September 26, 2008 § Leave a comment
“I have tried to learn in my writing a monastic lesson I could probably not have learned otherwise: to let go of my idea of myself, to take myself with more than one grain of salt,” writes Thomas Merton. He wrote elsewhere: ” seek no face, I treasure no experience, no memory. Anything I write down here is only for personal guidance because of my constant gravitation away from solitude. It will remind me how to go home.”
The media is often, and justifiably, blamed for the fueling the fires of greed, aversion, and delusion in our culture. This is so evident right now. There is so much dramatically awful news cascading out of every media portal that it is almost surreal–Wall Street is poised to collapse, everyone’s future up in the air. Yet writing can also be a powerful instrument for cultivating a deeper attention, a support for training the mind to open rather than grasp. In James Opie’s fascinating article “Windows to Infinity” in the current issue of Parabola, he describes the challenge of deciphering the symbolic meanings that were woven into some ancient rugs: “Using our minds as we often do, as containers that we open in order to have them filled, we tend to seek a verbal explanation. Natural as if may be, this approach rarely holds up well when we reflect more deeply on the very purpose of symbols….Symbols are less a means of education than they are reminders. To be reminded, something in us must, on an experiential basis, and perhaps only briefly, have touched a higher level. Consequently, when we ask what a symbol ‘means,’ we seek to become educated too quickly.”
In our culture, we are bombarded with instant education. As I write this, the media is on overdrive, reporting urgent updates on the financial crisis and briefing me on all the issues of world consequence that will be discussed in the upcoming debates. How am I to grasp it all? Who am I to really “get” what’s going on? Yet, in the midst of the torrents of words and views and opinions it strikes me that I could be digging–not for more facts–but for a finer attention, a wider, more complete awareness of what is happening outside and inside right here and right now. Writing can become a way of emptying ourselves, a way of non grasping, non “getting,” of letting go of our old ideas so I can look and listen and sense, allowing my own perceptions to lead me to our my own original thoughts–“original” in the sense of being rooted in the experience, however fleeting, of being present here and now. This might lead to an inkling about what really matters.
Someone once asked the great jazz pianist Thelonious Monk how he managed to get a certain special sound out of the piano. Monk pointed to the keyboard and said: “It can’t be any new note. When you look at the keyboard, all the notes are there already. But if you mean a note enough, it will sound different. You got to pick the notes you really mean!”
What does it take to be capable of intention? We know it when we see it. We know it when we hear it.
What makes one rug art and another mere mechanical craftwork, according to Opie, is intention. “Intentionality–conscious action–brings craft up to the level of Art.” A person can write with the intention of bearing witness to life, noting what is while maintaining an attitude of not knowing, maintaining the
September 17, 2008 § Leave a comment
When Harriet Tubman was 13, her skull was fractured by a 2-pound lead weight in a dispute between an overseer and another slave. After this, she began having visions and conversations with God. She told people she was always talking to the Lord. In 833, a year or two before her injury, she also witnessed a spectacular meteor shower which no doubt made a deep impression on her–many people at the time took as a sign in the heavens. Later in life, perhaps related to both the night of falling stars and the bump on the head that made her see stars, she told people she had always known how to follow the North Star. Relying on her visions and her guidance from God, Tubman became an extraordinary human being. Slaves called her Moses because she sang “Go Down Moses” to announce her presence. Did it matter to her essence–should it matter to us–where her visions came from?
In 1865, after Tubman had become a living symbol of the possibility of freedom, she was severely beaten for refusing to leave a whites-only car on a train from Philadelphia to New York. “I am as proud of being a black woman,” she told the conductor of the train where she was beaten, “as you are of being white.” Madison Smartt Bell, whose review of a book about Harriet Tubman by Beverly Lowry I just drew on, asserts that this pride shines through in photographs of Tubman–that photos “show forth her indomitable desire to be herself in freedom.” Does it matter if we are mechanical, the product of the countless happenings that go into our arising and development?
September 2, 2008 § 2 Comments
Some of us have been questioning what it means to be mechanical or not mechanical. Months ago, in the course of reporting a story for a Buddhist magazine, I took a trip up to Leverett, Massachusetts, to visit a glorious Peace Pagoda built by the monks and nuns of a little known sect of Japanese Nichiren Buddhism, the Nipponzon Miyohoji. My guide for the day was the warm and kindly Sister Clare Carter, who spoke with an endearing Boston accent that made me think that she might have become a Catholic nun, had circumstances been different.
Sister Clare led me through the woods beating a well-worn hand-held drum and chanting: “Na Mu Myo Ho Ren Ge Kyo.” The Peace Pagoda looms up 75 feet in a clearing. Gleaming white and gold, it looks like it alighted in that rural place from space. Sister Clare bows to the pagoda and we begin to circle the base so that I can see the bas relief statues that represent the life of the Buddha. Three men join us. Sister Clare asks them how theye found this place. They tell us they show about it on the local news in Boston and felt compelled to come here. One man, Ernie, tells us he visited some Buddhist temples in Japan and Korea when he was a soldier stationed there in the Korean War.
At the mention of the Korean War, Sister Clare softly chants: “Na Mu Myo Ho Ren Ge Kyo.” I’ve noticed that she chants this at the end of phone conversations and after references to violence or suffering or acts of compassion and hope, the way a Catholic nun might say, “Lord have mercy” or “God bless you.”
This is my point: I was always inclined to dismiss this devotional chanting kind of spirituality–which I associated with the popular sect Soka Gakkai–as mechanical. For me, at any rate, the cultivation of awareness, had to be the guide rope. Otherwise, it would end in delusion. What I learned in reporting this story, however, is that for a rare few like Sister Clare chanting the seven Japanese characters of the title of the Lotus Sutra (the daimoku) actually transformed the spot where we gathered into the dharma realm, the Pure Land.
“The daimoku contains, or rather is, the entirety of the dharma realm,” writes Jacqueline Stone, a professor at Princeton in the brilliant scholarly study Original Enlightenment and the Transformation of Medieval Japanese Buddhism. Chanting the daimoku with the mind of faith contains all teachings and all the merit of all good practices of all the Buddhas. It embraces aldl phenomena–three thousand realms in one thought moment, the entirety of all that is.”
Confronting the difference between the way Sister Clare Carter practices and what I have valued, I was shown my own mechanicality, my own tendency to judge everything by my yardstick. I came away realization that an awareness of limitation–a willingness to be critical of one’s own view–had to be an essential part of any authentic spiritual practice.