Tara the Cat 1998-2011

I hope you all will excuse me if I indulge in a remembrance of my little cat Tara who passed away yesterday. She was 13 years old. That’s the equivalent of 68 human years.

I got Tara when was she was 6 months old. We had an infestation of mice in my apartment building at the time. I had always heard that if you have a cat, mice won’t come around. That sounded good to me, ‘cause I hate those meeces to pieces. I named her after Tara the bodhisattva of peace and protection. She did a pretty good job of protecting me from the mice. Nary a one set foot inside our apartment after she arrived.

She was very sweet, gentle cat. But you know cats are strange creatures. The love you share with them is definitely on their terms. Tara had a way of looking at me sometimes that seemed to suggest she was in possession of some profound wisdom and I was merely some fool she tolerated. Then there were those other times, like just before lights out when she’d hop up on the bed and want to lick my face. It was her way of saying, hey, you’re not so bad after all.

My step-mother, Hazel, sent me a nice note describing a rose and two blue and white iris she put in a vase the other day and how beautiful they were to admire, but then yesterday morning “each flower seemed to say ‘thank you for appreciating my beauty while it lasted but it’s time for me to fade away.’”

Flowers, animals, people, planets, stars – they come into existence, they get old, sick, and then they fade away. “Sabbe sankhara anicca,”  the Buddha said. All things are impermanent.

While I understand that intellectually, right now, emotionally, it’s a different story. I miss Tara. I grieve at her passing. And I can’t help but wonder if I was a good bodhisattva for her. She had been losing weight for some time – in spite of how she would have done nothing but eat all day long if I had let her – and that concerned me. Yet, I knew that some cats lose weight as they get older. Sometimes, she’d throw up at night. I chalked that up to eating too much to fast. Which she did and then at some ungodly early hour of the morning she’d be pawing at me wanting to be fed again.

About two weeks ago, I had a strong feeling that things weren’t right. I considered taking her to the vet, but held off. Perhaps I was overreacting. I thought I’d change her diet and make one last attempt to fatten her up. I shouldn’t have waited. All day Sunday, she was lethargic and when she did get up and walk, she could not lift her head as she normally would. I knew I couldn’t delay a visit to the vet any longer. I took Tara to the animal hospital first thing yesterday morning. They decided to keep her. They hydrated her, gave her tests, medicine. But, it was too late.  She died overnight.

It turned out she had hyperthyroidism, a common problem in older cats that affects their kidneys and liver. I have no idea how much pain she was in or even if she was in pain, except for that last day. Then, it was obvious she was feeling pretty bad. Maybe it wouldn’t have made any difference if I had acted sooner. Perhaps prolonging her life would have only prolonged her suffering. That’s the hardest part. The unknowing. However, like Tara’s death itself, what is unknown must be accepted because chances are it will remain unknown. Speculation around maybes and ifs are the same as the metaphysical speculations the Buddha advised against. It does not bring us closer to truth or to an end to suffering.

I think it’s better, as my step-mother suggested, to think of Tara as a beautiful flower, and to have some appreciation for the time I had to admire her beauty, and to remember all the things she taught me.

This poem by e.e. cummings says the rest of it:

why did you go
little fourpaws?
you forgot to shut
your big eyes.

where did you go?
like little kittens
are all the leaves
which open in the rain.

little kittens who
are called spring,
is what we stroke
maybe asleep?

do you know? or maybe did
something go away
ever so quietly
when we weren’t looking.

She had the cutest face . . .



Adios, Big Man

Asbury Park, New Jersey – September, 1971. A Nor’easter blew in that night. Its cold devil wind rattled the windows of the storefronts along the shore. Wires of lightning jolted the black sky. Thunder cracked and rolled. He was a big man. He carried a saxophone in his hand. He stood outside a bar called The Student Prince. Inside a band was playing, the singer was singing something about rock and roll. He could hear strains of the music through the din of the slanting rain. He’d heard about the cat inside. The sax gripped tight in his hand, he made his move. As he pulled open the door, the thunder roared once more and an extraordinary gust of wind swept up and tore the door off its hinges, tore it out of his hand. The door flying down the street and this big black man, 6 feet 4, 250 pounds, dressed all in black standing in the doorway of a white bar silhouetted by the silver rain and the bone white lighting – heads turned, the band quit playing. He walked up and got on the stage. “I want to play with your band.” The singer looked up at the black giant and said nervously, “Sure, you do whatever you want.”

More than music was made that night. For some of us it was history.

Years later, the Big Man said of that mythical evening when he first met Bruce Springsteen: “I swear I will never forget that moment. I felt like I was supposed to be there. It was a magical moment. He looked at me, and I looked at him, and we fell in love. And that’s still there.”

Clarence Clemmons 1942 – 2011

Go in peace, brother. Thanks for the music, and the memories.

NY Times obituary
Rolling Stone



News anchor Karl Stefanovic never got to the part of the joke where the Dalai Lama asks for his change and the pizza guy says "Change must come from within."

By now you’ve probably seen the recent video of an Australian news anchor who is interviewing the Dalai Lama and tries to tell him the joke about the Dalai Lama walking into a pizza parlor and asking, “Can you make me one with everything?” The Dalai Lama, of course, doesn’t get it, and at one point even starts to give him a serious reply. If you have not seen this thing, go here. It’s a hoot. Although you do have to wonder about the wisdom of telling a joke to the person who’s the subject of the joke.

The idea of becoming one with everything has become a cliché, a laugh, and yet, the realization of oneness is an essential step in the path.

Yesterday, I quoted Joko Beck as saying, “Enlightenment is not something you achieve. It is the absence of something.” This absence is called emptiness. Near the beginning of the Heart Sutra, it says Avalokitesvara saw that the aggregates are sunyata-svabhava or empty of self-being. This is what Joko Beck meant, even if she wasn’t thinking in exactly those terms. Self-being is the independent, unconditioned being – the self that is pure imagination, a fantasy that pushes us “forward after something, pursing some goal”. Emptiness is the absence of self-being. All things are empty of self-being. Nagarjuna considered sunyata-svabhava to synonymous with the ultimate reality.

Self-being is the cause for the illusion that we are independent, separate from others. Perhaps it is because of our basic tendency is to cling to this sense of separateness, that many people in experience an overwhelming sense of isolation. Especially in these times when our society is so fragmented and contentious, where so many are standing against others. Conservatives vs. liberals, straights vs. gays, one religion vs. another religion. Even in Buddhism, there is a great deal of separation and opposition. Gen Y doesn’t like the way Boomers present dharma. Modernists denounce traditionalists and vice versa. East vs. west. And so on.

As far as Buddha-dharma is concerned, I feel that some of these issues are really non-issues, yet there’s no denying that numerous divisive elements exist both within Buddhism and our larger society.

Buddhism says that fundamentally, we actually are all one. It’s written that beneath the Bodhi tree, the Buddha awakened to the truth that all living beings are linked together in a chain of causes and conditions. From modern physics, we have learned much the same thing.

Some scientists feel that each element of the universe contains all the information present in the whole cosmos. This is similar to the concept T’ien-t’ai master Chih-i put forth some 15 centuries ago, i-nien san-ch’ien or “Three Thousand Worlds in One Thought” (Jp. ichinen sanzen), in which “life at each moment permeates the universe and is revealed in all phenomena.”

So then, the oneness of all things is neither a cliché nor a joke. It’s a reality, indeed, it is reality.

In this scene from My Little Chickadee, WC Fields considers Mae West to be one with everything.

However, this oneness shouldn’t be construed as saying that all things become merged or fused and there are no differences. Difference is not necessarily separateness. Difference is a recognition that the whole is made up of multiple parts which are not exactly the same. Buddhism teaches that the universe consists of a multiplicity of different elements united through their relationships with each other and then combined into a unified whole.

As we use the word “universe” here, it doesn’t mean just the clusters of galaxies of stars, rather it refers to the whole of reality. In Buddhism, it’s known as Dharmakaya, which in this sense means “Realm of Dharmas (Things).”

Mahayana Buddhism, especially in the Chinese branch with its Taoist influences, presents us with the ideal of each individual functioning as a harmonious component within the larger universe. One thing we take away from the practice of meditation should be a sense of the interrelatedness of the whole of our life in each present moment to the whole of reality.

We may not realize it, but oneness is a basic human aspiration, as D.T. Suzuki pointed out in Outlines of Mahayana Buddhism:

The ever-increasing tendency of humanity to widen and facilitate communication in every possible way is a phenomenon illustrative of the intrinsic oneness of human souls. Isolation kills, for it is another name for death. Every soul that lives and grows desires to embrace others, to be in communion with them, to be supplemented by them, and to expand infinitely so that all individual souls are brought together and united in the one soul.

Suzuki wrote this over 100 years ago, and he uses the word “soul” which most Buddhist writers today would eschew in favor of some other word. When he mentions the “one soul”, though, he means Dharmakaya. In Dharmakaya all things are interrelated and mutually inclusive. They are in perfect harmony.

Suzuki also noted:

The veil of Maya, i. e., subjective ignorance may temporally throw an obstacle to our perceiving the universal light of Dharmakaya, in which we are all one. But when our Bodhi or intellect which is by the way a reflection of the Dharmakaya in the human mind, is so fully enlightened, we no more build the artificial barrier of egoism before our spiritual eye; the distinction between the meum [mine] and teum [yours] is obliterated, no dualism throws the nets of entanglement over us; I recognise myself in you and you recognise yourself in me.”

Well, in light of all this, there’s only thing to say: “Make me one with everything.”


Joko Beck: “We have to practice with all of our might for the rest of our lives.”

American Zen pioneer, Charlotte Joko Beck, died yesterday at the grand age of 94. Her Wikipedia entry says, “After years of declining health, Beck was placed under hospice care in June 2011. After her health rapidly deteriorated, she stopped eating and was dramatically losing weight. According to Beck’s daughter, Brenda, up until the end ‘She is happy as a clam and, as she told me, will die when she’s ready. She says it’s soon.’” And so it was.

Joko Beck studied and practiced with three important Zen teachers: Soen Nakagawa, Yasutani Hakuun Roshi, and Hakuyu Taizan Maezumi, founder of the Zen Center of Los Angeles. In 1983, she started the San Diego Zen Center, and later founded the Ordinary Mind School.

I did not know Joko Beck but I know people who did and have heard a lot about her. It seemed to me that there was much to admire, and emulate, about her approach to dharma and teaching. Adam Tebbe writes in this article published yesterday that “She is the founder of the Ordinary Mind Zen School, a loose fit organization of her Dharma successors which is non-hierarchical. As a teacher of Zen, Joko Beck was free from the patriarchal trappings of Japanese Zen. Joko’s approach to Zen teaching was greatly informed by Western culture, and she discontinued shaving her head, seldom wore robes and seldom used titles.” Yes, hers was a modern approach, yet she didn’t try to reinvent the dharma wheel, pursue wild theories, or attempt to set herself up as an enlightened guru.

She was also the author of several books. I particularly like this passage from the beginning of Everyday Zen: Love and Work:

Enlightenment is not something you achieve. It is the absence of something. All your life you have been going forward after something, pursing some goal. Enlightenment is dropping all that. But to talk about it is of little use. The practice has to be done by each individual. There is no substitute. We can read about it until we are a thousand years old and it won’t do a thing for us. We all have to practice, and we have to practice with all of our might for the rest of our lives.

Copy this passage, write it down on a post-it note, stick it on your refrigerator, tattoo it on your arm or forehead, read it every day and every night, memorize it, share it with others. Make it your dharani, your mantra, your prayer. Find some way to engrave these words on your life, for they go directly to the heart of this thing called Buddhism.

And then don’t forget to say, “Thanks for that, Charlotte Joko Beck.”


Karan Gets Zen, Clinton Dines, and The Big Man Stumbles

I have several times in the past discussed my discomfort with the way people use the word “Zen” to sell stuff, whether it’s a commercial product, an article of some sort, or Buddhism itself. You know what I mean: “The Zen of This”, “The Zen of That.” Most of the time whatever is being pushed has nothing whatsoever to do with dharma. And, if you have being reading in the Buddhist Blogosphere this past week, you have no doubt noticed some controversy over “secret” conferences and elitist agendas.

Here’s a group that combines the best (or worst) of both worlds: Donna Karan’s Urbanzen Foundation. I am only vaguely aware of who Donna Karan is. She’s a clothing designer. Rich. Famous. She’s founded an organization that, in it’s own words “creates, connects, and collaborates to raise awareness and inspire change in the areas of well-being, preserving cultures, and empowering children.” Noble stuff. But what does it have to do with Zen or Buddhism? From what I can tell, nothing really.

It’s not a good idea to become attached to a word, but I always liked Zen. It has such a zesty, zenny sound to it. I hate to see it abused.

This past week Urbanzen hosted a gathering to honor President Bill Clinton. It was definitely an A-list affair. Attendees included Sarah Jessica Parker, Ashton Kutcher, Uma Thurman, Demi Moore, Calvin Klein and some old mangy looking English musician. Isn’t this just more elitism? Where is the diversity? Why weren’t any poor, un-famous people invited? Does Bill Clinton really need another honor? Foundations like this one do some good work, no question. However, it does get a bit tiresome to see the rich and famous patting themselves on the back all the time. Especially when there are plenty of other folk doing just as good work who receive no attention, little pay for their efforts, and definitely no awards. Just saying . . .

A picture worth a thousand words . . .

What drew my attention to this affair was a blurb I saw about that English musician. Calls himself Keith Richards. Plays guitar in a band with some other old guys called the Rolling Stones. Apparently Keith and President Clinton had a top secret dinner at New York City’s Craft restaurant last week. Oh no! Another secret meeting! And what conspiracy were these two bad boys hatching? Cornered by a reporter at the aforementioned awards dinner for the former Prez, Richards refused to answer. “Unfortunately, it’s under wraps,” he said. Then, doing his best impersonation of Johnny Depp impersonating him, he added “We talked about saxophones.”

Speaking of saxophones, here is some serious and sad news: sax great Clarence Clemons, a member of Bruce Springsteen’s E Street band, suffered a massive stroke this past weekend. According to Rolling Stone magazine, he’s making progress at a Palm Beach County hospital. Clemons reportedly underwent two brain surgeries after the stroke and was in serious, but stable condition.

A “close friend” informed the Springsteen fan site Backstreets.com that Clemmons is paralyzed on his left side, but “now he’s squeezing with his left hand.” The Big Man, as he is affectionately called, has had a number of health issues in recent years. He’s 69.

Blood brothers, back in the day.

If you never liked Bruce Springsteen, chances are you didn’t see him in concert between 1975 and 1985. Live performing was his forte. I think he’s probably the greatest live showman since Al Jolson.

I attended at least 25 shows during that period. That was when Bruce and the E Street Band were at the height of their musical and magical powers. The concerts were celebratory affairs. You didn’t just go and watch and listen. You participated. The audience was as much a part of the show as the band was. It was a shared experience. I always left those concerts feeling uplifted and happy and absolutely sure that rock and roll would never die. It wasn’t like going to see anyone else. The Big Man was indispensable part of that particular spirit in the night.

In 1985 Bruce Springsteen suffered a crisis in faith. He began to doubt the saving power of rock and roll. The concerts after that have been different. I’ve gone to about 10 shows since then. They’re always good, but they don’t have the same magic. For some strange reason I can’t help but feel that my being young and caught up in the romantic idealism of the songs might also have had something to do with it, too . . .

Best wishes for a speedy recovery, Big Man.

When the change was made uptown
And the Big Man joined the band
From the coastline to the city
All the little pretties raise their hands
I’m gonna sit back right easy and laugh
When Scooter and the Big Man bust this city in half
With a Tenth Avenue freeze-out . . .