generosity

Hui-Hai, when asked how one might enter the gate of his school, says, “by means of giving,” literally dana paramita. when asked to clarify he says something startling that might be translated as, “giving means giving up,” or perhaps “giving over,” and adds that all the other practices that make up the Bodhisattva Path are realized through dana. this giving over is what it actually means to be free from suffering in this moment – “naked and free in the midst of the bustling marketplace”. without it even the most diligent practice is just spiritual athleticism and the most meticulous study is empty Zenology. it is what allows us to draw sustenance from the fabric and shape of everyday life and, even at the most difficult of times, find space to turn around.

in any encounter, even the most straightforward, the self-construct stakes out a position because that’s how its works. but, if we pay close attention, it’s easy to see that this act of staking out a position, drawing up categories and making up stories about them is exactly the thing that impoverishes our experience causing us to suffer and bring suffering to others. it’s the source of what the Buddha called “self clinging”. the most intimate request of practice, whether we’re sitting quietly in the Zendo or out wandering around in the World trying not to bump into things, is to relinquish our precious position and move into the very center of the encounter. to stand as close as possible, neither grasping or turning away. this is the essence of dana and, through it, practice is fulfilled.

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nothing is moving

held upright, cradled
by great slabs of air like the walls
of an aquarium

a clear cold spring that
arises from the core seeing
equally through eyes

on the back as well
as the front of the head
the code has finally been

cracked rather there
never really was a code
a scaffolding full

of birds singing
like a house afire or an
empty firehouse full

of smoke actually
nothing is moving more like
something bright and

slippery sloshing
up against the boundaries
of the everyday

like seeing through
innumerable eyes
actually no thing

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don’t know

i have no idea. i
haven’t a clue what to make

of things. haven’t the
foggiest. i am unclear

on the nature and
disposition of the

boundaries. it’s a
complete mystery. i

barely knew him. truth
to tell, i barely recognize

even my own hand.
i have no idea how

it happened. never knew
what hit me. i’m drawing

a blank here. lately
the order and duration

of events completely
elude me and the

messages i’m receiving
utterly defy translation.


texture

father’s day, and i’m sitting in the kitchen waiting for my bread to rise while the grrlz play outside on the sidewalk and the sun shines through the many skylights that pierce the roof of our little cave making pools of light. the bread is sitting on the table in front of me looking promising.

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i heard a deeply moving Dharma talk by the late Darlene Cohen at Tassajara a few years ago where she argued passionately for “the textured life” – a life that she saw as an alternative to both post-modern, late-capitalist consumerism and anti-modernist fundamentalism. briefly, she urged us to engage and invigorate the network of relationships – the “entanglement” as Ian Hodder would have it – by making things for each other and for ourselves.

lately, it seems, i’ve been doing a lot of that. i do the lion’s share of the cooking for our family including making all of our bread and most of our yogurt. i build and fix bikes for myself and others. there is an increasing amount of sewing and other forms of domestic production to be done. and, not surprisingly, it does add texture. and why not? whether we like it or not, we’re inextricably entangled in this vast network of relationships that extends throughout space and time. why not really dig in and feel the texture of the fabric?

ok, i’m done now.

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why it’s like this

in a nutshell, in order to be modern humans, i.e. language-using beings with a robust capacity for detailed, long-range planning, we need to imagine ourselves as separate, persistent and singular. much of what it means to become human, both in terms of child development and the long-term human evolution consists of the elaboration and reification of this self-construct. the self-construct is constantly chewing over past activity and building plans for the future. these retrospective and prospective narratives come with emotional tags that are used to rate and evaluate them. it is constantly, assuming, generalizing, jumping to conclusions, explaining and rationalizing. and, as anyone who has tried to meditate for more than 10 minutes will tell you, it never, EVER seems to shut up.

the problem with all this is that we’re not really as separate, either from each other or from the wider world, as we imagine ourselves to be. nor are we particularly persistent or consistent, even when considered on relatively short time scales. the fundamental agendas of our self-construct are often, perhaps constantly, in conflict with the ever-changing, fundamentally ungraspable nature of the reality in which they are inextricably embedded. we want the world and the beings in it to be the way we see them – the way we need them to be. we imagine that both the world and our relationship with it are static and intelligible. we want more of what we think we want and less of what we think we don’t want. we resist change as though our life depended on it. all this in spite of the fact that life is a gift beyond measure and the world, just as it is, is a miracle beyond our wildest imaginings.

no wonder we want out.


how it feels

20110531-090329.jpgwhat is it like to be human? we should all know this, of course, but it’s surprisingly hard to pin down – mainly because we have so many conflicting ideas about how it is and ought to be.

sitting at the kitchen table in a house full of family and the smell of home-made bagels it’s easy to see that life can feel wonderful, but we know it’s not always like this and we’ve been telling each other about it for millennia. the literary output of humanity from our most ancient texts to the pop du jour is full of attempts to capture (and complain about) exactly what this feels like. there are two things things that are striking about these. first, they often use metaphor, which underlines the fact that the experience is embodied and palpable for us, and second, there is an astonishing degree of cross-cultural agreement about the nature of the experience itself.

so, how is it?

we feel fettered and trammeled – “un-free”. Goffin and King say, “my baby’s got me locked up in chains” the “Blue Cliff Record” talks about “wearing stocks” or being entangled in weeds and vines.

it’s like like we’re groping in the dark. in a particularly evocative turn, Krishna in the “Bhagavadgita” says, “dark inertia binds the self with heedlessness, indolence and sleep.” the metaphor has become so common in modern parlance it needs no further citation here.

we fear our actions are futile or fruitless. Shakespeare’s Macbeth pretty much sums this up when he says that life’s “a poor player, that struts and frets his hour upon the stage, and then is heard no more,” and “a tale told by an idiot.” the ancient Greeks had their myth of Sisyphos.

we ache and feel a lack. in fact, we got a whole lotta lack. we just can’t get enough. we can’t get no satisfaction. the pie is too small. the pond is too tiny and seems to be drying up. the golden age is over and we’re in some other age made of some other, less glamorous metal and so on and so on. Code Monkey lack Fritos(tm), lack Tab(tm) and Mountain Dew(tm)…

these and other related factors are so much a part of human life that they’re like the air we breath and the ground we walk on. to review human history, or just to look back honestly on how the last day or week went, is to see how much suffering we cause ourselves and each other by acting out the mindset described here. and, ever since people started to take notice of them we’ve longed for relief. we long for it with a power and persistence that, it can be argued, trumps all of our other desires and leads us astray more easily than just about anything else. all of us seem to harbor some private conviction that if only such and such were true – if only we had more money, a better job, a more compliant (or less compliant) lover, if our spiritual attainment were greater, if we were smarter, better read, more like person X or whatever particular set of criteria we’ve framed as an ideal – then we’d be free and feel completely alive, untrammeled and full of purpose.

but, here’s the really good news. there’s nothing any of us can do to stop being who we are. period. exclamation point!


how we got here

it seems likely that most parents would say this but around here we get up pretty early. the cats get hungry, the grrrlz roll out of bed all tousled and fresh-faced, and often hungry as well. even on weekends it’s impossible to stay in bed much after 7. then, there’s the inevitable milling around, cooperation, competition and interaction. the grrlz gravitate towards the various iDevices that we seem to have accumulated. they play, they kibitz, sometimes they fight. the daily rounds of domestic production and subsequent cleanup begin anew.

so how did we get here, anyway?

in his excellent book “Catalhoyuk The Leopard’s Tale”, Ian Hodder, who directs the dig and related research at the ancient site in central Turkey identifies, “an underlying process… of material and social entanglement,” stretching way back into the Paleolithic and states that this process is played out “through infinitesimal moves in daily life and daily processes.” he goes on to suggest that this same process drove, for example, the development of sedentism in modern humans and led directly to the development of agriculture. and, it doesn’t take too much reflection to note that we’re still on the same track. what is the Internet, after all – that Wonder of Modern Technology on which i’m soon hoping to post there ramblings – but an artifact of our mutual entanglement with things and with each other? of course, not everyone on the planet lives in the post-modern, late-capitalist world that middle-class inhabitants of San Francisco enjoy, and even some of my near neighbors would probably replace the verb “enjoy” in the previous clause with something closer to “endure”. nonetheless, it’s easy to see that we’re all in this together, working out the consequences of… what exactly? this curious collision between the cognitive requirement that we self-represent as separate entities and our ever-elaborating mutual entanglements with each other and with the things we create together – the dynamic tension between individuality and interdependence. this is it, The Human Condition, and as as Mr. Hodder tells us, we got here one itty-bitty step at a time.

there really has to be a descriptive term for the kind of process that delivered us to this point. “gradual” doesn’t actually capture it, since there are clearly periods where things seem to happen awfully fast – look at the agricultural revolution, for example, or the much later industrial one. nor do terms like “punctuated equilibrium” work since they make it seem like there’s not much going on in between the punctuation marks. given that i haven’t been able to find something that really captures the flavor of it, i’ve invented one – tectonic. tectonic process operate through the accumulation of “infinitesimal moves” that unexpectedly cascade into breathtaking shifts. it’s how mountains walk

we got here tectonically.


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