A Day with Three Mornings

New Years is a time when many people still make “resolutions,” even while most of them know that they will manage to keep only a few of them, if any at all. I’ve always liked what the English sculptor and artist, Henry Moore once said, “I think in terms of the day’s resolutions, not the years’.”

calvin-hobbes-new-years-resolutions2And I also like the Tibetan word for “new year,” which is losar. Lo is “year, age”; sar “new, fresh”. So despite that a new year is just a turn of the page on the calendar, it can be a time for fresh beginnings. New is merely something not previously known, but fresh is not old or spoiled; fresh is pure and clean. We should strive to make this new calendar year a fresh year.

The Buddha asked his followers to consider this question, “What, when I do it, will lead to my long-term well-being and happiness?” If some behavior or way of thinking is not helping someone find well-being and happiness, then of course, it should changed.  The importance of having the ability to consciously direct and manifest change in our lives cannot be overstated.  Change is good, and in recognizing its great benefit, we can say that every day is a new year. Every day is a fresh start. Every day is a time for resolutions, a time to embrace change.

As far as New Years the holiday is concerned, most Buddhist countries celebrate the New Year according to the Chinese calendar. It coincides with Lunar New Year (last year January 31 and this year February 19). An exception is the Japanese Buddhist schools who tend to observe New Years on December 31. However, this is a relatively new tradition, only in place since 1873, when five years after the Meiji Restoration, Japan adopted the Gregorian calendar. Prior to that, Japanese Buddhists celebrated the Lunar New Year.

And that was certainly the case in the 13th century, when in the first day of 1241 at Kosho-horinji Temple in the Uji district of Yoshu, Eihei Dogen, the Tendai priest who had brought the teachings of the Chinese Caodong school (Soto Zen) to Japan, entered the assembly hall and gave the following talk, which along with 531 others has been preserved in Eihei Koroku (“Eihei or Dogen’s Extensive Record”) and translated by Taigen Dan Leighton & Shohaku Okumura.*

They have titled the talk “The Advantage of New Years” and explain that the phrase “Lost the advantage” means “that the speaker did not express the Dharma as fully as the monk in this dialogue, and was bettered by the monk.”

Today is the beginning of a new year [1241], and also a day with three mornings. I say three mornings because it is the beginning of the year, beginning of the month, and the beginning of the day.

dogen01Here is a story. A monk asked Jingqing Daofu, “Is there Buddha Dharma at the beginning of the new year or not?”

Jingqing said, “There is.”

The monk asked, “What is the Buddha Dharma at the beginning of the new year?”

Jingqing said, “New Year’s Day begins with a blessing, and the ten thousand things are completely new.”

The monk said, “Thank you, teacher, for your answer.”

Jingqing said, “This old monk today lost the advantage.”

A monk asked Mingjiao Zhimen Shikuan, “Is there Buddha Dharma

at the beginning of the new year, or not?”

Mingjiao said, “There is not.”

The monk said, “Every year is a good year, every day is a good day; why isn’t there [Buddha Dharma in the beginning of the new year]?”

Mingjiao said, “Old man Zhang drinks, and old man Li gets drunk.”

The monk said, “Great Elder, [you are like] a dragon’s head and snake’s tail.”

Mingjiao said, “This old monk today lost the advantage.”

The teacher Dogen said: [Both teachers] say the same, “This old monk today lost the advantage.”

Hearing such a story many people say, “These are good stories about [teachers] losing advantage [in a dialogue].” This mountain monk [Dogen] does not at all agree. Although Jingqing and Mingjiao speak of one loss, they do not yet see one gain. Suppose somebody were to ask me, Kosho, if there is Buddha Dharma at the beginning of the new year, or not.

I would say to them: There is.

Suppose the monk responded, “What is the Buddha Dharma at the beginning of the new year?”

This mountain monk would say to him: May each and every body, whether staying still or standing up, have ten thousand blessings.

Suppose the monk said, “In that case, in accordance with this saying, I will practice.”

This mountain monk would say to him: I, Kosho, today have advantage after advantage.

Now please practice.

– – – – – – – – – –

* from Dogen’s Extensive Record: A Translation of the Eihei Koroku, Eihei Dogen, translation by Taigen Dan Leighton & Shohaku Okumura, Wisdom Publications Inc,  2010

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Wonder

Friday night I went on the roof of my building to watch the International Space Station pass over Los Angeles very close to the moon. The ISS appears as a high-flying aircraft does, only it is faster-moving and has no flashing lights.  I’ve seen it a few times before and it is usually visible for only a few minutes. That’s probably because it’s traveling at around 17,000 MPH, some 250 miles above us.  And there are astronauts up there.  It’s way cool.  If you’d like to check when to see the ISS in your area, head to NASA’s Spot the Station.

Speaking of Venus, I can see it out my front window just after sunset, shining brilliantly right now. Jupiter is also currently visible, in the east-northeast sky, after 9pm PDT.  The Griffith Observatory Sky Report says “Binoculars are sufficient to see Jupiter’s four Galilean satellites.” But the meds I take cause my hands to tremble to such a degree I can’t hold the binoculars steady enough to see. One of these days, I must get a telescope.

In Los Angeles, we can only see the brightest stars with the naked eye. I feel nostalgic for those days of my youth when I lived in the Midwest and could look up at night and see a sky full of stars, along with that band of stardust called The Milky Way. And it still blows my mind that Venus is 26 million miles from Earth, and Jupiter 365 million miles, and that we can see light from stars that are, or were, billions of light-years away. These are facts I have known since I was in elementary school and still I find them amazing to contemplate.

I believe that is a condition known as wonder.

Wonder means to be amazed, astonished, in awe, and also “to think or speculate curiously: to wonder about the origin of the universe.”

As most of you know, Buddhism does not offer a full-fledged story about the origin of the universe, and there is no place in our philosophy for the idea of a creator being. It is said that the Buddha regarded speculation about the origin of the universe and whether or not it is eternal as among the “unanswerable questions” that he thought counterproductive, and which he refused to answer. Nonetheless, Buddhists have always considered the universe to be infinite and most likely filled with other worlds very much like our own.

From the standpoint of practice and Transcendental Wisdom, the Buddha was right. Knowledge of the universe does little, if anything, directly to relieve anyone’s sufferings. But, thank heavens, the mystery of the heavens was just too compelling for humans to ever pause in what Tagore called “the ceaseless adventure of the Endless Further.” It is an adventure that grows more exciting as time goes by.

This image shows the newly discovered dwarf galaxy Kks3. The core of the galaxy is the right hand object at the top center of the image, with its stars spreading out over a large section around it; the left hand of the two objects is a much nearer globular star cluster. Image credit: Dimitry Makarov.
This image shows the newly discovered dwarf galaxy Kks3. The core of the galaxy is the right hand object at the top center of the image, with its stars spreading out over a large section around it; the left hand of the two objects is a much nearer globular star cluster. Image credit: Dimitry Makarov.

For instance, scientists at Special Astrophysical Observatory in Karachai-Cherkessia, Russia, recently found a previously undetected neighbor. It’s practically next door, only 7 million light years away, which is about 2.5 times farther than our nearest large galaxy, Andromeda. A dwarf galaxy, named KKs3, with only 1/10,000 the stellar mass of the Milky Way, our new neighbor is very small, and very old. About 2/3rds of KKs3 is composed of star stuff formed 12 billion years ago, approximately a billion or so years after the Big Bang.

The Milky Way is one of three large galaxies belonging to the group of galaxies called the Local Group, a collection of 54 galaxies and dwarf galaxies that measures 10 million light years in diameter.

And 54 galaxies is nothing. Scientists estimate that there are somewhere between between 100 billion and 200 billion galaxies just in the observable universe and who knows how many objects in each of those galaxies. In our galaxy alone there are 300-400 billion stars . . .

To quote an old song somewhat out of context, “Ooh, it makes me wonder.”

And then, ponder this from Huang Po, a Chinese Ch’an teacher who lived during the Tang dynasty:

Remember that the endlessness of the ten directions of infinite space is originally one’s own Mind.”

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A Little Off the Beam

Valentine Davies (1905 – 1961) was a screenwriter, producer, and director. His best known work is a little story known as Miracle on 34th Street. According to IMDB, “[Davis] got the idea for the script whilst struggling through the Christmas shopping crowds, trying to find a present for his wife. The commercialism he saw made Davies wonder what the real Santa Claus would make of it all.”

George Seaton, another screenwriter and director, adapted Davies’ story and made it into a film starring Maureen O’Hara, John Payne, Edmund Gwenn and eight-year old Natalie Wood.  It was released on May 2, 1947 and didn’t receive much notice. Today it is considered not only a classic holiday movie, but a classic film period. Davies received an Academy Award for Best Story.

Title page to my first edition Miracle on 34th Street
Title page to my first edition Miracle on 34th Street

Later in 1947 Davies took Seaton’s screenplay, based on his own original story, and rewrote it as a novella.  It was published by Harcourt, Brace and Company, Inc.

[Kris] had begun to realize that Doris and little Susan were but unhappy products of their times. They presented a real challenge to him – a sort of test-case for Santa Claus. If he could win them over, if he could get them to believe in him – then there was still hope. If not, Santa Claus and all he stood for were through.

“You know, Mrs. Walker,” he said, “for the past fifty years or so I’ve been more and more worried about Christmas. It seems we’re all so busy trying to beat the other fellow in making things go faster and look shinier and cost less, that Christmas and I are sort of getting lost in the shuffle.”

“Oh, I don’t think so,” said Doris. “Christmas is still Christmas.”

“No,” said Mr. Kringle, shaking his head. “Christmas isn’t just a day. It’s a frame of mind. That’s what’s been changing. That’s why I’m glad I’m here, because maybe I can do something about it.”

In spite of herself, Doris was impressed by Kris’ warmth and kindness. She couldn’t help liking the old man, even if he was a little off the beam.

Of course, anyone who thinks he is Santa Claus is delusional.  But as Dr. Pierce says in the story, Kris’ “delusion is for good. He only wants to be friendly and helpful.”  In Buddhism, we don’t like to promote the idea of indulging delusions, but this story reminds me of the one about Bodhisattva Fukyo.  One day, Fukyo went walking around,  bowing to every person he met. As he bowed, he would say, “I deeply respect you.”  He was a little off the beam, too. He thought everyone he saw was a buddha.

The writing in Davies’ novella is lean and simple, similar to a children’s book.  The story centers around the question of whether Kris is the real Santa Claus or just a nice old man with whiskers and a few bats in his belfry. However, there is a more thoughtful subtext. Doris, a single mother raising Susan while employed at Macy’s, is disappointed when Fred Gayley, an attorney with whom she is falling in love, appears to have thrown away his future by defending Kris at his sanity hearing. Fred realizes that Doris has no faith in him.

“It’s not a question of having faith in you. You’re bound to lose this case – that’s just common sense!”

Fred rose quickly.

“Faith is believing in things when common sense tells you not to,” he replied. “And you’ve just got too much common sense.”

“It’s a good thing one of us has,” said Doris heatedly. “It’s rather an asset sometimes!”

“Can’t you get over being afraid?” Fred pleaded. “Can’t you let yourself believe in people like Kris – in fun and joy and love and all the other intangibles?”

Doris stiffened almost inperceptibly. She became the crisp, efficient Mrs. Walker again.

“You can’t pay the rent with intangibles,” she said.

“And you can’t live a life without them.”

In the film, instead of that last line, Fred says that “those intangibles are the only things worthwhile.” I think he also means they are the things most worth fighting for, and that’s why he works so hard to defend Kris.

You see, Fred knew that Kris was a Bodhisattva and that his mission was to awaken people – not to the reality of a symbolic holiday figure, or for that matter, some religious icon – Kris wanted to awaken them to the truth of intangible things, like the ones Fred listed above, and other intangibles such as kindness, hope, patience, and giving. Believing in Santa Claus, and even capturing the spirit of Christmas, is merely allegory for finding the only things worthwhile, those wonders that come from the heart.

And when Doris and her daughter Susan and everyone else began to believe in themselves and in others, they gave up their doubtful ways, stopped being afraid, and life opened up for them, and when we do the same, the doors to life’s storehouse of treasures opens for us, and we learn that everything we want, everything we need, is all around us all the time, and that is the real miracle to be found on 34th or any other street.

In a 2013 interview, Thich Nhat Hanh said,

It is in my heart when I use [the word “miracle”] because . . . you are a miracle and everything you touch could be a miracle — the orange in your hand, the blue sky, the face of a child. Everything become a wonder. And, in fact, they are wonders of life that are available in the here and the now . . . And that is a miracle because you understand the nature of the suffering, and you are not trying to run away from suffering anymore, and you know how to make use of suffering in order to build peace and happiness.”

Well, to sum up, I say that if it leads you to those intangibles which are life’s greatest treasures, then being a little off the beam is a good use of common sense.

Happy Holidays to you all and thanks so much for reading The Endless Further.

MPX222

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A Mind of Winter

Winter is once more upon us. Here in Southern California, winter is a relative concept. And a capricious season, to the extreme. For instance the past week we had weather that was winterlike and very cozy.  But this week the temperatures are expected to be in the high 70s, hitting maybe 80 on Christmas Eve. Since I lived the early part of my life in the Midwest, I have a vague recollection of what winter is supposed to be, and today I like to celebrate that memory with poetry.

Wallace Stevens

Wallace Stevens’ poem The Snow Man is about winter, and it is also about nothing, not in a literal sense, though it can be read that way, particularly as the primary subject of winter very easily conjures up images of bleakness, nihilistic and natural emptiness. But according to William W. Bevis in his book, Mind of Winter: Wallace Stevens, Meditation, and Literature, Stevens was writing about “meditative descriptions of nothing (Buddhist voidness), with the thing itself meditatively perceived . . .” The poem is indeed Buddhistic and Stevens was familiar with some Buddhist teaching, but it was more likely inspired and modeled after his mentor’s teachings. That mentor being a certain George Santayana.

For me, what Wallace means with “One must have a mind of winter” is something similar to the kind of mind described in the Diamond Sutra, a mind that is “unsupported.” This is an English equivalent to a Sanskrit word, apratishtita, that according to Mu Soeng in The Diamond Sutra: Transforming the Way We Perceive the World, “mirrors the core message of the Diamond Sutra.”

In the sutra, the Buddha tells Venerable Subhuti that a “Bodhisattva should have an unsupported mind, that is, a mind which is nowhere supported, with thoughts unsupported by sights, sounds, smells, tastes, touch, or mind-objects.”

A mind that is unsupported is “a mind not focusing on anything,” or “caught up in anything,” a mind that does not dwell anywhere. This is not our normal mind, or is it? Buddhism teaches that the quiet, unsupported mind, freed from all attachments and functioning harmoniously, is our natural mind, and that it is a state of mind cultivated, or rather, rediscovered only through meditation.

A meditative practice provides us with that “bare place” where for a short space in time, which is the timelessness of the present, we can be unsupported, not caught up in anything nor dwelling anywhere in particular, but entering into a disposition akin to Stevens’ mind of winter, as does the listener, standing in the silent, divestiture of winter, the white space of snow . . .

I’m afraid that further explanation may spoil the poem’s effect for first time readers. So now that I have given you a rough idea of how I interpret The Snow Man, here is the poem written in 1921 by one of the great modern American poets, a man who spent his most of his life working for the Hartford Accident and Indemnity Company in Hartford, Connecticut.

The Snow Man

snowman3One must have a mind of winter
To regard the frost and the boughs
Of the pine-trees crusted with snow;

And have been cold a long time
To behold the junipers shagged with ice,
The spruces rough in the distant glitter

Of the January sun; and not to think
Of any misery in the sound of the wind,
In the sound of a few leaves,

Which is the sound of the land
Full of the same wind
That is blowing in the same bare place

For the listener, who listens in the snow,
And, nothing himself, beholds
Nothing that is not there and the nothing that is.

Wallace Stevens

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A Buddhist Life

December 18 marks the 144th anniversary of the birth of D. T. Suzuki, Japanese teacher, author, translator, and at one time the most famous Zen Buddhist in the world. The importance of Suzuki’s role in introducing Westerners to Zen, and Buddha-dharma in general, cannot be overstated.

Yet, the bright sheen that his image once radiated has lost some of its luster in recent years. Brian Victoria in his book Zen at War has accused Suzuki of complicity with Japanese nationalism during World War ll. Victoria has himself suffered some slings and arrows as the quality and methodology of his scholarship has been questioned by many and Kemmyo Taira Sato in “D. T. Suzuki and the Question of War”, among others, has refuted Victoria’s account of Suzuki’s views on militarism.

Suzuki was not only an influential figure of his time, but a unique one, in that he was not an ordained Buddhist priest, but rather a professor of Buddhist philosophy.  As a result, while he had great influence outside the Zen tradition, his secular standing limited his influence within the tradition.  And by taking a more secular approach, eschewing some of the more metaphysical and ritualistic elements of Zen, and emphasizing the meditative aspect as well as the “special transmission” with “no dependence on words and letters,” he likely did more to shape the still-present form of Zen in the West than anyone else.

Suzuki Daisetsu Teitaro was born in 1870, into a samurai family. It was the era of the Meiji Restoration when the samurai class lost its privilege in Japanese society. His father, a physician, died when he was six, leaving his mother, a Jodo Shinshu believer, to raise him amid impoverished circumstances. By the time she passed away in 1890, Suzuki was already very interested in spirituality, gravitating toward Zen.

Suzuki attended the University of Tokyo, where he studied Chinese, Sanskrit, Pali, several European languages, and of course, philosophy and religion. It was around this time that he also began Zen training at Engaku-ji in Kamakura, where he eventually became a disciple of Shaku Soen, a great Zen master. Shaku Soen invited Suzuki to accompany him to the Parliament of Religions at the 1897 World Fair in Chicago and act as his translator. There he met Paul Carus and began to translate into Japanese Carus’ work The Gospel of Buddha. Suzuki lived in the United States and worked for Carus’ publishing company for ten years. It was here that he also met and married Beatrice Erskine Lane, a Radcliffe graduate and Theosophist.

Suzuki took up a professorship back in Japan, at Otani University in 1921.

Following the death in 1939 of his wife, Suzuki went into seclusion until the end of World War II. When he emerged in 1949, he went to Honolulu to attend the Second East-West Philosopher’s Conference and taught for a year at the University of Hawaii. He spent a year in California, then in 1951 he moved to New York and began teaching on Zen at Columbia University. Some of the notable people who were his students at that time included psychoanalysts Erich Fromm and Karen Horney and the composer John Cage.

suzuki-2014Suzuki retired from Columbia in 1957 and traveled to Cambridge, Massachusetts, where he taught and helped found the Cambridge Buddhist Society. Suzuki’s influence was perhaps most profound on those figures of the time who also wielded considerable influence, people such as Carl Jung, Thomas Merton, Gary Snyder, Allen Ginsberg, and British dharma enthusiast Christmas Humphries, founder of the Buddhist Society.

While he is credited mostly with spreading Zen in the West, during the latter half of his life Sukuki was actually more interested in Jodo (Pure Land).

This is merely a snapshot of Suzuki’s life. For those who would like to learn more, I invite you to read A Zen Life: D.T. Suzuki Remembered by Masao Abe. There is also a documentary available called A Zen Life. And I recommend the books by Suzuki himself: An Introduction to Zen Buddhism (with foreward by Carl Jung), Manual of Zen Buddhism, and Mysticism: Christian and Buddhist, to mention just three.

The latter work is one of the Suzuki books in my library. I am not sure I am agreement with him on every point he makes, yet at the same time it would be rather vain on my part to think that I know more about it than he did. Here is a short passage from the book:

A few more remarks about “Emptiness.”

Relativity [pratitya-samutpada or dependent arising] is an aspect of Reality and not Reality itself. Relativity is possible somewhere between two or more things, for this is the way that makes one get related to another.

A similar argument applies to movement. Movement is possible in time; without the concept of time there cannot be a movement of any sort. For a movement means an object going out of itself and becoming something else which is not itself. Without the background of time this becoming is unthinkable.

Therefore, Buddhist philosophy states that all these concepts, movement and relativity, must have their field of operation, and this field is designated by Buddhist philosophers as Emptiness (sunyata).

When Buddha talks about all things being transient, impermanent, and constantly changing, and therefore teaches that there is nothing in this world which is absolutely dependable and worth clinging to as the ultimate seat of security, he means that we must look somewhere else for things permanent (jo), bliss-imparting (raku), autonomous (ga), and absolutely free from defilements (jo). According to the Nirvana Sutra (of the Mahayana school), these four (jo-raku-ga-jo) are the qualities of Nirvana, and Nirvana is attained when we have knowledge, when the mind is freed from thirst (tanha), cravings (asava), and conditionality (sankhara). While Nirvana is often thought to be a negativistic idea the Mahayana followers have quite a different interpretation. For they include autonomy (ga, atman) as one of its qualities (guna), and autonomy is free will, something dynamic. Nirvana is another name for the Emptiness.

The term “emptiness” is apt to be misunderstood for various reasons. The hare or rabbit has no horns, the turtle has no hair growing on its back. This is one form of emptiness. The Buddhist sunyata does not mean absence.

A fire has been burning until now and there is no more of it. This is another kind of emptiness. Buddhist sunyata does not mean extinction.

The wall screens the room: on this side there is a table, and on the other side there is nothing, space is unoccupied. Buddhist sunyata does not mean vacancy.

D.T Suzuki died in 1966 in Tokyo at age 95.

Gary Snyder said he was “probably the most culturally significant Japanese person in international terms, in all of history.”

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