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Friday, December 28, 2012

Growing Old

Friends of mine live on a farm not far from my home. They enjoy growing their own food so they know it is without pesticides and the land is kept free of harsh fertilizers. My friends spend their days deep in meditation even while working their fields.
I visit these friends as often as I might. Unlike most people I know they rarely speak even when spoken to; instead they nod their heads and smile as if they already know of which I speak. And of course they do.
In my youth I recall how there were a number of acres of bottom land on the farm, full of rich soil and blessed with abundant sunshine all day long, but it had a tendency to flood when the rain came. A creek running through the valley invariably overflowed allowing the water to collect in stagnant pools drowning any crops that had been planted. After losing their harvest several years in a row my friends thought it best to simply let the land lay fallow.
One sunny afternoon I took a walk through the hollow. I liked walking alone there. My friends seemed to sense this and so often left me to myself. Seeing hundreds of stones embedded in the creek bank I wondered if any of them contained fossils. I managed to dislodge several of them but they were merely round rocks devoid of any vestige of former life. By chance one of the stones rolled down into the creek; though it didn’t stop the water from flowing it triggered an idea.
Going into the forest I found a stout branch that I broke off a fallen tree. Coming back to the creek and using it as a pole I began dislodging and rolling more rocks into the creek one by one. Gradually as the day progressed into night I built up a small dam.
The following day when I came back to the creek I saw that a small pool water had begun to form behind the rocks. The water flowing over the rocks seemed to sing sweet melodies to me as I added more stones to the heap.
Stopping to wipe the sweat from my eyes and looking up from my labors I noticed one of my friends helping me stack the stones. I hadn’t seen him arrive nor had he announced himself. He must have seen me working and rather than asking me what I was doing he just started to assist me in my endeavor.
The next day when I arrived there were six people there before me, all of them toiling happily in the early morning sunshine as they worked silently at wedging stones from the ground and rolling them into place on the top and sides of the ever-growing dam.
The pool of water behind the pile of rocks had by now become a small pond. I had never before built a dam. I silently wondered how much force the mass of water would produce as it gathered behind the stones. But my friends seemed to have anticipated that eventuality as the higher the dam became they built it three times wider.
Now I have grown old. Fifty years later when I visit that farm my friends feed me fresh fish they have caught in what used to be useless bottom land. Only the elders recall a time when there was no lake. The younger ones speak seldom even when spoke to. When they gather around the campfire at night I tell them that the lake began with a single stone; they smile and nod their heads as if they already know of that which I speak. And of course they do.
My friends have no tractors on their farm. They have no machinery of any kind. When they are thirsty they pull their water from a hand-dug well. When they are cold in winter they chop wood to burn in their stove. When they harvest their food they do it all by hand. The food is plain and filling. Their clothes are well mended; their home is secure.
My friends never travel far. They take death seriously and use it to guide their lives. They have an old truck but it is kept in a garage; they never use it. They have canoes but they are stored in the barn loft. They have weapons but they keep them hidden away.
There is no television there, no Internet. They have no phones. There are no electric wires there to run any of it anyway. They light the wicks of their oil lamps at night. They have no books, only scrolls from the old days. They are happy to live their lives in this manner.
The neighbors are within sight of my friends’ farm and from time to time while visiting I will hear their dogs barking and cocks crowing. But they leave each other in peace while they grow old and die.

Friday, December 21, 2012


I sit here alone in an empty house made for a family. It creaks and moans its displeasure so I keep music playing to pacify its incontinent mood. My loved ones have vanished; some have scattered to the four winds; others lie sleeping beneath the good earth. I sit here typing away night after night these words few people will ever understand, not caring whether anyone reads them or not.
When I sit here too long my legs begin to ache so on murky summer nights I arise to go out walking deserted streets past homes with windows featuring flickering television shows lighting up the darkness; I walk the walk of a forsaken man circling back on himself. People drive past me in shiny new cars. I wave and they wave back. But I don’t know these people. They are but slumbering phantoms floating through a life of desire while I am awake to harsh realities that sharpen my senses and deaden my yearnings.
I have heard it said that the world is made of suffering. It isn’t the kind of suffering one will notice right away; rather it is insidious in its relentlessness. Suffering is a tiny thorn wedged in the sole of my shoe. It doesn’t really hurt, not enough I should sit down to remove my shoe to pluck out the thorn. Still, it irritates each step I take until I can think of nothing else.
Though I seek to avoid suffering it has a way of finding me anyway. I make careful plans but before they can come to fruition my hopes are dashed on the rocks of how things really are.
I notice there is a limit to life but there seems no limit to knowledge. By pursuing what is unlimited with what is limited I put myself in peril; knowing this and still doing it I am sure to find danger. Rather than doing good in order to discover fame or shunning evil to avoid punishment I do what is natural to preserve my health.
There was a time when I journeyed deep into the mountains to forget myself and my troubles. All I found there turned out to be me, however, and my troubles followed along. There was a time when I attended month-long Buddhist retreats in an effort to discover my true nature. All I found, though, was me. There was a time when I read many books to gain the knowledge of others. All I found was a singular knowledge of me. I burned the books page by page to keep warm on snowy mountain nights.
Tired of the cold and privation I left the mountains behind. Coming home I discovered my dwelling vacant, my lover gone, my children grown. The chill of the high plateau had followed me home unseen; the loneliness I found on the rocky peaks seeped into my bones to become my nature.
Sitting here in the middle of all these shiny baubles I am a cheated man in the midst of plenty. I am a presumptuous pretender in the heart of knowing. I am a misfit in the center of conformance. Since I cannot alter the world I am myself and the world changes with me.
Complete enjoyment is found in attainment of one’s aim. This doesn’t mean accumulating wealth and fame; it simply means nothing more is needed for one’s contentment. These days most people desire riches and fame; if these things come they cannot be stopped and their going cannot be obstructed. Therefore it is best neither to indulge in the aim of these things nor to resort to vulgar acts to gain them.
If the departure of what is transient nullifies one’s enjoyment this merely shows what enjoyment they afforded was worthless. Those who lose themselves in the pursuit of their desires and put aside their true nature to the study of learning and thinking are people who have turned themselves upside down.
I avoid the desire to make a show of my knowledge; people seeing my simple lifestyle say they want to be more like me. They don’t understand. They can only be what they are. They are not ready to be like I am. So whenever someone asks my secret I simply shake my head as I walk away without a word.
When I stand upon my tiptoes seeking to grab that which is beyond my reach I am unsteady. When I walk with great strides I cannot maintain the pace. When I make a show of my knowledge I am not enlightened. In my self-righteousness I find no respect. My boasts achieve nothing. My bragging only serves to bring me down.
These are extra provisions and needless baggage. They never bring me happiness. Therefore I avoid them.

Friday, December 14, 2012

Accepting Disgrace

When I first moved to this town on a sweet summer day now long forgotten a well-meaning neighbor knocked on my door. When I answered it she asked if I would be interested in attending the weekly bible study at the local community center. I told her no as I shut the door in her face. She has never spoken to me since.
These days I do not belong to any formal school of study. The priest at the church where I do the building maintenance wondered if I was a practicing Catholic. I didn’t see as if it was any of his business so I acted as if I didn’t hear his question as I went about my duties. He walked away. I could feel his sorrow radiating to heaven at not having saved my soul.
If I had the words I would have told him that of all causes of sorrow there are none as great as the death of the mind; the death of the body is next. People make small changes but they do not lose that which is natural to them. If I were to disgrace my freedom to settle on the smallness of one thought that would be a true cause for sorrow, not the fact that I ignored such an invitation.
If I had the words I would have told him that when I walk I do not know where it is I am going; when I stop to rest I do not know what to occupy myself with; when I eat I do not know the taste of the food; all this is accomplished by the influence of heaven and earth, not by my actions.
There was a time when I thought I might like to learn to quiet my mind, to still these rampant thoughts cascading one after the other in an endless stream of nonsense and bickering like marauding baboons chasing one another through the forests of my intellect. But when I tried to sit quietly in the way the books that I read suggested the chatter in my head grew ever louder until in desperation I gave up.
During the summer of my thirtieth year not knowing any better I attended a retreat at a Buddhist monastery. It was a sparse place under a high mountain that seemed to glower down on me. I felt like a white person sitting at an Indian pow wow, out of place and in foreign company. I didn’t understand their ceremonies full of meaning for them and yet bereft of significance for me.
Their beds were low to the ground which made rising at four o’clock in the morning even more of a chore. The food consisted of a tiny bowl of rice and a cup of weak tea which made my belly rumble. The mat on which I sat was stiff without any give to it which made my ass ache. No one was allowed to say a word to anyone else but for the head monk.
He took me aside one day to sit beside him in his chamber. The head monk wondered if I had any questions. I shook my head no. I didn’t. He said I should sit until questions arose but the longer I remained silent the greater the knowing became. The wind spoke my name; the trees sighed in unison, the mountain continued to glower.
Finally the retreat was over. All the other participants seemed happy to be able to talk amongst themselves once more. Their chatter erupted like the singing of birds welcoming the new day.
I sat apart, alone and silent. The words would not begin again.
He saw me sitting there. He waved at me with a movement of his chin to follow him into his chamber. The head monk said I should accept disgrace willingly. He said I should accept misfortune as a way of life. I thought he must be talking to someone else, not to me. I had always been taught to hold my head high at my position in society and to look on the bright side of life. His words could not have shocked me more had he hit me over the shoulders with his keisaku stick.
I was no longer sure of myself.
I crept off like a wounded animal. As I drove home I sought solace in the stillness of meditation. As my thoughts began to quiet I realized I was as unimportant in the madness of the universe swirling around me as a single grain of sand on an endless beach buffeted by the waves of infinity. And since I was unimportant I no longer found myself concerned with loss and gain.
As my thoughts became as nothing so did my body. I was a mote. I was the nothingness that overcame me. I knew viscerally that without my thoughts or my body I had no misfortune.
When I got home I accepted disgrace as I surrendered myself to the universe.

Saturday, December 8, 2012

Magnify the Small

My great grandmother was a very old woman when we planted the apple tree. She softly sang a song filled with harmony while we worked, with the movement of her hands instructing me how deep and wide to dig the hole. I sometimes dream of the music but when I wake the melody has faded. The apple tree was but a sapling, a broken branch she had rooted in water. I remember how she gleefully rubbed her hands together after we planted it telling me with a twinkle in her eyes how good the apples would taste.
I remember it was late in the fall so she said we had to take care of the little tree; she showed me how to pack mulch around its tiny base after instructing me to drive a stake into the ground beside it so as to tie it lest the snows of winter break it off before it had time to strengthen itself against the rages of the world.
Though I was just a young boy I was old enough to know she would never live long enough to collect a harvest from that tree. Still, all things start small. The taste of the fruit is magnified with the years. This is what I have learned my great grandmother in her wisdom was attempting to share with me.
I remember how she always gave me a big glass bottle of soda pop—they didn’t have cans or plastic in those days—and how she got a stomach ache one day and it didn’t go away. When the family made her go to the hospital the doctor told her she only had a couple weeks to live; the cancer eating her from the inside was late stage; all they could do was to make her comfortable. The last thing she said to me before leaving the house for the final time was to take care of that apple tree. I promised her I would; it was one promise out of ten thousand I kept.
Writing is like planting trees. Starting with but an acorn a splendid oak unfurls its twisting boughs to the universe. Starting with but a single thought a magnificent book weaves its web of characters to the reader.
As a writer I tend to discount what a reader says about my creative work. It isn’t that I don’t appreciate the readers of my work; I do! It just seems to me that a reader subordinates their own creativity; unless they are an author as well they will never understand what it means to sit in front of an empty monitor or an empty notebook to witness it filling with words of their own.
It is easy to teach the art of writing; there are rules of grammar, sentence construction, plot and theme, and many other aspects of writing that anyone can learn. It is impossible to teach the art of creativity. No one knows where it comes from.
Creativity arises from the mystery. By practicing non-doing my monitor overflows with words. By practicing non-action I tap into the mystery that is as boundless and vast as I am empty and small.
Despite my obstinance I was brought to her hospital deathbed, to say goodbye, I suppose. I must have been four years old. I wanted no part of approaching that sad sack of withered skin and bones who used to be my great grandmother. She didn’t know me any more than I knew her. I remember my mother softly saying: grandmother, your great grandson is here. But the old bald-headed woman only moaned in pain and rolled over to face the wall. Though they all thought they were doing me and my great grandmother a kindness the family should have left us to our memories of each other.
When I came into this life I let out with a single cry. When I began this sentence I started with a single letter. When I started this book I began with a single word. By increasing the few I magnify the small. By seeing the simple in the complex I achieve much through small things. By singing her simple song and planting apple trees my great grandmother left me with an enormous legacy.
All sound arises from the mind; music is the intercommunication between minds. Even animals know sounds but not its modulation. Most everyone knows the modulations but few hear the music. On this account I must discriminate the sounds to know the airs; I must know the airs to hear the music. By knowing the music I understand the character of others. Having attained this I set order to the world.
If another person doesn’t know the sound I cannot speak to them about the airs; hence, I cannot say a word of the music. Knowledge of music leads to the subtle springs that underlie the rules of ceremony like planting trees in the autumn of life. By possessing knowledge of both the music and the ceremonies I walk the path of virtue. By this I mean realization of self.
Music is the modulations of voice, the source of which is in the affectations of the mind as it is influenced by external things. When the mind is sorrowful the sound is sharp and fading; when the mind finds pleasure in things the sound is slow and gentle; when the mind is joyful the sound is exclamatory and soon disappears; when the mind is moved by anger the sound is coarse and fierce; when the mind is reverent the sound is humble and straightforward; when the mind is moved by love the sound is harmonious and soft.
When the feelings are moved within they are manifested in the sound of the voice. When those sounds are combined so as to form compositions, this is called airs. The greatest achievements in music are not in the perfection of airs but rather the teaching of people to regulate their likings and dislikings and bring them back to center. My great grandmother’s song was much more than a little ditty; it was her way of teaching me a lesson where words would never suffice.
The evolution of the universe is made up of small steps. Great performances are done as if they are easy. Working without doing is called practicing non-action. Like the apples on my great grandmother’s apple tree I know by tasting the tasteless I reward bitterness with care.
I never attempt anything big; taking things lightly in the beginning only results in immense difficulty later. Since I confront the difficulties from the beginning I never experience difficulties.