Tuesday, February 19, 2019

Chopping Wood and Carrying Water

Before Enlightenment: chop wood, carry water.

After Enlightenment: chop wood, carry water.

Well, that takes me back a long way, fifty years or more, when Ms. Ché and I sat in meditation in our tiny studio on Hunter St. in Stockton, CA.


At the time, the practice of Zen meditation (Zazen = Sitting Meditation) wasn't commonplace, but it was no longer wildly exotic nor confined to strictly Japanese Buddhist communities. It was available to other seekers, and even if one didn't have a Master, one could practice on one's own or in lay communities, no Master required. Not unless one was a novice monk or nun. In which case, one had a hierarchy and a rule to understand and follow along with one's practice of meditation: the garments, the positions, the bows, greetings, chants, and on and on and on.

Enlightenment (Satori = Sudden Enlightenment) was possible whether you were a monk or nun or not. It was always my belief, whether wrong or right, that the monastery and nunnery could delay enlightenment, in fact may have been designed to do so, in an emulation of Sakyamuni's -- the Buddha's -- long quest for his own enlightenment. He had to experience everything and go through the literal and figurative fires of hell before he was granted nirvana. Many Buddhist devotees, in his time and now, seek their own enlightenment by following his path as closely as possible. The monks and nuns are most adept at it. In his own time, many of the Buddha's followers were "granted monkhood" by the Buddha himself. It was considered the highest favor and the highest calling of a mortal being.

But not everyone could be or should be a monk or a nun, for society would not be able to function if they were. Buddha -- generally pronounced "Buhddh" (no "uh" ending) in Hindi and other Northern India languages -- acknowledged as much in his own time, and encouraged leaders and kings to adopt the core Buddhist principles and practices while continuing to serve their communities and people in their roles as kings and princes and headmen. Women could be ordained as nuns, but their social role, though important, was subsidiary to that of men, and would be for many years to come.

Nowadays, many of the most honored and venerated Buddhist scholars, thinkers, and practitioners are women, most of whom are nuns but some are lay women who have achieved enlightenment.

The final episode of the Indian TV series "Buddha" was a presentation by its producer, B. K. Modi, who saw that his calling was to help restore Buddhist thought and practice to India and to help spread it throughout the world. His biographical series about the Buddha was a step on that path.

Comparatively, India has few Buddhists today, while other countries, near and far, have proportionately more Buddhists, approaching 90% in some places. We may ask why that is so.

According to what little history I've read about it, Buddhism was suppressed in India from before the time of the Mughal conquests in the 12th century until the establishment of the British Raj in the 19th century (when the Crown took over rule from the British East India Company). There was a slight revival under the British, but after Independence, Buddhism became more widespread especially among the Dalits (formerly Untouchables.)

The suppression of Buddhism in India contrasts strongly with its flourishing in Nepal, Tibet, Sri Lanka, China, Burma, Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam, Korea, and Japan. Everywhere Buddhism flourished, a somewhat different form of the practice was developed.

Our introduction to and practice of Buddhism was an Americanized version of Japanese Zen. I wouldn't say we necessarily achieved Enlightenment, but the practice had a profound effect on our lives which continues to this day, even though we haven't practiced for many years. Correction: Ms. Ché sat in daily meditation at Naropa last summer, and she intended to set up a meditation space at home when she got back, but for whatever reason, she hasn't done it yet.

What has happened, though, is a gradual transformation of our house to accommodate the possibility of a meditation space in due time, and a restoration of Mindfulness in our daily activities. Ie: Meditation without (necessarily) Sitting.

Still we chop wood and carry water. That is fundamental.

One origin of the precept is as follows:


A young boy became a monk. He dreamed of enlightenment and of learning great things. When he got to the monastery he was told that each morning he had to chop wood for the monks fires and then carry water up to the monastery for ablutions and the kitchen. He attended prayers and meditation, but the teaching he was given was rather sparse.
One day he was told to take some tea to the Abbot in his chambers. He did so and the Abbot saw he looked sad and asked him why.
He replied every day all I do is chop wood and carry water. I want to learn. I want to understand things. I want to be great one day, like you.

The Abbot gestured to the scrolls on shelves lining the walls. He said, "When I started I was like you. Every day I would chop wood and carry water. Like you I understood that someone had to do these things, but like you I wanted to move forward. Eventually I did. I read all of the scrolls, I met with Kings and and gave council. I became the Abbot. Now, I understand that the key to everything is that everything is,'chopping wood and carrying water.' and that if one does everything mindfully then it is all the same."

Sunday, February 10, 2019


Lately Ms Ché and I feel like we're coming around full circle in some ways. Buddhism has re-entered our conscious lives. It never really went away, though our lives veered strongly in other directions between the time we started Buddhist practice in the late 1960s and now. Oh my yes.

In the interim we sort of drifted between a Franciscan-ish Catholicism, Native American-ish spirituality, and a kind of strict atheism. God, what God? I know of no God. Etc.

But underneath it all was a core of Buddhist thought and practice dating so far back in our lives that we forgot its origin -- must have been Japanese in our case, Zen, sitting meditation, satori, and semi-enlightenment, flashes, coming, going, dissolving, reconstituting. Very California when you get down to it. Zen masters and other spiritual teachers including Gary Snyder and some of his disciples. This was a long time ago. I feel every moment of the time that has passed. So many years but yet it seems to be only yesterday.

So we live our lives of Adventure, dashing around the country, seeing sights, meeting people, working in a wide variety of environments, living a kind of dream we never quite awaken from. So many aspects of a dream never deferred but always present. Even our retirement to the New Mexico wilderness is part of that ongoing dream. An illusion.

And then the signs... For a time, we were beset with Adventists, Witnesses, and Mormons. I tell you it  was a constant circus parade at our front door. "Come! Join us! God awaits!" The Catholic church down the road, modest and plain, run by Carmelite monks, seemed calm by comparison. Oh they had their issues, one being abortion, that sometimes got them so worked up it was a strange and bewildering environment. If it had been a Franciscan run church, like the Cathedral-Basilica in Santa Fe might have been if history hadn't intervened, maybe, maybe... oh, but they have their issues, too, which I won't go into here, but will just say that their bankruptcy has been driven by many years of priestly abuse of parishioners.

So a household Franciscan observance/altar was set up in a corner of the living room, and we included many Native American elements in it. Well, it seemed only natural. Then we added a Native section that just kept growing, so that now the Franciscan part, while still important, is the lesser of the side-by-side home altars.

St. Francis is not as highly regarded in New Mexico as he is elsewhere, in part because it was the abuse by Franciscan priests that touched off the Pueblo Revolt in 1680. The stories I've heard of what the Franciscans did to the Indians are almost impossible to imagine. Their cruelty was way over the top. To my mind, this wasn't Franciscan at all. Something deep-rooted and thoroughly evil had replaced the compassion and charity and love the Saint had preached.

I'd say in a way, New Mexico -- Spanish and Native alike -- has never forgiven the Franciscans for what happened. As a consequence, St. Francis's presence is minimized though the Santa Fe Cathedral Basilica is dedicated to San Francisco and there is a looming statue of him in a side courtyard. Ave.

In California, it's not that way, so we brought some Franciscan thought with us and we honored the saint in small ways. Of course the Cattery is the main Franciscan observance but let's not get into that right now. (Cats!)

Ms. Ché spent part of last summer at the Naropa Institute (as we still call it, though it is a University now) in Colorado. It is a Buddhist-founded institution, a Rinpoche, I believe, being the inspirational and spiritual founder along with Allen Ginsberg and a number of other creators and writers. Ms. Ché says it's not part of any Buddhist order, but Buddhist practice -- on one's own and in community -- is encouraged in any form of devotion and meditation one chooses.

Well, that brought back many early memories for her, and she said she felt refreshed and alive once she got used to it. Again.

As I say, Buddhist inspiration has never really left us, it just went dormant. For decades.

Time passed, and it was clear Ms. Ché yearned to recreate at home some of that spirit she reconnected with at Naropa, and every now and then a little clue would emerge. Years earlier at the Mabel Dodge Luhan House in Taos, poet Jimmy Santiago Baca asked me, "What is a Bodhisattva?" For heaven's sake. Why would anyone ask me that? But then I realized it was a koan, and stumbled around coming up with a patched together "Devotee/practitioner on the way to Buddha-hood" answer. But it's much more than that. More and other. Both. Never mind.

So while I was cruising around Netflix one day, I stumbled on a 2013 TV series from India, "Buddha". Started watching it and saw promise. We're up to episode 36 now. Siddharth has achieved enlightenment and is starting to spread the word and spirit. He is now "Buddha" -- The Enlightened One. There are 20 some episodes left in the series. We try to see one or maybe two every day. And it has reconnected us with long ago Buddhist inspiration. I think the series was designed to introduce Indians to Buddhist thought and practice that once was prevalent in their land but has mostly been pushed out. I understand it has partially returned among Dalits, but not so much among the higher caste Indians. Perhaps now is the time.

Active Buddhist communities are all over Northern New Mexico and into Colorado, but out here in the wilderness, we might be something of a singularity. It's hard to say. There are many Catholics, a few Native spiritualists, and that plethora of Witnesses, Mormons, and Adventists I mentioned earlier. If there are Buddhists, they keep a low profile.

Maybe some of the cowboys sit in meditation from time to time, though. I wouldn't be surprised.

Michael Stipe, "I am not a Buddhist," but then he is.

Saturday, February 2, 2019

Things Fall Apart; the Centre Cannot Hold

The Second Coming
W. B. Yeats, 1865 - 1939

Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

Surely some revelation is at hand;
Surely the Second Coming is at hand.
The Second Coming! Hardly are those words out
When a vast image out of Spiritus MundiTroubles my sight: somewhere in sands of the desert
A shape with lion body and the head of a man,
A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun,
Is moving its slow thighs, while all about it
Reel shadows of the indignant desert birds.
The darkness drops again; but now I know
That twenty centuries of stony sleep
Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,
And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?

Looking at the political trainwreck of the last few weeks, one can't help but think the paradigm shift under way is coming close to a climax. Of course, one has thought that before and one has been wrong, so we'll see, won't we?

It's not just the gold-plated turd that is Trump, though he is certainly the Shiny Object keeping attention away from More Important Things. His constant ravings have fully captivated the media, and they hold more sway than they should over the public attention.

Yet many are beginning -- finally -- to see that Trump isn't an outlier of his class; he is a representative of these insensitive pricks who've ruled us for doG knows how long. He is them, they are him. The entrance of one prickish billionaire after another into the political fray demonstrates clearly that these people, mostly privileged white men, are appallingly dense, vicious, stupid and cruel. Well, yes. That it wasn't obvious before is the peculiar thing.

The whole "populist" act that Trump has been putting on is failing -- the Foxconn Debacle being a case in point -- but he keeps trying, so I'll grant him that. He's also methodically putting together a War Upon War finale to his reign that might just pull the popular will right along with him into the Abyss.

Yeats wrote his dirge post-Easter Rising, post-WWI. He could see -- how could he not? -- that what Used to Be was no more, and wasn't coming back, either.

We're not at that point yet, but we're getting closer.

So I'll go make some coffee in my ancient MidCentury Universal percolator. Sit and contemplate with Siddarth Gautam Buddha, nag champa incense wafting through our dusty, drafty house in the middle of nowhere. Wondering what today's new cycle will bring.