“After the first death . . .”

There are amazing people in the world.

Brave people, like Victoria Soto, the 27 year-old first-grade teacher at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., who ushered her students into a closet, and put her body between them and the shooter. “She was found huddled over her children, her students, doing instinctively what she knew was the right thing,” said her cousin Jim Wiltsie.

People who are wise in the way of compassion, like Robbie Parker, the 30 year-old father of Emilie, age six, one of the victims at Sandy Hook. Saturday afternoon, he faced a crowd of reporters and resisted the temptation to speak of hate and revenge; instead, he projected empathy with these words: “It’s a horrific tragedy, and we wanted everyone to know that our hearts and prayers go out to all of them. This includes the family of the shooter. I can’t imagine how hard this experience must be for you and want you to know that our family and our love and support go out to you as well.”

Compassion is not the providence of only the mature, evidenced as Parker described his daughter: “My daughter Emilie would be one of the first ones to be standing and giving her love and support to all those victims, because that’s the type of person she is . . . I can’t count the number of times that Emilie noticed someone feeling sad or frustrated and would rush to find a piece of paper to draw them a picture or to write them an encouraging note.”

Another mass shooting and what can be said? That we are saddened beyond measure and question the senselessness of it? Definitely. That we need to do more about mental illness. Certainly. That we must do something to curb the easy access to guns. Absolutely. But we’ve said all that before.

Friday afternoon, President Obama delivered a statement on the tragedy, and said, “We have endured too many of these tragedies.” I thought of the line in the song Bob Dylan wrote 50 years ago, “How many deaths will it take till he knows that too many people have died?” I have a small sense that the shooting in Newtown is the tipping point, and that maybe, finally, too many people have died.

This weekend, we are a nation in mourning. But perhaps we have mourned enough over these many senseless deaths, perhaps we have spoken enough of the words we always speak in the aftermath . . .

Dylan Thomas, the great Welsh poet, once wrote a poem in memory of a child killed by fire, presumably from the German bombing of London during World War II. He refused to mourn, he wrote, and yet he did. In expressing his stubbornness about the act of mourning, though, he is telling us that to feel sadness, regret, at death is only grief, and that loss of even a single life demands something more than merely that. He does not tell us what exactly, however, I suspect that this Dylan, too, would say the answer is blowing in the wind . . .

A Refusal to Mourn the Death, by Fire, of a Child in London

by Dylan Thomas

Never until the mankind making
Bird beast and flower
Fathering and all humbling darkness
Tells with silence the last light breaking
And the still hour
Is come of the sea tumbling in harness

And I must enter again the round
Zion of the water bead
And the synagogue of the ear of corn
Shall I let pray the shadow of a sound
Or sow my salt seed
In the least valley of sackcloth to mourn

The majesty and burning of the child’s death.
I shall not murder
The mankind of her going with a grave truth
Nor blaspheme down the stations of the breath
With any further
Elegy of innocence and youth.

Deep with the first dead lies London’s daughter,
Robed in the long friends,
The grains beyond age, the dark veins of her mother,
Secret by the unmourning water
Of the riding Thames.
After the first death, there is no other.

You can do something in the wake of this terrible incident. You can go to the White House website and sign the petition (in the site’s own words) “to force the Obama Administration to produce legislation that limits access to guns.” It’s a beginning . . .


Zen Scandal, Zen Practice

In recent years, revelations of long-standing sexual misconduct on the part of several Zen teachers have shaken the Zen community. The most recent, involving 105-year-old Joshu Sasaki, founder and head abbot of the Mount Baldy Zen Center, here in California has more or less erupted into an online firestorm.

Over the past month, I’ve read many of the blog posts dealing with the Sasaki issue and I’ve read quite a few of the comments to those posts. It is a difficult problem, and without a doubt, sexual misconduct by those in a position of leadership or authority is wrong.

From the material posted online I’ve seen the ethical approach, the organizational policy approach, the clinical psychology approach, and from Stephen Batchelor, a sort of historical approach. This week, things got pretty nasty, when several Zen teachers starting sniping at one another. I’ve seen precious little of the dharma approach, the faith and practice approach.

I can’t help but feel this is a mistake, one that does Zen folk, their tradition, and the Buddhist community at large, a huge disservice. Unless I’ve missed it, there hasn’t been any discussion about how this issue could be an opportunity for all to deepen their practice and understanding of Buddhism. Except for one or two people, I really haven’t seen anyone talk about taking responsibility, and to my mind, everyone in this situation should be responsible to some extent, if only for contributing to the creation of a climate where misbehavior could take place, and for allowing it to continue. After all, they built it, together.

From my understanding, Buddhism teaches that no one is allowed to escape accountability for anything. Both victimizer and victim must assume responsibility – the victimizer for his or her wrongful behavior, and the victim for the internal cause that drew them to such an experience.

It seems to me that the women preyed-upon are not the only victims here. Everyone in the community is a victim because the situation has had such a wide-ranging negative effect. So, I direct my comments today to that aspect.

There is both an internal and external cause* for every experience. Why did we have to meet a person who would mistreat us? An internal cause help put us in that situation. We can call it a potential or a disposition planted in the psyche of the individual, or we might call it temperament. According to Helen Fisher, Ph.D., writing for Psychology Today several years ago about the ‘laws of chemistry’ that help determine who people find themselves attracted to, “[It] is now believed that 50 percent of variance in personality is due to “temperament”—our predisposition to think and act in certain ways. Cross-cultural surveys, brain imaging studies, population and molecular genetics, twin studies—all suggest that the traits of temperament are universal and tied to our genetic makeup.”

If we are drawn to certain types of people, in both matters of the heart, and for other relationships, then it would seem to follow that we are also drawn to certain situations and experiences, and even though this temperament has a genetic link, that doesn’t mean that it’s set in stone.

If there is no self-reflection, no recognition of an internal cause, but instead, only blame towards another party (no matter how justifiable), then there is no real possibility of changing the fundamental suffering. External changes may help, but in the long run they are somewhat cosmetic. After self-reflection, there should be the vow or determination to change the internal cause, to modify our temperament, to transform. Then, most crucial of all, is to take action, to use practice to overcome the suffering.

Kunzang Pelden, one of the great scholar-monks of Tibet, called it “the strength of remedial practice.” The spirit of taking responsibility for everything that happens to us, regardless of our lack of culpability or distance from the situation, should lead us to this strength. If we are truly Buddhist, then we must truly believe in a dharmic solution.

And this is what I have not yet seen in all the online discussion over this issue. Next to nothing about how to use the practice of Buddhism to overcome the suffering. If meditation is only for calming the mind, and not also for the development of wisdom, and for understanding how to apply that wisdom to every problem of daily life, whether it be an individual or group problem, then, I say an opportunity has been missed. It’s a waste of time to follow a philosophy and not use it.

But, it’s certainly not up to me to tell anyone how to conduct their affairs, especially a community that I am not a part of, and yet at the same time, sometimes outsiders can offer a fresh, objective point of view. And, they are discussing the issue publicly. No one has asked my opinion, but if they did, I would suggest that perhaps there’s been enough of the clinical talk, the discussion of authority and who’s a Zen teacher and who’s not, and certainly enough of the misguided parodies and taking umbrage. Perhaps, it’s time for dharma.

This reminds me of something the Dalai Lama said in Los Angeles in 1997,

Given that dharma is like a medicine of the heart and mind, one must utilize it in the correct manner. When we are ill, we use medication and the medication is aimed at not only eliminating the symptoms but also by getting at the root of the conditions that cause the illness. Similarly, we should be able to use the dharma at the right instance, when it is needed the most, through constant self-awareness, mindfulness, and self-investigation. When one confronts a situation where, within the mind, there is any possibility of even an inkling of an arousal of negative emotions or non-virtuous thoughts – it is at that moment the dharma should be able to counter-act these disruptive forces.

Because negative action is an expression of the negative motivation or negative states of mind, if you are able to apply dharma at the right instance, before it becomes expressed in negative action, then you will be able to deal with it at that time. Otherwise one’s practice will become as [one] master said, “sometimes for some people, the dharma can only been seen when things are fine.” There is a verse that reads that some can only be a practitioner when their stomach is full and everything is like sunshine, but the moment he or she encounters a crisis, the dharma goes out the window and they are complaining and blaming everybody and they act worse than someone who has no belief in dharma practice. This is not how we should do.”


* The concept of internal or primary cause (Jp. nyo ze in) comes from the “Ten Suchnesses” of T’ien-t’ai Buddhism, based on a passage in the 2nd chapter of the Lotus Sutra where ten categories of all reality are presented: “That is to say, all existence has such a form (nyo se so), such a nature (nyo ze sho), such an embodiment (nyo ze tai), such a potency (nyo ze riki), such a function (nyo se sa), such a primary cause (nyo se in), such a secondary cause (nyo ze en), such an effect (nyo ze ka), such a recompense (nyo ze ho), and such a complete fundamental whole (nyo ze honmak-kukyoto).” [The Threefold Lotus Sutra, Bunno Kato]


The Notes of Forever

Into the audience hall by the fathomless abyss
where swells up the music of toneless strings
I shall take this harp of my life.
I shall tune it to the notes of forever,
and when it has sobbed out its last utterance,
lay down my silent harp at the feet of the silent.

– Rabindranath Tagore, “Lamp of Love”

The first time I tried to meditate was one night in my room when I still lived with my parents. I turned off the lights, turned on my black light (so that my posters would glow), put on a Ravi Shankar record, sat cross-legged on the bed, and I think I may have smoked a joint. It was an enlightening experience. I had a very great, profound realization: Ravi Shankar could sure play the hell out of a sitar.

Of course, I didn’t have any idea what I was doing. I was trying to learn meditation from reading books, and obviously, I was mixing it up with some other stuff. A lot of things have changed since then. One thing stayed constant. Ravi Shankar remained a virtuoso.

Shankar was admitted to the Scripps Memorial Hospital in San Diego last week after complaining of shortness of breath. He died Tuesday. He was 92.

You can read the details of his life here at the LA Times.

Shankar performing with his daughter, Anoushka, in 2009.

Shankar met George Harrison in 1966 and the two became lifelong friends. Together they made the sitar a very popular instrument.  From that association, and from his appearances at three legendary rock events (Monterrey Pop, Woodstock, and the Concert for Bangladesh), Shankar became an icon of the so-called hippie movement, even though he really didn’t care much for hippies.

At the Monterrey Pop Festival in 1968, Shankar enjoyed many of the performers, including Simon and Garfunkel, Otis Redding, and the Mamas and the Papas. He caught The Who and enjoyed them, even after they started breaking their instruments at the end of “My Generation.” But when Jimi Henrix, who followed The Who, set fire to his guitar, it was more than Shankar could take. He said later, “That was too much for me. In our culture, we have such respect for musical instruments, they are like part of God,”

In a 1999 interview, Saurabh Bhattacharya asked Shankar if music was essentially spiritual:

The highest form in music is spirituality. That is different from the professional approach, which even I have to unfortunately maintain—where it is a commercial arrangement that gives you a stipulated period of time within which you give your best.”

Professionally speaking, I’d say he had a very full life. Shankar was a three-time Grammy winner, he composed a number of film scores, collaborated with violinist Yehudi Menuhin and jazz saxophonist John Coltrane, and played Carnegie Hall. Not bad.

Here is a rare clip of Ravi Shankar giving George Harrison a sitar lesson in Rishikesh, India, February 1968.

Ed Cassidy, AKA “Mr. Skin.”

Those of us who were also fans of the great band Spirit are lamenting the loss of drummer Ed Cassidy at the age of 89. Today, Spirit is not very well remembered, but they were far more influential than most folks would imagine. They were one of my favorite groups, and their album “The Twelve Dreams of Dr. Sardonicus” is a real classic.

As a year, by the time it got here, 1984 was definitely overrated. As a song, it’s still outta sight.


The Cure

The Rajavavadaka Sutra speaks of “those four great terrors, which it is not easy to escape by speed or strength, or to turn aside by drugs or charms or spells.” This is a reference to the Four Sufferings: birth, old age, illness and death. These sufferings are unavoidable in the course of our lives.

Modern medical science can help us to cure the third suffering of illness, and drugs are often a part of the treatment. However, there is no medical treatment as important as our own natural power to recover from illness. Our immune system, for instance is made up of different types of cells and proteins that protect us from invasion by any bacteria or virus.

Buddhism teaches that both physical and mental illness arise from the poison of ignorance, of our own ignorance. The cure for ignorance is wisdom, which begins with being responsible for our own health.

We can say that there are two causes for illness, an external cause, such as exposure to bacteria or a virus, and an internal cause. We have to be responsible for the internal. To be responsible is tremendously empowering. It requires a certain amount of self-honesty, though. It means admitting to ourselves that ultimately we are the cause of most of our sufferings, but it also means we are the solution.

Many of us excel at avoiding responsibility. I’m pretty good at it myself. The question we continually need to ask is how do we know when we are avoiding responsibility? Ego and arrogance co-conspire to protect us from the harsh truth about our tendencies. However, since they arise, like ignorance, from within our mind, they can be defeated.

We may not always win out over a illness or a particular suffering, but we can always win out over ourselves. Dharma can be our medicine. It can protect us from invasion by the poison of ignorance, the bacteria of arrogance, the virus of ego. Just as medical science helps us increase our natural healing power, Buddha-dharma helps us to tap into our inherent power and develop our natural wisdom.

Enlightenment means taking full responsibility for your life.

– William Blake


“And the silence is alone”

Today is the 71st anniversary of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. Tomorrow will mark the 32nd anniversary of the assassination of John Lennon. Two days that will live in infamy.

An additional sour note for the 8th, it is the birthday of Ann Coulter, the rabid ultra-conservative political “pundit,” who once said “God gave us the earth. We have dominion over the plants, the animals, the trees. God said, ‘Earth is yours. Take it. Rape it. It’s yours.'” An attractive woman with an ugly soul.

On a more positive note, also sharing birthdays on Saturday are two poets (well, maybe a poet and a half), Jim Morrison and Delmore Schwartz.

I still have a first edition copy of Morrison’s first book of poetry, The Lords and The New Creatures. I eagerly snapped this up when it first came out. I liked Jimbo’s style, but the poetry itself was only so-so. Delmore Schwartz, on the other hand, was a well-respective poet, although he is little known today. He had a rock ‘n roll connection also, as he was a major influence on Lou Reed and the Velvet Underground.

This may seem like a odd segue, but perhaps not, as now we move to an attractive woman with a beautiful soul. Schwartz once wrote a poem titled “Love and Marilyn Monroe” (“Long may she flourish in self-delight and the joy of womanhood./A nation haunted by Puritanism owes her homage and gratitude.”). Now, what I didn’t know until recently was that Monroe herself wrote poetry. And some of it isn’t bad. They were published in 2010 in a book with the self-explanatory title, Fragments: Poems, Intimate Notes, Letters.

Marilyn Monroe, a complex person, a sex symbol, a woman who took night classes in literature and history at UCLA, studied method acting with Strasberg, wanted to be taken seriously, and not thought of as just a dumb blonde. She was, as many have noted, tortured by that need. Her unpublished poetry reveals just how deep her waters ran. Sam Kashner wrote in Vanity Fair, “writing and poetry were lifelines, the ways and means to discover who she was and to sort through her often tumultuous emotional life.”

Marilyn Monroe possessed humanity, sensitivity, and raw intelligence that was almost always overshadowed by her sex appeal, troubles, and insecurity. Here is one of Marilyn’s untitled poems, sans her corrections:

That silent river which stirs
And swells itself with whatever passes over it
Wind, rain, great ships
I love the river – never unmoored
By anything
It’s quiet now
And the silence is alone
Except for the rumbling of things unknown
Distant drums very present
But for the piercing of screams
And the whispers of things
Sharp sounds and then suddenly hushed
To moans beyond sadness – terror beyond
The cry of things dim and too young to be known yet
The sobs of life itself

And bear the pain & the joy
Of newness on your limbs

Loneliness – be still