Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Your Eyes Are In Your Butt

I'm copying this from the end of Lama Surya Das' book Buddha Is As Buddha Does (a book i highly recommend to everyone, by the way) because i find it very humorous and because it made me stop and think when i read it.

A man was knocking on his son's door one morning, trying to wake him up and calling to him again and again, but his son just didn't seem to want to wake up. "You have to go to school today. Wake up!" the man shouted.

"But i don't want to go to school," said the sleepy voice inside.

"Why not?" his father retorted.

"For three reasons," replied the son. "First, because it's dull. Second, the kids tease me. And third, I hate school."

His father responded, "I have three reasons you must go. First because it is your duty. Second, because you are forty years old. And third, because you're the headmaster!"

After reading that, i guess most people will smile and then think something along the lines of 'there comes a point in everyone's life where you have to grow up and accept your responsibilities.' After i stopped laughing, i, on the other hand, immediately said to myself that there comes a point in everyone's life where you need to stop and take a long, quiet, and introspective break in the shade of a tree on the side of your path. Where you quietly sit and and evaluate the trail you have been walking. Is it the trail you thought it would be? Has it been rocky and rubble strewn when you had expected a grassy glade? Has it been a series of climbs and descents when you expected it to be flat or a slow steady rise? Does it seem to be heading towards the local garbage dump when you though it was heading towards the botanical gardens? Or maybe you made the right choice and the path has been going exactly where you thought it would when you chose it?

The headmaster above is obviously on the wrong path. Did he choose it because that's what his father wanted? Did he choose it because that was the easy way out? Did he not even choose it, and just, somehow and in someway, find himself walking a path that ended up leading to that position? In any case, it's obvious that the time has come for him to find that shade tree and take a break while reevaluating what he is doing. As one year ends and another begins, i'm going to join him. I'm going to sit and think and look down that part of the path i've already walked and then see what i might be able to discern about the path that still lies ahead.

Robert Frost, in his famous poem The Road Not Taken, talks about choosing your path. Dōgen does as well, in indirect ways, in his Shōbōgenzō. Both point to the fact that the correct path isn't chosen merely by looking at its outward appearances, the ease involved in walking it, or at society's reaction when you make your choice. Yet, you do have to understand some of the external factors, like, will this path support the lifestyle i want, will this path allow the relationships i hope for, will this path allow the material benefits i want to have? You have to be clear on what you want first; you have to understand what kind of path you want to walk. Are you a mountain person? A beach person? A city person? Are you a loner or do you need other people around? These understandings are important before you can even head to the trail head. And that's where your butt comes into play.

Choosing what's important to you is a decision that is best made from a point deep within yourself. It's an investigation that needs to take place at the core of who you are — and the only way to get to that place is by sitting quietly, finding those gaps between your thoughts, and, with good timing, jumping into the silence between two of them as they go past. Then, just sit and watch from that still, silent center. And watch. Until the answers start to appear. Then, don't argue, don't debate, don't rationalize, don't bargain, don't grieve, and don't talk back. Just listen.

Only when you understand what type of path is for you can you set out to find one that matches those requirements.

So, now you know what i plan to do with myself as a new year begins. I'm going on a hunting expedition. Sounds exciting, doesn't it.

A happy new year to all. May all your dreams come true in 2009.

Sunday, December 28, 2008

Eating Shit For Dinner

Everyone admires
A graceful horse
Galloping past the streaming sunlight,
But few realize that this fleeting image
Is itself the way of Dharma.

From the book The Zen Poetry of Dōgen.

There's no hiding that a spiritual life is how i define my life. Compared to someone who has taken the precepts, of course, i'm still very much a layman. I still enjoy a good cold beer, still fantasize about the incredibly beautiful woman i saw at the book store the other day, still gave the finger to the idiot who cut me off on the highway while trying to cut from the far left lane to the exit ramp on the right because he was talking on his cell phone and almost missed it, and on, and on. But, on the whole, it would be hard for me to imagine a life that wasn't based on Buddhism.

I accept this seemingly split personality with a smile because i know that Dōgen was right — there is nothing that can be separated and categorized as dharma and non-dharma. When i get angry and give someone the finger, that is the dharma at that instant. When i regret having done it a moment later, that is the dharma at that instant. This is no longer just an intellectual understanding, although it was for years, but as obvious to me as the fact that the sun will rise tomorrow morning. By learning to see that both the sacred and the secular are the dharma in all its wonderful glory, i have learned to see that no matter where i am in life, all is OK — as long as i continue to move forward and work to improve myself.

This understanding is, i think, the main reason that i am finding that quitting my job is just not a big deal. I knew the decision was right as soon as it occured to me back in Nepal. I knew as soon as i heard it that the decision was the best present i would give myself in all of 2008.

Living within walls that constrain who and what you are can only do you harm. Living in a rut with no hope of ever climbing out can only leave you discouraged and half alive, at best. Living with the sun in your pocket but keeping your hands tied behind your back will only guarantee that you remain in the dark.

Offering the world less than your potential is cheating yourself and the world. Not giving yourself the chance to find the limits of your potential is a form of mental suicide, so why don't the people that care for you cry when you do this when they would weep and wail if you committed physical suicide? Settling for less than what you can be without a fight is like eating shit for dinner at the kitchen counter, even though there is a banquet on the table on the third floor but not having the courage to climb the stairs.

I have no idea what i am going to find when i leave my job in a few weeks. Given the current job market, i could well find myself unemployed for the entire year. Or i could find myself in a minimum wage job barely getting by. But, i know two things are certain: i have made the right choice and i will be a better person for having taken the leap. The essence of who i am will remember how to fly when the time comes. The wings that used to support my life will unfurl and support me as they have before. Of this i'm sure.

And one more thing i'm sure of ... that all will be well because all can be well when you don't look for it to be otherwise.

Thursday, December 25, 2008

Home For The Holiday

Ladies and gentlemen, welcome aboard. Thank you for joining us on this trip home for the holiday. As soon as everyone is seated, we can begin. We thank you for joining us today as you come home for the holiday.

As you settle in, please ignore the constant chatter of the pilot. Over the years, he has come to believe that if he isn't talking and giving directions all the time then he isn't really in charge.

We know your seat isn't very big, and many of us will have some amount of discomfort in your legs, but please try and remain seated. If you must, please walk quietly in the back.

Thank you for being here. Let's begin our trip.


"Ladies and gentlemen, this is the pilot speaking, i would like to thank you for being here...."

Shut Up!


"Ladies and gentlemen, this is the pilot again, i would like to point out the wonderful scenery out the window on your left...."

Shut Up!


"Ladies and gentlemen, this is the pilot again, i know you're wondering about the weather and i'm happy to report that...."

Shut Up!


"Ladies and gentlemen, this is the pilot again, i'm sure some of your legs are giving you problems, and..."

Oh, you Bastard. You had to remind me, didn't you. OK. OK. Just ignore him. Once he knows no one is paying attention he'll shut up. Just ignore him.


"Ladies and gentle\"





stretching to reach
one small sliver
of the absolute,
i hear my breath
and slide,
sliver in hand,
into nothing.
where i am
the nothing
that fills
stretching to reach,
one small sliver
of the absolute
eats me alive.
and i live.

Merry Christmas and welcome home for the holidays.

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Spiraling Into Control

As you may already know, i'll leave my current job sometime around the middle of January. Assuming that i'll have a lot of time available to catch up and make some of the changes/additions to the Shikoku website that i've been putting off, i've spent a little time over the past few days looking through the site and reminding myself what is there (surprisingly, i don't visit it all that often).

While looking through my 2007 journal, i found this paragraph again:

"...i was listening to a podcast the other day in which Hogen Bays gave a quote that he attributed to Henry Moore. I don't remember it word for word, but in essence it was something like: 'Everyone needs a passion so large that they can throw their energy and life into it, but which they can never completely accomplish.' Isn't that so true? It's in these great and grand passions that we actually live a life instead of just existing for another lifetime. Instead of just another round on the samsaric wheel, believe passionately that a spiral is possible instead. You're still going around, but growing at the same time. It's in the never-ending chase for these completely unaccomplishable goals that we find what we are made of. That's also one of the quotes on the first page of this web site, and it came from T.S. Eliot. 'Only those who dare to go too far can possibly find out how far they can go.' That's my mantra on my long training runs as i get closer to the Chicago Marathon in the fall, and will repeat it over and over as the miles build up. But, it is also my mantra on the trail on Shikoku. You'd be surprised what you can learn by doing nothing more complicated than walking. If you do it correctly, that is. And if you push yourself you can take yourself past limits you never imagined. You can see things about your life that you never imagined possible. You can see things about life that you didn't even know you could imagine."

I really love the concept of having a passion so large that it can engulf you and your life, but which you can never hope to fully accomplish in this life. Yet, this points directly to what is probably one of the biggest contradictions in my life. On the one hand, i have, for as long as i can remember breathing, believed in spirals over circles. A life where you aren't growing is not a life worth talking about, in my opinion. On occasion i jokingly tell people that if you aren't growing and learning, then you might as well just pull the trigger, but i have seen several people blink when i say that so try to keep it to myself now.

I don't believe that we are 'here' with a given purpose that we need to fulfill. I do believe, however, that we all give our lives purpose — and that every person's purpose will be unique, even if in some small way. And the closer you get your purpose to the great, unachievable passion that Henry Moore alluded to, the better, happier, and more fulfilling your life will be.

On the other hand, i am a firm believer in living a simple life. Live in a house that fit's your needs, not the Jones' expectations. Drive a car that gets you around, not just from fuel pump to fuel pump. Better yet, learn to walk and ride your bicycle again. Buy what you need and give yourself an occasional treat of something you want, as opposed to buying everything you see that catches your fancy. Be content with what you have. Learn to appreciate what you have. Learn to appreciate that you don't need everything. Learn to appreciate how much you really do have as compared to the vast majority of the people living south of the equator.

But, if you let that simplicity take over, and you lead a life of complacency, a life with no challenges, a life with no goals high enough to reach down and pull you up above just plain existence, then ..... then..... well, then i don't see how you can call it a life. At least not a life much different than a slug.

That goal can be anything at all — from learning how to solve Maxwell's Equations or Quantum Physics to learning how to knit a sweater with knit 2-pearl 3 instead of the other way around. It can be training to run a 3 hour marathon or working up to walking 5 blocks. It can be setting aside enough time to read one book a month or enough time to read the entire Pali Cannon. It can be taking a class in public speaking or learning 20 new knock-knock jokes. It can be learning to sit still for 5 minutes or learning to sit long enough to last through a week long sesshin.

The point is, everyone's goals are going to be different, and they are all great, all wonderful, all worthy ... as long as they make you stretch your limits.

I could rattle off a half-dozen goals i have set for myself next year. Each one will demand more of myself than i was able to do in 2008. Some are physical and will entail many hours in my running shoes. Some are physical and will entail many hours sitting on my butt. Some require studying. Some will prove i'm full of hot air. The biggest one, though, may simply be convincing myself that i'm not a professional failure and getting myself to believe in myself once again. Not an easy task, maybe close to impossible, but hey, ya gotta' try.

Saturday, December 20, 2008

Moving Forward

I watched a couple of Japanese movies on YouTube this evening quite by happenstance. I had never heard of them before this afternoon, and stumbled on them completely by chance. In fact, i don't even remember how i stumbled on them, i certainly wasn't looking for them, or for a movie to watch for that matter. I only started watching the first one because one of the lead actresses is a huge hit in Japan right now, having just played the star role in the 2008 NHK year-long drama.

When i stumbled onto the first movie, i figured i'd watch the first few episodes and then work on some studying i wanted to do today. Because it was about a punk rock band trying to make it big in Japan, it was completely out of character for the type of move i would usually watch, and for that reason, i was astounded to find myself watch the whole thing — at just under two hours.

What was even more amazing was that after watching the last episode, and then noticing that there was a sequel as well, i watched that too! Amazing. I don't even like punk rock.

So why did i watch them? They weren't great movies by my standards, but i had been transfixed for about four hours. While making supper, i wondered why i was watching them, even though i knew that i would go back and watch the last of the sequel as soon as supper was ready. And i did keep watching, and then, about 10 minutes from the very end of the sequel, the movie itself told me why it had come to Lockport and visited me today.

At that time, just as success was finally opening the door and asking the band to come in, the lead character was wondering about the ups and downs she had gone through, and why the downs seemed to be more than the ups so much of the time. And, as if she was talking to me, as if she was telling me why they had made me watch, she gave me the message.

"I think life is gently going whichever direction you find yourself going. And finding yourself adrift isn't such a stupid thing — if you keep advancing forwards."

I know that. I have always know that. But sometimes it is so easy to forget and to wonder why the downs seem to overwhelm the ups from time to time. If you're not careful, it's easy to lose focus and not see which direction you are supposed to be going. To settle for being adrift. Complacency can get you. Laziness can get you. Greed can get you. A lot of things can blur your focus.

And that's when the universe sees fit to sit you in a chair and put a movie on if that's the only way it can get the message through your thick skull.

Thanks Nana. Thanks universe.

(But next time, put the message in the first 10 minutes instead of the last 10 so i don't have to sit there for so long. Or put it in a martial arts film with Zhang Ziyi as the lead.)

Thursday, December 18, 2008

The Henro Trail

Peace. Love. Calm. Strength. More.
I came for adventure, but...

Sunday, December 14, 2008

Tying Up Loose Ends

I can't sleep so might as well try and finish up what i started with my last post before i realized i was getting too long winded and cut it off. I suppose i could/should go downstairs and sit for a while instead, but am just too lazy to get out of bed. :-)

What is the one thing that almost every henro does at both the Hondō and the Daishidō of each temple? They recite the Heart Sutra. It's a magnificent document if you take the time to study it (and i'm thinking in terms of years, not hours, days, or weeks).

Without question, the most famous lines in the sutra are "Form is not different from Emptiness. Emptiness is not different from Form. Form is exactly Emptiness. Emptiness is exactly Form." In fact, a lot of people, Buddhists and non-Buddhists alike, can probably quote those lines, but not one other single line from the entire sutra.

Go back and look at the first paragraph of the Zenki chapter of the Shōbōgenzō that i quoted yesterday.

The Great Way of all the Buddhas and the ultimate goal in Buddhism is detachment from life and death and the realization of enlightenment. We must be detached from life in life and death in death, i.e., when we are alive life is total activity; and in death, death is total activity. Life is the experience of life and death is the experience of death. Life and death together are the actual appearance of truth. The ultimate goal is detachment from, that is total immersion in, life and death. Understanding life and death are [the means whereby the Bodhisattva achieves salvation for himself and other].

One of the things i wanted to say last night is that you could easily replace 'life' and 'death' in that paragraph with 'form' and 'emptiness' without losing any significance — and in some ways, gaining a little.

The Great Way of all the Buddhas and the ultimate goal in Buddhism is detachment from form and emptiness and the realization of enlightenment. We must be detached from form in form and emptiness in emptiness, i.e., when we are form form is total activity; and in emptiness, emptiness is total activity. Form is the experience of form and emptiness is the experience of emptiness. Form and emptiness together are the actual appearance of truth. The ultimate goal is detachment from, that is total immersion in, form and emptiness. Understanding form and emptiness are [the means whereby the Bodhisattva achieves salvation for himself and other].

The ultimate goal in Buddhism is detachment from form and emptiness. I believe that to be a given. But, it doesn't say to embrace form over emptiness, or to swing the other way and embrace emptiness over form. Both must be embraced, and both, taken together, are the manifestation of truth. Or, as Dōgen chose to say it, we have to detach ourselves from form and emptiness, although he is saying the same thing.

How do you detach yourself from form? You immerse yourself totally into it; you embrace it completely, until there is no longer an embracer and that which is embraced, there is only form. How do you detach yourself from emptiness? You immerse yourself totally into it; you embrace it completely, until there is no longer an embracer and that which is embraced, there is only emptiness.

It is through the process of completely immersing yourself in both form and emptiness that you detach yourself from them. By becoming first form, then emptiness, then both, you come to the point where there is no longer you and them, but one. Not one, but not two, just is.

Jumping to the second and third paragraph of Zenki we could also say:

... When we actualize enlightenment the full meaning of form and emptiness becomes clear. However, this experience cannot be defined by consciousness or cognition, large or small, limited or unlimited, long or short, near or far.

Our present life is formed by this experience; in the same way, this experience is formed by life. ...

Dōgen doesn't say that our life is formed by how well we sit, or how many hours we do it, but by how well we understand the meaning of form and emptiness. Life and death. All and nothing. Infinity and zero. And our understanding of them is also formed by our life.

Walking on the henro trail all day, day after day, week after week, for several months — under clear skies or in the rain, when you're tired or when you're juiced, when it's hot or when it's freezing cold, when you're with other henro or when you're all alone — is therefore the perfect time to work on embracing form and embracing emptiness. All you have to do is take Dōgen's advice; when you are form, let form be total activity. When you are emptiness, let emptiness be total activity.

The rest will come in due time.

Friday, December 12, 2008

So what's it all about?

So what's it all about? This henro thing. I mean, what's the big deal? You walk in a circle, ending up back where you started, you don't sit on real furniture for several months, sleep on the floor every night, eat a lot of your meals at convenience stores, walk in the rain (and get s.o.a.k.e.d!), don't talk to anyone for days, and at the end may find yourself tired, sore, hungry, and broke. Are henro nuts?? You could be drinking a Pina Colada on a beach somewhere and enjoying yourself for crying out loud.

Let's say someone walked the henro trail, but not for the purpose of having a new experience. Not because he wanted to see the 'real' Japan. Not because he wanted to chalk up an experience that was unique, and that would label him as 'cool.' Not because he wanted to do something none of his friends had even thought about doing, let alone done. That he didn't even care if anyone else knew he did it, and the only people he told before setting off was his family so they wouldn't call the police when he disappeared for a few months. And when he came back, he didn't tell anyone then either. It wasn't something he needed to brag about. That while on the trail, he didn't take any pictures, didn't get a nōkyōchō stamped, didn't recite the Heart Sutra, didn't dress in the henro garb, didn't carry a walking stick, and didn't tell anyone he was a henro.

Let's say he was like Kūkai back when Kūkai was 21 or 22 years old. He just went. Gave up his job, dropped out of school, and headed to Shikoku. And he meditated, sometimes while sitting on a mountain, sometimes while sitting on a beach, sometimes while walking along a road, sometimes while climbing a mountain path. And he thought. And he analyzed. And he examined. And he tried to figure it all out. If you're like most people, you're born, go to school, get a good job, make lots of money, make a reputation for yourself as being someone others need to know, accumulate stuff, lots and lots of stuff, learn new languages, learn new subjects, like law, poetry, and literature, accumulate a lot more stuff, most of it you want but don't need, and then grow old, secure in all your stuff and in your reputation, before finally ... dying. Period. Dead. Gone. With all your possessions, your reputation, the memories of you, and everything else, still here. You worked your ass off for 80-90 years, and it ended up doing you absolutely no good in the end. You still died. Dead. Completely gone. As if you were never here. End of story.

So let's say he was like Kūkai and tried to figure all that out while he walked. And walked. And walked. And walked. Day after day after day after day. For several months. Can anyone tell me why he should bother?

Kūkai saw the answer early one morning while sitting on Cape Muroto. Dōgen Zenji saw it too, centuries later, and tells us the answer in the Zenki ("The Total Activity of Life and Death") chapter of his Shōbōgenzō.

The Great Way of all the Buddhas and the ultimate goal in Buddhism is detachment from life and death and the realization of enlightenment. We must be detached from life in life and death in death, i.e., when we are alive life is total activity; and in death, death is total activity. Life is the experience of life and death is the experience of death. Life and death together are the actual appearance of truth. The ultimate goal is detachment from, that is total immersion in, life and death. Understanding life and death are [the means whereby the Bodhisattva achieves salvation for himself and other].

Realization of enlightenment means true life — full, free activity. When we actualize enlightenment the full meaning of life and death becomes clear. However, this experience cannot be defined by consciousness or cognition, large or small, limited or unlimited, long or short, near or far.

Our present life is formed by this experience; in the same way, this experience is formed by life. Life is not coming or going, appearing or disappearing. Life is the total experience of life; conversely, death is the total experience of death. In the unlimited nature of Buddhist practice life and death have this special meaning. If we reflect on our present life and begin to have some awakening, gradually, the world starts to manifest its complete appearance. The entire universe is filled with the total activity of life. Each instant has total existence.

Wow. Did you read that? "Life is not coming or going, appearing or disappearing. Life is the total experience of life." "When we are alive life is total activity." "If we reflect on our present life and begin to have some awakening, gradually, the world starts to manifest its complete appearance."

Life is the total experience of life. When we are alive life is total activity. Don't read this as saying when you are alive, then life is total activity. Instead read it as saying when life is total activity, when all of your activities — from working to sleeping, from eating to taking a shit, from sitting at home to walking the henro trail, all activities — are !completely! lived, fully conscious, wide awake, without distractions, as alive and aware as you would be if someone had just pushed you out of an airplane without a parachute, completely focused on your experience, then you are alive.

That's what you can find on the henro trail. That's what makes it worth it. That's why he should bother. The possibility to soar is right there for the plucking. In every step, around every corner, in every encounter, in every new blister, in every new backache, in your sunburned nose, in every smile you give and every smile you receive, in every breath, you get another chance to see that life is the most important thing in your life. You get another chance to realize, as the the sun rises each new day, that it's how you live life that gives you life.

Dōgen finishes Zenki with this summary of the potential that is the trail on Shikoku:

"At the moment of realization, life and death become completely clear. Do not think, however, that there is no previous realization. Every moment contains total reality and is complete in itself. Recognize that there is continual realization, constantly renewing itself."

And Nike finishes its commercials with this summary of Dōgen:

"Just do it."

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Killing Chickens In The Dark

Mary Oliver gave a short but breathtaking lecture on life in one of her poems from the collection called Thirst:

The Uses of Sorrow
(In my sleep I dreamed this poem)

Someone I loved once gave me
A box full of darkness.

It took me years to understand
That this, too, was a gift.

Sometimes the most obvious of facts can take a lifetime to see, as Mary points out in her poem. The difficulty isn't that the signs aren't there, it's simply that we don't have the eyes to see them. Yes, yes, of course we have the physical equipment needed to see — the eyeballs stuck in our head at the front of our skulls. What's lacking, and what causes us all our problems, is what those eyeballs connect to, and what we use to process, filter, and edit the information we take in.

I don't remember it perfectly because i read it several decades ago, but James Michener had a great line in his novel Space that went something like: "An age isn't called Dark because the light didn't shine, but because people refused to see." Or something like that. This points to the same thing; it's not that you can't see what is right in front of you, but that you don't see what's right in front of you.

Learning to see what is really there takes a new set of eyes, a set of eyes that most people don't take the time to develop. It is with these new eyes that you see reality, that you see life without your presuppositions, without your beliefs, without your ideologies, without your religions, without your assumptions, without your conjectures, and on and on.

Learning to see life with these new eyes is very, very, difficult. But, oh, the wonders it brings into view makes every minute you invest in developing them worthwhile.

I heard an old Sufi story that epitomizes the new world view that you live in once you develop these new eyes and accustom yourself to using them. An old and wise Sufi priest called two of his disciples to him one day and gave each of them a chicken, telling them to go kill the chicken where no one else would see. The first disciple turned and walked behind a fence, and after a few flapping of wings and a little noise the chicken was dead. The second disciple left and wandered around for several days before finally coming back to the priest with the still very much alive chicken in his arms. You didn't kill the chicken? asked the priest? I couldn't, replied the disciple. No matter where i went, the chicken could still see.

I can close my eyes and see the smile slowly creep across the priest's face after hearing that. There is still hope, he probably whispered to himself. With those new eyes, it's not just 'me' and 'everything else out there.' It's us. It's all of humanity. It's all sentient beings, chickens included. It's the universe, the cosmos. With effort, you can stretch your sense of who you are to include everything else. It is possible.

Robert Thurman wrote a marvelous paragraph in his Forward to a recent English translation of the Tibetan book Lamrim Chenmo, or The Great Treatise on the Stages of The Path To Enlightenment.

[The Lamrim Chenmo] "presents a stunning vision of the timeless origin and infinite permutations of all life forms, locating the precious jewel of an individual human embodiment at a critical moment of personal evolution. It provides this revelation in such a way that individual readers can be moved to achieve a fundamental paradigm shift in their vision of their lives: from having been a self-centered, this-life-oriented personal agent struggling with the currents and obstacles around them, anxiously seeking some security and happiness before hopefully finding peaceful obliteration in death; to becoming a magnificent awakening being soaring out of an infinite past experience in marvelous evolutionary flight toward an unimaginably beautiful destiny of wisdom, love, and bliss — Buddhahood, or simply the supreme evolutionary glory attainable by any conscious being."

A fundamental paradigm shift in your vision of who and what you are? Of who and what we are? Of who and what are? How may of us can truly say that they want to make that paradigm shift? How many of us can honestly say that they hope to become "a magnificent awakening being soaring ... toward an unimaginably beautiful destiny of wisdom, love, and bliss?" If this book can really move you to wanting that, it's amazing that everyone who reads this doesn't immediately run out and buy a copy.

If you do want to wander in that direction, though, begin your journey there by doing your stretching exercises every day. Day after day after day, stretch your concept of who you are so that it includes more and more of what previously you labeled 'out there.' Also, notice, as Mary did, that even darkness can be a gift. And notice that with your new eyes, you can see a lot in that darkness.

Sunday, November 23, 2008


Paulo Coelho wrote a book about his walk of the Camino pilgrimage in Spain sometime back in the late '80s. Appropriately titled The Pilgrimage, it outlines not only the physical walk, but his mental and emotional progression from an individual walking the trail to a true henro. At the start of his journey, Coelho was simply walking in order to find a ceremonial sword he needed for advancement in an organization he belonged to. Near the end of his walk, however, he came to a wonderful new understanding of why he was really there.

"And the secret of my sword, like the secret of any conquest we make in our lives, was the simplest thing in the world: it was what I should do with the sword. I had never thought in these terms. Throughout our time on the Strange Road to Santiago, the only thing I had wanted to know was where it was hidden. I had never asked myself why I wanted to find it or what I needed it for. All of my efforts had been bent on reward; I had not understood that when we want something, we have to have a clear purpose in mind for the thing that we want. The only reason for seeking a reward is to know what to do with that reward. And this was the secret of my sword."

I could be wrong, but my guess is that a great many first time henro on Shikoku also start their walk focused solely on a reward. What am 'I' going to get out of this? What am 'I' going to gain? And that's where they stop. Rarely, i think, do they take it to the next level and ask themselves what they will do with those gains once they receive them, what they will do with the benefits that accrue over the course of the two months it takes to walk the henro trail. And because they don't take that next step, after the walk is over and they return home all of the gains and benefits dissipate.

The reason this happens is because it is 'I' that makes that first walk. It is your ego in those sweaty boots looking for a reward, and you let it, without an understanding of what you want those rewards for, without an understanding of what those rewards can be used for, without an understanding of how to use those rewards to reduce 'I' and bring out you.

I'm not suggesting that ego is an entirely bad thing. Without our egos, we would all still be living like cavemen and women. Without our egos, we would all still be living short and relatively unhealthy lives. Without our egos, civilization would not progress. Ego is a good thing. But, ego should be no different than the suit you put on to go to work. It should be recognized for what it is — the outer clothes that you put on to differentiate yourself from others as you interact with the rest of the world. The real you is underneath those clothes.

The real you isn't concerned with progress, success, fame, fortune, and all of that, even if the ego is completely addicted to it. The real you isn't worried about tomorrow even if the ego can think of nothing else. The real you can't hate anyone because the real you is everyone. The real you isn't thinking about the next temple, the next night's lodging, being a good henro, or whether or not you'll even finish the walk. The real you, that man behind the mask, that woman inside the suit, is only concerned with one thing — and there's no word for it. The real you simply is, step-by-step, breath-by-breath, from the moment you leave Temple 1 until the moment you return.

So, i ask you, why do you want whatever you happen to be seeking at the current moment? Why do you want to become whatever it is you are trying to become at the current moment? What are you grasping for in your life? What do you intend to do with it once you find it? It's not enough just to want it, you have to understand what you want it for. You have to know what you will do with it once you get it.

And then i'll ask, why do you want to become a henro? What do you intend to do with yourself once you become one? Somewhere along the trail, most of you will find yourself on the side of another road and realize that I has been missing for the last hour; you will find yourself climbing a steep trail to another temple and I will be so tired it shuts up and the real you will peek out from behind the curtain. What will you do with that wonderful opportunity?

Saturday, November 8, 2008

Who Aren't You?

If anyone ever tells you that someone isn't a henro just because they walked the henro trail for the simple enjoyment of walking and didn't spend days on end in introspection, tell them to get a life. Tell them to mind their own business. Tell them to judge themselves, and to leave others lives to the care of those other people.

What nonsense to think that one person has the right to use his standards of what a henro ought to be to judge another person's actions. Poppycock! If someone even starts down this road with you, cut them off and tell them you don't want to hear it. Tell them that's not a road you have any intention of following. That the scenery along that road is of no interest to you.

Then, very slowly, and with as much patience as you can, try and get them to see it from another point of view. A henro is anyone who, for whatever reason, has chosen to spend some amount of time on all, or part of, the henro trail. If you walk all of it, you're a henro. If you walk from temple one to temple two and stop there, you were a henro for the amount of time it took to visit temple one, go to temple two, and visit there. If you travel on foot you're a henro. If you use a bicycle you're a henro. If you use a car, motorbike, taxi, bus, helicopter, or any other form of transportation — you are a henro. If you spend any amount of time on the henro trail you are a henro.

And why is that? Because the henro isn't the egoic person with two smelly feet laced inside a pair of boots, the person called Dave, or Fred, or Mary, or Sue, it's Life itself, using that person as a vehicle to get around. And since Life currently manifests itself through over six billion different human forms, each with its own distinct egoic filtering system, of course each time it walks the henro trail, it will appear to do so with different motives, different expectations, different experiences, different outcomes.

However, there is only one henro. Life. Life living through you, me, Fred, Mary, Sue, and all of the other people out there on the trail. It's not the egoic person who chose to do the walk. Life is using that person as another vehicle to work its way around the henro trail. Even if it's doing nothing more than simply enjoying the scenery, enjoying meeting people, enjoying drinking beer and telling stories at the minshuku each night, life is just doing what it does — living. And at that particular time, it happens to be doing it on the henro trail.

Looking at life through through your ego's eyes you separate yourself from everyone and everything else. Letting Life look at life through it's own eyes, the ones that happen to be located in your head, you would see that you aren't separate from others. You couldn't be separate from others. If you ever took the time to look into the eyes of someone else, deeply and with no thoughts, you'd be surprised to see that it was only you (i.e., Life) looking back at you smiling. As if you were looking in a mirror. But it shouldn't surprise you because you are Life, the other person is Life, everyone is nothing more, or less, than Life; each of us is nothing less than everything, manifesting in a different human body.

So, if one person spends all of her time on the henro trail in deep introspection, examining who and what she is, and someone else spends all of his time on the henro trail drinking beer and whooping it up ... what's the difference? Life is just doing what it needs to do at the time it needs doing and in the way it needs doing. But, in each case, Life is still the henro.

No, don't fall for those stories from people who try to say one henro is better than another because they follow a certain prescribed ritual on the trail. When you hear it, just tell yourself to shut up, plant your behind on your zafu, and let Life explain yourself to you. As many times as it takes to hear the message.

(...another point of view...)

Friday, November 7, 2008

Who are you?

I want to be short and to the point today. Just because you walked the henro trail does not mean that you are a henro anymore than having visited all 88 Buddhist temples means that you are a Buddhist. There are henro and there are tourists. There are Buddhists and there are spiritual tourists. Enter and look around here, run off and look around over there, then run off again and look around somewhere else, and on and on.

Being a henro is not something physical. It is psychological. It is emotional. It is spiritual. Being a henro means more than just doing the walk — anyone can accomplish this physical task. It means you also take on the mental task of examining your life, examining who you are, who it is that is walking in your boots, who it is that is so very happy on some days and so very frustrated on others, who it is that doesn't notice time for a week and then can't do anything but watch the clock when you're waiting for the cash station to open, who it is that walks in the rain for days without even noticing it and then gets angry when the waitress spills your water. Who is this person? Who are you?

Being a henro means making the effort to notice the gaps between your thoughts and trying to peek through to see what's on the other side. Being open to the vast expanse that appears when you do get a glimpse and instead of backing off in surprise, going back again and again and again for longer and longer looks. Until, after thousands of steps and hundreds of kilometers, you begin to feel more comfortable there than in the steady stream of irrelevant thoughts that used to stream through your mind all day, day after day. Until you feel happier in that expanse looking back out through the gaps than you were outside looking in. Who are you?

Being a henro means making the effort to notice the emotions that have habitually ruled your life. Noticing how they come and go of their own whim, without the slightest effort on your part to call them up or send them away. Coming to see that they are a hindrance to your efforts, an impediment to a full life, a life full of generosity, compassion, and love. A deterrent to hope, realized potential, and success. It means coming to understand that emotions can be controlled, can be trained. Who is that person?

A short but great book is The Holy Man by Susan Trott. I first wrote about it in my Shikoku journal back in 2001, two years after i walked the henro trail for the first time. The story line, as i wrote back then, is:

The Holy Man lives on the top of a mountain at the end of a single 10 mile trail. Every spring and summer thousands of people from all over the world trek up the mountain for the chance to meet him. Because of the overwhelming number of people making the trek up one single trail, though, they inevitably end up forming a line covering the entire length of the trail and find themselves standing in the line for a month or more before getting to the top and getting their chance to meet him.

Once a pilgrim reaches the head of the line the procedure is as quick as it is consistent. They knock on the front door, a man in simple robes answers and asks what he can do for them, at which point they answer "I've come to see the Holy Man."

Upon hearing this, the man asks them to follow him and leads them along a straight corridor directly to the back of the house, opens the back door, and tells them goodbye. Flabbergasted and shocked, almost every pilgrim stutters a reminder that they have come to see the Holy Man — at which point the Holy Man says "You have seen me" ... and closes the door.

As you walk the henro trail, are you aware that the Holy Man is with you each step of the way, each breath of the way? Or, do you find yourself asking for him again and again at each temple when you stop to get your Nōkyōchō stamped and signed? As you make your way up yet another mountain trail, do you hear the Holy Man speaking to you? As the wind blows through the trees in the bamboo grove, as the waves roll up on the beach, as the kite swoops down to eat something only it can see, as the sun claws its way over the horizon in the morning, as the moon slowly sets each night, ....... in every instant of every day, do you hear the Holy Man offering his teachings? Do you see him showing you who and what you are?

Who are you? Are you a henro?

Monday, October 20, 2008

Existence vs. Life

There's two ways to look at it....

I love traveling because i love looking down that road where i have never been before, looking out at new things, looking forward to new experiences, new viewpoints, new perspectives. Meeting new people. Looking for new challenges, new goals. New ways to look at life, new ways to see how my existence matters. I love the adrenaline rush of anticipation. I love that slight fear of uncertainty as you approach the impending unknown.

Or, i love traveling because it provides new ways to avoid accepting my life as it is. New ways to distract myself for what is in my life. New ways to ignore that my life isn't working as is. New ways to change the subject.

I do understand this dichotomy, even though it may not seem obvious. As i said in a previous post, the reason i have always been attracted to Mt., fascinated by Mt. because of the obviously inherent challenge of climbing it. Everest represents, for me, the ultimate challenge --- one of the places where you actually put your life on the line, where you accept the ultimate challenge. Some people say it is all about ego, and while i might agree when thinking about before or after the climb, during the climb, i imagine that it is about anything but the ego.

I imagine that during the climb it is about the climb and nothing else. It's not about you and it's not about the mountain. It's the climb, which encompasses you, the mountain, the weather, time, ... everything. For the last half day, or so, it's about nothing less than everything. For a half day, you give up your narrow ego-centric existence for a life that is no bigger or smaller than all of Life itself.

But, i have gotten off track. I started writing because having just trekked to Everest Base Camp made me stop and think. It was a fascinating trip. Everything, and more, than i expected. But, when it was over and the time came to go back to work, my guts revolted. Everything in my body cried No, don't do it.

I gave my notice at work on Friday. It's time to admit that i have already died but have refused to admit it. I had sold my soul for a good salary and 5 weeks vacation each year. Even though i commute back and forth to the office each day, and therefore *look* to be among the living, i am no longer alive between vacations.

The short way to say this is that life is too short. The longer version is that you never know when it's going to be over and until that day, it's a crime to spend your time doing something you don't enjoy. Or worse. What matters isn't how much money you make each year or how many weeks of vacation you get. What matters is how much you LIVE. How alive you are each day. As i have probably said a hundred times in other writings, there is a universe of difference between "existing" and "living," and i have been doing a whole lot of the former, and very little of the later these past few years.

Shakespeare had it right --- "To be or not to be, that is the question." That's really the only question for people like me. Are you alive in the fullest sense of the word, or aren't you? That is the question i ask myself each and every morning when the alarm clock goes off. That's the question everyone should ask themselves each and every morning of their lives. If you are, good for you. If you aren't, shouldn't you do something about it?

"Whether 'tis nobler in the mind to suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, or to take arms against a sea of troubles, and by opposing, end them." No, of course i'm not advocating taking up arms and putting an end to my sea of troubles, but i am arguing that sooner or later one must accept it when your fortune is outrageous as is and oppose it. Is it nobler to simply take a deep breath every time another wave crashes over your head and continue to ride out the storms in the wild hopes that sooner or later "fortune" will somehow, someway, wash you close enough to shore that you can scramble to safety? Or, is it nobler to take arms and oppose that fortune?

I have traveled a lot in this life. My guess is that i have traveled a lot in all of my lives. I have seen a lot. Done a lot. More than most people. And for that reason, many people say i have led a blessed life. I would agree, i suppose, but when the sun sets tomorrow, will my life be better served knowing that i go to bed with health insurance and a growing savings account, or knowing that even though i don't have either of those, at least i lived for 24 hours without selling my soul.

Friday, September 12, 2008

Shut up, will ya....

Willfully disregarding every sense of propriety, he chatted on, and on, and on, and on, and on. He just would.not.shut.up. Raging like a wild summer squall, i was sure everyone on the train must have been able to hear him. I demanded silence and counted to 10 and was ignored. I tried to stare him down and was ignored. I pleaded and was ignored. So, after about 20 minutes of reading the same page over and over, unable to concentrate or remember even one paragraph, i had finally had enough. I put my foot down.

Unfortunately, all that gave me was a sore foot. It wasn't until i surrendered, put my book away, and just relaxed into the scenery passing by outside that my mind stopped, allowing peace and quiet to settle like a pleasant summer breeze.

Thursday, September 11, 2008


Born in fifty three.
How much longer after that,
before I was born?


Born in fifty three.
But I came sometime later.
Where did you come from?

Saturday, September 6, 2008

Mt. Everest

The week after next i go on another pilgrimage of sorts. I have always, for as long as i can remember, wanted to climb Mt. Everest and i'm finally heading to the mountain. I don't get to actually climb it, that's far too expensive for me, but i'm going on a two week trek to Everest Base Camp.

Mt. Everest has always been, for me, a symbol of man's ability (need?) to stretch himself (or herself), explore his boundaries, push himself to new levels, to expand the envelope he lives in. Too many people live their lives in safe and secure cocoons, never exploring the limits of what they are capable of, never probing the depths of what life has to offer, never demanding of themselves a life fully lived. Why?

I know there are a great many people who would disagree with those comments and who say you don't have to push your limits in order to live a good life. And i can't disagree with them. If that's the life you want to live, you have that right. But, i will always believe that T.S. Eliot got it right when he said, "Only those who risk going too far can possibly find out how far they can go." If you never attempt to go past your limits, you will never know where your limits lie.

And, if you don't know were your limits are, you don't know all that life has to offer. That is as equally true in your hiking boots on Mt. Everest as it is barefoot on your zafu. One tests your physical limits and the other tests your mental limits. One exposes you to the wonders of the physical world and the other exposes you to the wonders of the mind.

So, for the next several weeks, i'm going to climb off Mt. Zafu and walk to Mt. Everest. And while i may not ever get to climb it, in this life, at least, i will finally get to put my foot on it's base and take some pictures.

Saturday, August 30, 2008

The Path

Approximately two days before the beginning of eternity and at least five kilometers past the far edges of infinity, there once lived a wise old coot. Now before you roll your eyes and say that's impossible, let me assure you that he was, in fact, wise. There is documented evidence in existence, although i admit i haven't seen it.

The story as i heard it is that early one morning, just as the temperatures started to climb, the old man woke from an amazing dream to find that his head had exploded during the night. The part of this predicament that he found amusing was that he didn't really care. As hard as it was for him to imagine, he just wasn't bothered in the least. Fine, no head, he thought in passing, as he got up and put away the branches and leaves he had slept under.

Luckily for him, his morning rituals were so completely ingrained that he didn't have to have a head to remember what to do or how to do it. So, without a thought, he faced the sun, pressed his hands together in thanks for another day, chanted "the" verse until he disappeared, and began his daily pilgrimage around the lone grain of sand lying in the center of the clearing. It didn't take long to make one circle around, but he would continue, around and around, until the sun had risen high enough for the shadows to disappear and the heat of the sun to warm his skin.

It was during these daily circumambulations that he felt most alive, energized and full of life. He had come to worship this grain of sand for it's ability to transport him completely beyond time and space, completely beyond existence, completely beyond "beyond," with the implied limits that come with that comparison to "here." In this place beyond limits he simply was. Step. Breath. Step. Breath. Step. Breath. Step. Breath. No more than that. No less than that. Life reduced to the simplest of simplicities mysteriously expanded being to the unimaginable and inexplicable.

When had he first learned this? How had he stumbled on it? This one grain of sand — how had it become the focus of his life?

As his skin began to warm, later that morning, he slowly began to reappear. With sweat dripping from every pore of his body he left the center of the clearing and sat in the shade of a tree to eat a little and drink as much as his body would hold. The next session would be harder, it always was, and he would need the liquids to fight off the heat from the rising sun. But even though it was harder, the second session of the day was always the most fruitful, taking him so deep into the circle that he became that grain of sand.

He remembered the first time he had come across the clearing those many, many decades ago. While resting under this very same tree, he noticed what appeared to be a well trod path in the shape of a very small circle right in the middle of the clearing. Odd, he thought to himself, as he got up to investigate. The path had obviously been walked often and the earth was packed rock hard all the way around. But, it couldn't be more than seven or eight steps in all each time around. What could it possibly be? Who could have possibly made it? For what reason?

Without even thinking about it he made his first trip around the path right then and there, but it wasn't until years later that he first noticed the grain of sand.

For the first few days after he stumbled onto this strange path, he wasn't really sure what he was doing. It turned out to be exactly seven steps, heel to toe, around the path, and to do that he had to walk slower then he ever thought possible. But for reasons he didn't understand, he was compelled to continue, hour after hour, day after day. Typically he would walk for a few hours and then rest in the shade of one of the large trees on the edge of the clearing. Then, after a break he went back and walked some more — always hoping the the reason (or reasons) for the path's existence would become clear.

One thing soon became obvious to him, even if it wasn't why the path was there. During his late afternoon walks, he began to notice that his mind was much quieter, almost calmer, than it was when he began his walks first thing in the morning. When he first noticed that, he was shocked. It had never occurred to him how busy his mind had always been. But, now that he noticed the short periods of silence, it made the morning periods feel like feeding time in the monkey cage at a zoo. And as the periods of calm lengthened and became more numerous, he started to grow very attached to them. Very, very attached. So much so that he soon couldn't imagine doing anything with his day other than walking around and around and around his path.

As the days turned into weeks, and the weeks into months, he settled into a routine and his ability to maintain long hours of silence grew.

not finished yet...