by anyone else but us, and that includes all the difficult bits. Don’t waste a lot of tears or weave nostalgic odes about all the really good teachers dying. The Lord Buddha died too, quite a few years back.


We can't allow ourselves to get distracted by any cult of personality. We can't get off the hook no matter how hard, by whatever devious means we try. We have to do the work ourselves.


I began with the caution from Blessed Dorothy Day undermining the whole sanctification scheme, and I will close with a hopeful note from the same complicated woman who lived an exemplary life, "The world will be saved by beauty." Amen.








Tuesday, January 18, 2022

Nobodaddy

 January 18th, 2022

Nobodaddy


At this particular moment in the current debate about the Jesus prayer, strained as it is, I come down firmly on the side of “dangerous.” For the meditator it’s a step down from that lyric on the car radio that stays in your head and you can’t turn off. Instead of prison and mother, it weaves a lovely spell of angels and divine nectar. Perhaps this is not the danger that the fathers of the Eastern Church warn about, but nonetheless a danger.


The repetition starts out as a simple concentration exercise, riding the breath like 123. The terrain is familiar but the vehicle is clumsy and unpredictable like an imaginary Model A Ford. Boredom sets in as stories & associated phantasms begin to loop, and on that radio a lyric purporting to be from the son of David pops up, or, my favorite, the thespian voice of the god of Abraham faking Aristotle. Rattling around the head’s Netherspace, it’s a wily enemy, play acting to hold onto power. It wants to be accepted as "the Truth." 


If we don’t play close scrutiny, it maintains secret sway over our choices and our futures. But we might get lucky enough to understand deeply that we alone, no one else, sustain the imagined conversations and images that flow through the mind. This moment of enlightenment can strike instantaneously! 


Avoid the loud applause.


To Nobodaddy 

by William Blake 


Why art thou silent & invisible 

Father of Jealousy 

Why dost thou hide thyself in clouds 

From every searching Eye 


Why darkness & obscurity 

In all thy words & laws 

That none dare eat the fruit but from 

The wily serpents jaws 

Or is it because Secresy 

gains females loud applause 



UriZen, William Blake

Saturday, January 15, 2022

Looking at The Particular Examen of Saint Ignatius with Fresh Eyes

 "This May be Heresy" 

A reformulation of the “Particular Examen” in Saint Ignatius’s Spiritual Exercises


I intend to explore the possibility that Saint Ignatius's Examination of Conscience, the Examen, might be useful as a rigorous way to focus our inner search. It’s an Open Source for anyone who wants to lead a full life in their communities and the universe. It’s probably not for individuals who confine themselves to a predetermined set of rules or conventions about behavior, love or faith, and don’t welcome questions. Leave that to the True Believer. 


I hesitate to edit Ignatius. He was not an atheist or a non-theistic hidden Zen master. His Exercises, however, spring from inner experience, prayer and meditation, and I want to test the hypothesis that they hold up outside Catholic theology. I have removed references to a deity, or to any external guidance not because I denigrate a particular belief, but I trust most believers can quickly fill in the blanks. Leaving them open might also allow space for new understanding or insight. In places I have left the words “faith,” “love,” “grace,” “presence,” “guidance,” and “goodness,” not as absolutes but rather focus points. Look for faith and presence in our lived experience instead of returning to old sermons about how to behave and be good. Examine our inner landscape. Include emotions, memories, and dreams. Think with every part of ourselves, right down to the bones,


Ignatius recommends undertaking the Examen for a relatively short period of time, 10-15 minutes, at three distinct times every day: upon rising, before the mid-day meal, and upon retiring. In the morning, as your day is not yet filled with conscious and unconscious actions, you resolve to reflect and remember what you are going to look for if you have identified a ‘chief characteristic.’ Usually you will hone in on what you’ve determined is your greatest obstacle to living in freedom and love--some trait, a repeating negative pattern, a persistent inner dialogue, resentment or prejudice. This becomes a tool that helps focus your review of the day’s events. It is almost always a moving target. You might work with a spiritual director to figure out a useful self-interrogation.


Here are the steps of the Examen*


  • Quiet yourself. Become aware of the simple goodness of the universe. We see the gifts of life, the blessings of this human world through faith, the eye of love. Be thankful.


  • Look within to see clearly, understand accurately, and respond generously to what is occurring in our lives.


  • Review the history of the day (hour, week, or month) in order to see concrete, specific instances of the influence and activity of what we have identified as our chief characteristic. These can be detected by paying attention to strong feelings that may have arisen in situations and encounters. Over time more subtle feelings will become apparent. 


  •  Examine these instances, our actions, reactions, words and feelings to see whether you have collaborated with deep inner guidance or yielded to the influence of evil in some way. Express gratitude and regret.


  • Plan how to use our own inner guidance skillfully to avoid or overcome the negative influence of the chief characteristic in the future.



November 16th, 2006


The Examen was a breakthrough in the pedagogy of prayer. Human beings are certainly capable of self-examination, and Christians can find inner peace and clarity without Ignatius’s guidance. But he did recommend a method of prayer radically different from the ritual of confession and penance (although he certainly didn’t exclude them). He crafted a way to examine our inner landscape, the particular set of inner motivations and proclivities that govern our lives, and then refocus with an intention that we set for ourselves. 


Many people believe that prayer is like “talking with God,” and that it is the most natural of any communication. I don’t believe this is even close to the truth. For Christians it would mean that the results of Original Sin magically disappear with baptism or conversion. This is not supported by most of what we can gather from the records left by mystics and saints, and it certainly flies in the face of most Eastern teachings regarding humankind’s sleeping, inattentive, deluded state.


If God actually speaks to us, how do we know that our own channels are not jammed with well-intentioned instruction and misinformation at best or unexamined prejudice and obfuscation at worst? I recently saw some clips from a TV documentary called “Camp Jesus” about a fundamentalist summer camp for children. After the adult woman leading a prayer group made the rather startling accusation that Harry Potter should be in Hell, there was an interview with a young 12 or 13 year old boy who was a preacher. The boy said with absolute conviction that he regularly talked with God about his future, but when the camera switched to his father, also a preacher, and I began to listen for the subtext of what the father said, I felt that a strong, irrefutable case could be made that his son's “godly” conversations were nothing more than interiorization of subtle and overt parental messages and prejudices. I am certain the kid believed that Harry Potter was hell bound, and sadly he was destined to be just like his dad.


Prayer has to be taught and learned. How it is taught changes. We learn about love as we live out our lives; we share, and try to teach our children, from our experience. This learning cannot happen in a vacuum: my friend Daniel Shurman refers back to this phrase from Episcopalian liturgy: what is the Spirit saying to the Church? We are always listening and learning, both from the Source of All That Is and from one another.


After filling the page with distillation of Ignatius and reflections, I remember the caution of a very astute Jesuit spiritual guide: “Our capacity to deceive ourselves is infinite!” This leads to another set of cautions: don’t be duped and fall for an easy answer, but on the other hand, don’t let this caveat become an excuse to give up your quest when you become discouraged because you certainly will. Stick with it.


__________________


Notes


It was very difficult to find the exact text of Ignatius for the Particular Examen online. The internet is flooded with many people using the header “The Examen of Saint Ignatius,” and then freely adapting them. I have lots of company; whether or not it is good company, the jury is out. While my adaptation is admittedly one of the most theologically extreme, I have explained at some length my reasoning, and include an English translation of the original text from The Spiritual Exercises. 


*The text:


The first point is to give thanks to God our Lord for the gifts received.

The second point is to ask for the grace to know my sins and to root them out.

The third point is to demand an account of my soul from the moment of rising to that of the present examination, hour by hour or period by period. The thoughts should be examined first, then the words, and finally the actions.

The fourth point is to ask pardon of God our Lord for my faults.

The fifth point is to resolve to amend with the help of God’s grace. Close with the Lord’s Prayer.

My conversation deals with the Particular Examen, and the text from the Exercises is specifically for what is known as the General Examen. The steps are the same for both. The general examination surveys all the morally significant actions of the day, so far as we can recall them, while in the particular examination we focus our attention on one particular fault against which we are struggling and the corresponding virtue we are trying to cultivate. 


From The Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius Loyola. Edited by Fr. Martin Royackers, S.J.

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The woman who inspired this essay, Annemarie Marino, died on May 20, 2006. I will always remember her bright mind and generous heart. We had wonderful conversations. Please add your prayers to mine that she has found peace and her heart's desire.

And my deep gratitude to Bonnie Johnson who inspired so many by the way she lived her life. She continues to be a source of my inspiration.

I invite anyone who reads this and wants to comment or share something about their experience using the Ignatian Examen to leave a comment or contact me. If you are interested you can also check out the wide selection of books, articles, and websites that Morgan Zo-Callahan and I put together, An Ignatian Bibliography.


Wednesday, December 15, 2021

Phil, dreaming of gummy bears, sees angels descending.

The mind is a terrible thing to waste.


Now Phil was dying. Perhaps as long as a year before, he’d reached back for his chair which wasn’t there and fell breaking his assbone. Thus began a slow decline. I was alarmed. It’s hard to say that a Zen Master, especially one that I loved, had given up on life, so I won't. But progressive blindness had stolen the delight of seeing words on a page, physical pain made the formal posture of zazen impossible and now immobility obliterated the comforting routine of meditation, gabbing, study, jokes, and food. Not physical therapy with Baker Roshi’s student Joe Muscles, not Chinese food with taro root, not even gummy bears, could turn the tide. The ever present good cheer, except when it suddenly disappeared, felt concocted. The veneer was wearing thin. I didn’t feel the bitter resignation of a person fed up with life. It was more a sense that he’d just had enough. He invited the dying to begin, and the invitation had been accepted. It would be long and slow.


Some sages claim that this was a good way for a meditator to die, as if waving a long slow goodbye to everything that had been assembled to make you--a precious death. In a way I feel that this is a bit like sticking a smiley face on a Hallmark condolence card. It masks the uncertainty of each piece tumbling into oblivion. Phil was always so kind to those who were helping him, but on the other hand he couldn’t hide the day to day frustrations. 


He would rail at the dying steps prescribed by Elizabeth Kubler-Ross, saying "I have to decide if I’m at the bargaining stage or the resignation stage.” But he seemed to be following them exactly, or at least that was the framework that I carried into my conversations with him. I actually felt that he’d only taken baby steps away from the anger stage, but all that is extremely subjective. Perhaps I was still angry with him for ending the Maitri experiment, or screaming at me in the hallway, or harping on that old time religion. 


Zenshin’s mind had always been clear as a bell, much clearer than his vision. His memory for words, phrases, even pages in a book, had been almost photographic. I wonder how much of this was compensatory.


Once when I was entertaining some weird questions about presumed Kundalini energy in meditation, what Phil called the “squigglies,” he said, “Ol’ Luk Luk has something to say about that.  ”Middle case, third shelf, second from the left. (I think it was Charles Luk’s “Secrets of Chinese Meditation, but it might have been “Empty Cloud.”) Page 63, middle paragraph, beginning at the forth sentence. That’s the interesting part. Read back to me. Then he gently told me that focusing on the heart might be good practice rather than chasing swirling whirling wisps of energy all over the place.


Another time when we were reading “Scenes from the Capital,” we got to a part where he talks about Gerald Manley Hopkins. He started to recite “The Windhover” not with his flat voice, not with his whimsical voice, but reverently, almost like plainchant. When he stumbled, he pointed to the first case, second shelf, 12th book from the right, page 43, “Just start reading.” 


  No wonder of it: shéer plód makes plough down sillion

Shine, and blue-bleak embers, ah my dear,

    Fall, gall themselves, and gash gold-vermilion.



When I was sitting with him in a bright room of the Zen Center Hospice on Page Street, he asked me, “Do you see them?”

“Who?”

“The angels.

“No actually, I don’t. Where are they?”

“Right there, floating around,” pointing towards the upper corner to the left of his bed.

“No, I still don’t see them.”

“Look, goddamn it.” His voice sounded plaintive, perhaps wistful.

“What do they look like?”

“Just like the ones on the Macy’s gift bags.”

I can’t see them Phil, what would you like me to do?”

“Call the police, they’re reliable.”


Together we looked. I could see nothing while at the same time I wondered where his mind had gone. The Mind is a terrible thing to waste, he used to joke. What mind? Here we were using what was left to search for angels.

The angels on the Macy’s bag too “Fall, gall themselves, and gash gold-vermilion.”


When he died I arrived late to the crematorium in South City. Baker Roshi read from one of his poems a line about eating delicious raspberries. Then we filed past, bowed and placed a raspberry in the plain box that held his body. 


Contrary to Zen custom, I visualized dumping buckets of crimson raspberries gashing gold-vermillion. I couldn’t stop myself.


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