Zazen & Happiness

Buddhists sometimes bristle at the idea of meditation as therapy, though at the same time there is a thriving Buddhist therapy axis in American culture. And while I had been circling Buddhism for much of my adult life, I only came to it as a serious practice through “therapeutic” practice. I had come to a point in my life during my fifties when I was experiencing a great deal of anxiety & I found the guided meditation practices of Jon Kabat-Zinn extremely helpful in getting hold of my self. Kabat-Zinn’s techniques, of course, are basically desacralized Zen & after I had emerged from what was actually, I see now, a deep crisis of faith, I returned to some of my earlier reading about Buddhism in general and Zen in particular. That was a couple of years ago & I have been sitting zazen pretty much every day since then with only a couple of short breaks. Over the last six months I have been sitting twice a day.

I had lost my faith, in my mid-fifties, in the only religion I had ever believed in, the religion of poetry. But that’s really another story — I started out to write about happiness. As I began to sit more often & for longer periods, I noticed that I was not just calmer, but happier. A lot happier. And this worried me. As a new student of Zen, I was trying to be Very Serious. After all, the great Zen masters are always talking about “clarifying the essential point” & reminding one that “life and death are of supreme importance” & so on. And what about kensho & enlightenment & realizing one’s true nature? But then it occurred to me that maybe happiness — not frivolity, but happiness — is one’s true nature, or part of it at least. Why deny this aspect of reality?

One of the things I hated as a kid about going to church was the deadly grimness of it all. I didn’t sense any of that at the monastery last month. You can probably find grim zendos, but Zen, I think — much of Buddhism, actually — starts from the idea of an original freedom whereas Christianity starts with Original Sin. I’m not ecumenical about this: I think there is a fundamental difference, but that, too, is another story.

A Poem from The Book I’m Putting Together . . .

. . . has won a prize from the American Literary Review.

Here is what Joanie Mackowski, who judged the poetry contest, thought of the winning poem, “Lake Surface Full of Clouds”:

“Stretching its keen observations and minutely choreographed sentences over the advancing paw prints of its lines, “Lake Surface Full of Clouds” makes language ductile and makes the reader recall the animal and chemical pleasures of reading. This poem finds an atomic pulse: ‘thing & song// in their wild fullness full’.” The poem will appear in the Spring 2012 issue of ALR.


Because I grew up among Pharisaical Christians (who were never more indignant than when denouncing pharisees), I am chary of discussing much of anything that has to do with religious practice; but I have been a practicing Buddhist for several years — after a lifetime of diffuse agnosticism — though I have not been a member of any group, practicing instead by myself as a kind of Zen hermit by the river. I sit zazen every day, read texts & commentaries, even light incense on a personal alter. (A lot of this emerged from my encounter over the last fifteen years with Vietnamese culture.) But tomorrow I will leave for a weekend retreat at Zen Mountain Monastery, which is run by the Mountains and Rivers Order, founded by John Daido Loori Roshi. Daido Roshi died a couple of years ago and has been succeeded by a new abbot, but the monastery’s practice continues, so far as I can tell, in the traditions he established. I was attracted to MRO partly because of Daido Loori’s interest in and emphasis on the arts as part of Zen practice and also because he clearly wanted to practice a rigorous sort of Zen free from New Age slackness. Now that I’m about to submit myself to some training, I’m a little frightened! Well, “frightened” is probably too strong. Let’s just say that I don’t respond well to authority if it is exercised arbitrarily. The teachers I have admired and learned from in my life have earned respect through their demonstration of power, insight, understanding — whatever the subject of their expertise. So I’m wondering what the weekend will be like — lots of zazen of course, but I’m not sure what else.

The End of the World, Or: “Pray they die quickly”

I’m wondering what breakfast on Sunday morning is going to be like at the home of Abby and Robert Carson. Look, I grew up with people who put bumper stickers on their cars saying RIDE AT YOUR OWN RISK I’M LEAVING WITH THE RAPTURE, but crazy as they were they had the sense not to set a date. But for me this story is an example of a stunning sort of shallow nihilism combined with complete spiritual failure. These parents, it seems to me, have forfeited any right to govern their children’s lives & I hope the kids light out for the hills as soon as they possibly can.

“My mom has told me directly that I’m not going to get into heaven,” Grace Haddad, 16, said. “At first it was really upsetting, but it’s what she honestly believes.”

“People look at my family and think I’m like that,” said Joseph, their 14-year-old, as his parents walked through the street fair on Ninth Avenue, giving out Bibles. “I keep my friends as far away from them as possible.”

“I don’t really have any motivation to try to figure out what I want to do anymore,” he said, “because my main support line, my parents, don’t care.”

His mother said she accepted that believers “lose friends and you lose family members in the process.”

“I have mixed feelings,” Ms. Haddad Carson said. “I’m very excited about the Lord’s return, but I’m fearful that my children might get left behind. But you have to accept God’s will.

As I said, I grew up among Premillennialists and on Sunday evenings some traveling evangelist would come to our church and put up his charts proving that we were living in the end times, but at least among the Southern Baptists and Grace Brethren, they always left a little wiggle room about exact dates to get around that canonical statement of Jesus that no one knew when he’d be turning up again. That’s probably why this sort of stupidity makes me so angry.

Harold Camping is the leader of this cult:

On May 21, the saved will go to straight to heaven to meet Jesus, he claims. The unsaved, including those already dead, “will never have conscious existence again…That person himself will not know anything about it they are dead,” he said.

“Christ has no pleasure in the death of the unsaved. It is an enormous comfort about our loved ones,” he added. “Pray they die quickly.”




On Failing to Wake the Dead

I seem to be waking slowly from the trance induced by the last few weeks of the semester. The cold, wet weather isn’t helping.

It’s not that I was overwhelmed with work — the number of papers and conferences and faculty meetings was about average, I guess. But I admit to feeling a little bit demoralized by my students this term. I had a long wrangle with some of the students in my Honors seminar on modernity because they really didn’t believe the course had anything to do with their careers and they really didn’t like the fact that I kept asking open-ended questions that did not appear to yield to the usual procedures of problem solving. Seniors in the Honors Program have mastered the art of problem solving, though in many cases they have not mastered much else. [Here is what I wrote on our class blog after turning my grades in.] But at least the wrangle with the Honors seniors involved the active expenditure of effort; the vast majority of the sixty students in the two sections of my Literature of American Popular Music course simply absorbed energy like sodden little black holes. Out of the sixty there were perhaps half a dozen who tried from time to time to help be ignite a discussion, but their efforts were ultimately futile in the face of the pervading passivity and sullenness.

This was a course in which we read Howl and The Dharma Bums and listened to Monk and Bird and watched video of Lady Day singing accompanied by Coleman Hawkins and Lester Young. We watched documentaries about Dylan and listened to old ballads about murder and adultery. And they just fucking sat there. As if none of it means anything. I’m tempted to never teach the course again — the students don’t deserve it. It profanes the sacred texts to exhibit them to such dolts.