The Gift of Giving

November 25, 2009 § Leave a comment

Happy Thanksgiving!  I recently learned that when the Puritans landed in Massachusetts,  they discovered that the Indians had a strange feeling about the giving and receiving of gifts.   Having experienced nothing like it, they misunderstood it, ran it down.   In 1764,  when Thomas Hutchinson wrote his history of the colony, he explained that the already old expression “Indian gift” meant “a present for which an equivalent return is expected.”   Over the years, the term became broader and even more degraded–an “Indian giver” is someone who gives a gift only to ask for it back.    What the Indians understood ( I learned all this in The Gift by Lewis Hyde) is that gifts must keep moving!

Giving can be  a way of experiencing ourselves as a conduit for the finer energy that holds the world together.  Giving food, goods or service, sharing wisdom and insight, being kind to another, such acts can help us glimpse our interconnection with others and with the whole of life.  Everyone from Jesus to Buddha to Jeanne de Salzmann has indicated that this is our highest human identity.  In our current issue,  young aspiring  “generosity  entrepreneur” Nipun Mehta reminds us that true giving begins not when we think we have piled up enough surplus to give “but when we have nothing left to take. ”  My new friends Nipun Mehta, Birju Pandya, and Paul Van Slambrouck, whom I met at the Parabola offices in New York a month or so ago, inspire me to believe that giving is the most enlightened act a person can engage in this life.  It is the antidote to fear, miserliness, greed, and lonely, miserable Scrooge-like isolation.

Four times a year, Parabola gives people a banquet of this kind of food for thought, themes and truths  that appear in all traditions and ways. Now Parabola needs your gifts if we are to keep on giving.  Please consider making a donation of money or time now so that we can keep on offering a banquet of food for thought four times a year.

Thank you!

The Angel and the Animal

November 20, 2009 § 2 Comments

“At the beginning of the third millennium, the human race is in the process of forgetting what it means to be human,” writes Charles Upton in a vivid, chilling essay in the current “Future” issue of Parabola.  “We don’t know who or what we are; we don’t know what we are supposed to be doing here….Human life is no longer felt to be valuable in the face of eternity.”   According to Upton we and the whole universe are caught in a cycle that is sliding inexorably downwards  “from the pole of Essence, or Forma–the Hindu Purusha–towards the pole of Substance, or Materia–the Hindu Prakriti. ”

Not to put a damper on your day but we may be more materialistic, denser, heavier, than people in earlier times (those cave artists?) –the very nature of space and time may have changed:  “In earlier ages, space dominates; the forms of things are more important, more real, than the changes they undergo; time is ‘relatively eternal.’  As the cycle moves on, however, time begins to take over, melting down space and the forms within it until everything is an accelerating flow of change.”

On it rolls, this compelling downer of an essay, insisting that we are headed towards maximum entropy.  Reading it, I want to be on the side of our better angels, battling the Anitchrist (which Upton defines as those forces of obscurity and denial which blind us to the true scale of our human potential).   Yes!  I definitely want to be on the side of Christ, the Messiah, al-Mahdi, Maitreya Buddha, the Kalki Avatara–the force of consciousness that wants the breakthrough of Eternity, of Space, into time.

But how?  I can sometimes experience Space in moments of deep quiet, in meditation.   But how can I experience spaciousness in the midst of ordinary life, which is so often spent rushing around captive to that panicky or grinding sense of forward-rushing time?   I’ve felt it at moments, when desire and striving fall away.  Still, there is this nagging sense that I need to understand more.

What does Jeanne de Salzmann mean when she says (again in the current issue) that we “participate in life with both a divine nature and an animal nature.  Man is double; he is not one.  And as such, he is only a promise of man until he can live with both natures present in himself and not withdraw into one or the other.”

I feel this must be true.  Being conscious has to do being fully present body, heart, and mind.  It matters somehow in this great battle of Space and Time that I volunteer to fully inhabit my life. It means not turning away from the animal or getting so mired in my animal life that I forget the angel.   But what does it mean to remember ourselves in two directions, to have our two natures always confronted?


November 12, 2009 § 2 Comments

Pock! Pock! Pock! Pock!  The Japanese “woodenfish” drum makes a sharp, hollow  sound, like a huge, deliberate woodpecker in still air.    In Zen monasteries it is used to establish a tempo so that an assembly of people can chant in unison.   Last weekend, I heard it used to call a group to meditation, to meals, to readings and discussions. Although the woodenfish drum wasn’t used in a traditional Zen way, the spirit was the same.  Because fish do not have eyelids, their eyes are always open.  The woodenfish is a symbol of the unceasing effort to wake up, of  the awakening to our true manifestations that is possible only in community.

The first time I was drawn to practice in a group, I was in my early twenties and working in publishing in Manhattan.  I remember coming back to my apartment one evening, feeling  thoroughly fed up with what I was doing with my life. For whatever reason or combination of reasons, there was a sudden and piercing clarity that my whole identity revolved around seeking comfort and security, worthiness and powerfulness.

There followed a powerful interest like a parting in the clouds:  Who was I really, not measured in this small way, but as a human being in the cosmos?  This wasn’t a dreamy aimless kind of question.  There was a very pure impulse to investigate, a willingness and determination to find out I could find my way to a larger life.  I was haunted by the sense that my life could just melt away like a dream, that it was possible that I might never really know I had been alive in a profound way.

I knew I needed the help of a group and eventually I found one.  Many years later, I stopped being part of it when I realized I had lost that original questioning, when I couldn’t hear it any more through the din of ideas.  I left when I realized it had become business as usual for me, that the pure wonderment had given way to another ego identity.  Being part of something larger had become a new way to comfortable and secure, worthy and capable–a new way to cover up what a Zen teacher has called “the anxious quiver of being.”

Now I’m back in a group.  But now I know I have to bring something, an intention to see myself as am…it can be painful and scary at times but I begin to see that behind the curtain of separation,  there is a great stillness and an energy  we all share.

Today, because it is cold and gloomy and the wind blowing, I am attaching a link to a  story by Richard Whittaker, our West Coast editor.  It is a story about how far a man can go all by himself, without a group or a way to guide him.


Conscience Flowing Into the World

November 6, 2009 § 2 Comments

One evening this week,  I visited a loft in downtown Manhattan for an event called “Turning Back the Tide: the Sacred Dimension of Compassionate Action.”  It was the inaugural event of Buddhist Global Relief, an organization founded by Bhikkhu Bodhi.  It was beautiful hearing Ven. Bodhi express what he has called “a distinctly Buddhist sense of conscience in relation to the unspeakable tragedy of global hunger and poverty.”   While “conscience” doesn’t have a precise counterpart in the Pali language or in classical Buddhism, according to the scholar monk it is one of the driving forces in the Buddha’s own life and teaching.  “Emerging from the deep intuition of human unity and the wider unity of all sentient life, it impels us to make a conscious commitment to actively work to alleviate the suffering of others.”  Conscience is that sacred kind of intelligence that allows us to go beyond the narrow sphere of ego and habit, to experience of suffering of others as our own, to experience our interconnection with the whole of life, and be moved to action.

Copies of Parabola were donated to the event.  It was extraordinary watching  this particular crowd, including Chinese Zen nuns, Burmese and Sri Lankan monks, aid workers from CARE and other organizations, Buddhists, Christians and undeclared, patrons and guests file out with this particular issue, including not just Ven. Bodhi’s insights but excerpts from the long awaited book drawn from the notebooks of  Jeanne de Salzmann, in itself an expression of conscience.  Out went this wisdom and these images.  As I watched, I thought of lines Venerable Bodhi wrote about conscience moving in two directions at once, uplifting us and drawing us down into the world, to look closely at ourselves.  I glimpsed for a moment how we need one another, and how life is a glorious, moving interconnect One.

Where Am I?

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