What You Have Is What You Give

March 29, 2010 § 3 Comments

Since I’m in the throes of helping with the 10,000 details involved in pulling the “Life After Death” issue together, I’ve decided to experiment this week.  I’m posting shorter and more frequent updates instead of the longer once-a-week post I usually write.   Here is the first:

As I wrote last week, we will be excerpting John Robbins (Diet for a New America) new book on living a new kind of good life.  (As it says on big posters in my friendly neighborhood Chase bank: “Save is the new Spend”…It makes me feel so warm, having Chase look after my best interests).    A kind of handbook on living the way people used to live, within their means and close to the earth and to family and friends,  The New Good Life (coming from Random House in May) has an authenticity and power that comes not from high fallutin’ prose but from what Robbins’ himself has lived through and continues to live through.   Written as Robbins struggles to recover from having his considerable life savings was stolen by Bernie Madoff,  the book reminds me that many of us die and get reborn–and more than once–in this very life.

“A single event can awken within us a stranger totally unknown to us.  To live is to be slowly born,” wrote Antoine-Marie-Roger de Saint-Exupery.     It can feel like this, the shock of great loss–or love.  But I believe the “newly born,” post-Madoff, 60-something Robbins is a work in progress and that’s what makes his book so persuasive:

“It’s often been said that there are no luggage racks on hearses,” he writes. “No matter waht world possessions any of us have acqured, we leave it all behind in the end.

What then, do we take with us?

In the end, all you have is what you have given, that’s the conclusion this father, grandfather, environmental and social justice activist has come to.  I’m inclined to believe him.

A New Good Life

March 22, 2010 § 15 Comments

“Growth for the sake of growth is the ideology of the cancer cell,” wrote Edward Abby.   The last couple of days, I’ve been reading the unbound  pages of a new book by John Robbins, author of the mega bestseller, Diet for a New America.    As many people in cyberspace know, Robbins was the heir apparent of the Baskin-Robbins ice cream fortune. But he walked away from all that wealth and certainty to be what I have been thinking of as a kind of ’60’s Amercian Socrates.  I mean, he began to question very, very deeply the Baskin-Robbins slogan:  “We make people happy.”   He was driven to penetrate beneath the surface and connect with the source of happiness;  and he and his wife settled down to a demanding but richly meaningful life living off land (they grew and at so much kale they almost named their son Kale instead of Ocean).  To make the story very, very short, he and his wife and ultimately his son and grandchildren devoted themselves to living a consciously and carefully–not as consumers but as citizens of a planet.    Even after Diet for New America sold millions of copies, Robbins continued to live simply.  He took seriously the ancient advice about making decisions for the seventh generation…and a good and well-intentioned friend encouraged him to invest his money.

His new book , which is due out in May, is called The New Good Life (May, Random House).    We are going to be excerpting it in our upcoming “Life After Death” issue because it is about living beyond your worst nightmare.   John Robbins is one more good man who suffered great loss at the hands of Bernie Madoff.   But he has also come out of this dark night of loss with a message about the liberation that can come when we die to a life that draws most of its meaning and well being from consuming, from dreams of endless expansion.

Now the Christian world is in Lent, which comes from the Old English word “lencten,” which means springtime.  How interesting it is that a word that denotes the 40 days from Ash Wednesday to Easter, a period that means going without, comes from an ancient word for a new beginning.  Lent is also related to the word “lend,” which also makes inner sense since we are asked to dethrone ourselves from the center of our own worlds.  We are asked to give up, to become inwardly poor, empty, so that we may receive.   I think it’s time, don’t you?

Who’ll Stop the Rain?

March 16, 2010 § 15 Comments

Big Nor’ Easter this weekend!  We lost power like so many others, and in the midst of it all we had a visit from Parabola’s West Coast editor Richard Whittaker and his wife Rue.  When we first lost power on Saturday, we met them in a restaurant which had a festive inn or mead hall atmosphere–lots of people taking refuge from the dark and the cold together.  The next day, it took me hours to make a normally short drive to pick up Rue and Richard in Larchmont, which was/is without power.  So many huge trees were down, I would never have found a way if a kindly local Samaritan hadn’t guided me along the old Post road.  These kinds of things do draw us together, don’t they?  They cause us to remember how dependent we really are–on each other and myriad forces.

When we finally made it home, we stayed home except for a brief walk down to the lake with my dog when there was a break in the rain–just to let these folk from La La land experience how bracing and gray and wild it is here in the Nor’ East.  We passed many ruined stone walls, remnants from the hardy farmers who somehow scratched out a living in this harsh climate.    The rest of the day and night, we talked and feasted (our friend Liz, our “Educational Outreach Editor” joined us for a while, too).    We spoke of how to keep going in uncertain times, when the way ahead isn’t clear.   In the midst of it all, I realized once again how thing sthat can seem so flimsy and insubstantial–friendship, good will–can turn out to be more enduring that seemingly solid things like huge trees.

The next morning before dawn, Alex and I drove through more rain and dark to take Rue and Richard to JFK.  Afterwards, we made our way to Brooklyn Heights, Alex’s Holy Land, the home of her first ten years and her true happiness.   We walked on the Promenade and other dear familiar streets, and stocked up on food at Sahadi’s (the man who scooped up our dates doesn’t have power yet either)   No doubt the earliness and emptiness of the streets had something to do with it, but I was filled with a surprisingly deep and wrenching ache of nostalgia.  I recently read that the Latin root of the word nostalgia means longing for one’s true home.   What I felt had to do with an awareness of the way lives pass.  I had rolled Alex up these streets in a stroller and now here she was talking about going to Oxford next year.  How did that happen?  I longed to find my true home…the way people seek solid ground to build on.  Ground that won’t give way in even the strongest storm.

Saturdays in Kuan Yin Hall

March 8, 2010 § 21 Comments

Over the past year,  I’ve been driving up to Chuang Yen Monastery in Carmel, New York, many Saturday mornings, to meditate and take instruction in some of the suttas (or sutras in Sanskrit) of the Pali Canon from the American-born Buddhist scholar monk Venerable Bhikkhu Bodhi .  The crowd is delightfully diverse.  I’ve met there an osteopath, a professor at a Connecticut college, a mid-wife,  shaven-headed Chinese Buddhist monks and nuns, and a woman who likes to knit during the talks and who told me at lunch last week that she won a $100 prize for doing the best Sarah Palin imitation in the last annual Cold Spring Halloween Parade.   I’m drawn to these talks and the suttas because after decades of practicing meditation and going on retreats and reading books by all kinds of Western teachers, I finally had an overwhelming interest in finding out what the man they called the Awakened One had to say for himself.

Ven. Bodhi’s classes are held in Kuan Yin Hall, which like the rest of the monastery (which means “solemn monastery”) is built in the style of the Tang Dynasty.   Front and center behind an altar sits a gorgeous wooden Kuan Yin Bodhisattva from the actual Tang Dynasty (about a 1000 years old).  Kuan Yin is  a bit like the Virgin Mary, a great loving and merciful saint of compassion, and this particular Kuan Yin sits with such grace and wears an expression of such beautiful self-contained tranquility that without knowing the tiniest thing about Buddhism or the suttas an observer gets the impression from looking at her that it is that it has to do with being easeful and kind with the world and with yourself, with being open yet self-contained no matter confronts you,  which means in this Kuan Yin’s case facing a lot of people taking notes and sometimes knitting.

As the weeks go by, I have learned that there really is no getting back to the exact words of Siddhattha (or Siddhartha) Gotama, the historical Buddha.  Pali , by the way, is a vernacular form of classical Sanskrit, which originated in the North Indian dialects that Gotama himself would have spoken.  What has come to be the Pali Canon was perseved as an oral tradition for hundreds of years before it was written down in Sri Lanka in the first century B.C.E. (other versions of the suttas, verification of this oral transmission, popped up in China and elsewhere).  What we have, according to Ven. Bodhi, who translated the Pali Canon into English and continues to debate and refine word choices even as he speaks to us,  are spare and sometimes very ambiguous notes from a journey that untold numbers of human beings have taken towards freedom for about 2500 years.  Freedom from what?  What is captured in the posture and carved with such exquisite care on face of that Tang Dynasty Kuan Yin is a state of gracefulness that can come to us when we have freed ourselves from the cage of ego, shed blinders of our value judgements and favorite thoughts.  Some days it seems impossible to ever bridge the gap between us, Kuan Yin  and I.   Other days it is clear that what others have done, we can do. ..and what better use for my time?

The key is remembering that this map, these suttas, are really meant to be used, worked with, even, dare I say it, played and experimented with.   So much religious intolerance, hatred, and violence in the world could come to an end if more people could spend even a couple of minutes a day actually trying to see how we cling to our thoughts and experiences and how just plain seeing that fact lets us let go and open up to the world around us.  The paradox is that the more I learn about the Buddha’s path, the closer I come to understanding the real scale and majesty of Golden Rule, which means living outside your own self interest, living in the light of the Whole.

Where Am I?

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