Sing a Song of Borborygmi

When Buddhism came to Ancient China from India, one of the local motifs that got absorbed was the Hungry Ghost. These ghosts appears into Japanese Buddhist lore as well. The Hungry Ghost is a creature with an enormous stomach but a long skinny neck and a narrow throat, that can never be satisfied. The story was effective because hunger was something that everyone knew. It was a type of suffering so familiar that it could refer all types of suffering by analogy. The trouble is, in the United States, hunger no longer has this same effect.

I am not belittling the hunger we have do have in this country. Hunger can affect 1 in 6 of us(1), but Americans are the world's largest consumers(2) We are 5% of the world's population and consume more than 20% of the world's resources. Setting aside that untenable imbalance, to still have people who are hungry in this country is a moral outrage. Sadly, to most Americans, the problem is the opposite of hunger.

Most Americans barely feel the sensation of hunger. We eat so much, so often, that it is amazing we still have a word for 'hunger.' At the first twinge of hunger – more an emotion than a physical sensation – Americans simply reach for something, anything, to stuff into their mouths. The ubiquity of food, mostly bad, fast food, makes it nearly impossible for most of us to experience actual hunger. Diabetes, heart disease and cancer are simply the logical result of the way we live and eat.

The leading causes of death for Americans are below. At least half of the top ten are diseases of affluence. We are killing ourselves with lifestyle choices. The rest of the world strives to live like us, to be as successful as we are. What a cruel joke we're playing. Not only is it unsustainable for 5% of the population to consume 20+% of the resources, it is unhealthy too. The U.S. is not a shining city on the hill, it's actually a brand new nursing facility up there for treating our diabetes, heart disease and cancer. We are killing ourselves, convinced we're happy, while the emaciated faces of the developing world watch.

When I started to change my diet in the last month or so, there were times before I got used to the new routine that I felt hungry. No pain or serious hunger, but a pull. Though it felt like an outside force, it was all me. Suddenly I had only thoughts of food, any food, that I could stuff in my face. Luckily, I had new rules. I couldn't eat just anything. That is when I decided that feeling hungry was a good thing. I am not starving. Never in my life have I been skinny or even looked hungry. I decided to be proud of feeling hungry. I was managing to consume less of the world's precious resources all while making myself a bit healthier.

There were nights I counted the fast food franchises as I drove home from work, fighting the steering wheel to keep from turning in. My stomach was growling, nagging at me, but I drove on. There is nearly nothing I can eat at a fast food joint anymore anyhow. Once I got home, I had to keep myself from emptying the pantry. It is possible to eat too much even of the good stuff. Nevertheless, not only was I proud of the new way I was eating, I was proud to feel a little hungry. It wasn't, however, real hunger.

Americans eat almost twice the protein they need. Not only do we eat way more food than we need, Americans throw out 200,000 tons of edible food EVERY DAY.(3) It is in our interest to change our consumption habits. This is not a political statement. It is, first and foremost, about our health. But secondly, if the developing world catches up to our level of mindless consumption how are we going to get to 500% of the resources. Of course, we can only ever have 100% of the planetary resource pie to go around. Nevertheless, when the other 95% of the world starts getting their 20%, we will need the 500%. That's several more planets than we have. How's that going to work?

So far, I have left alone the entire fairness argument. Is it fair, just because we managed be one of the first to the first world, that we have so much while others do not. Can you blame some in the third world who view us with disdain? Historically, Americans are great champions of fairness. How did we miss this one? Could we ever reach the point where we are willing to decrease our lifestyle in order to spread the wealth, and the peace(!) around the world? Imagine if we helped countries develop and compete economically rather than dropping bombs on them. Would we have less enemies in the Middle East? Undoubtedly.

30,000 people died from hunger in the world today. 30,000 more will die tomorrow. We Americans will never know the dizziness of real hunger. We won't know the distended bellies, nor the long term health problems if we manage to survive. Most of us will never know the ache of going to bed hungry, not knowing when or where the next meal is likely to come. One simple way to change our attitudes, and effect some change, is to be proud of our stomachs growling. Rather than the plaintive howl of the hungry ghost, sing the song of borborygmi. Go a little longer between snacks. Don't immediately reach for something, but get a little hungry. Drive passed the franchises, get all the way home and cook something healthy – from scratch. Be proud to reduce your consumption just a little. Be that much healthier. Leave some for the rest of the world.

Number of deaths for leading causes of death, U.S.

  • Heart disease: 599,413
  • Cancer: 567,628
  • Chronic lower respiratory diseases: 137,353
  • Stroke (cerebrovascular diseases): 128,842
  • Accidents (unintentional injuries): 118,021
  • Alzheimer's disease: 79,003
  • Diabetes: 68,705
  • Influenza and Pneumonia: 53,692
  • Nephritis, nephrotic syndrome, and nephrosis: 48,935
  • Intentional self-harm (suicide): 36,909 link}http://www.cdc.gov/nchs/fastats/lcod.htm(4)
Image lifted from here.


Freedom in Discipline

I've written before about the need to slow down, to breathe, to be there, where you are, just open to this moment. Amazing things can happen on ordinary days when you leave yourself open to that possibility.

Pictured here is my "Four Pepper Stuffed Pepper;" a meal I created for my new vegan path [with Jicama and homemade Salsa Verde on a slice of Mom-grown Cherokee Purple tomato]. I got started watching a fascinating movie called “Forks Over Knives.”  Then, at the end of July, through the Center for Good Health(CfGH), I started working with a Wellness Coach, also the presenter at the seminar where I saw the movie. The coach helped me immensely just by the simple human trick of listening while I committed to this new path, and helping me keep track, in subsequent sessions, if I was actually doing what I set out to do. Alas, for any of you, Coach is soon to be moving on to a new gig. She will be missed. However, I understand she will still do consulting and coaching on the side.

This morning, I had my last coaching meeting of these first three. As we spoke about my progress and how I was going to maintain this new regimen, I offered that it seemed easy. It was just enough discipline to make some choices easier, and other choices just not necessary. At work, I often travel the floors of the hospital. There is the excellent cafeteria, the vending machines and the ubiquitous carry-ins. There is never want for snacky stuff, rich food, pizza, burgers, chips, etc. These temptations don't get to me like they once did. I don't feel tempted to cheat or bend my rules. Whether it's chips and salsa, rice crispy treats, donuts, cake, or whatever, I can walk by without a flinch and think: “Meh, not on my list.” I don't feel deprived, I am just not interested. This little bit of extra discipline has actually made my life easier rather than harder.

I expressed that though veganism is not a religious necessity of my Buddhist practice, it is religiously comfortable. It seems like a more compassionate choice, even a more sharing choice, though I don't proselytize in this way. Coach Sara proposed that this "freedom in discipline" about food choices was rather like Buddhism in general - freedom within the discipline of a practice. BAM! What a surprising, and unexpected, teaching! A rich understanding out of the blue. Right there, 8:30 am, I was blessed with a nutritional supplement for my Buddhism. Talk about food for the . . . um . . . buddha-nature.

If we aren't open to being taught, especially in an unexpected way, or at an unexpected venue, we can never learn.
Image: mine
Salsa Verde: Mom-made from her own-grown tomatillos and own-grown peppers.
Cherokee Purple: from Mom's burgeoning Little Shop of Horrors super garden. 


Bubba's Pasta Skillet #1

So, you think cooking and eating healthy is time consuming and expensive. Well, I can help a little with time, but that isn't really the point. Healthy is better than quick to begin with. Cooking can be a meditation of sorts. There isn't anything good for you that can be ready in 6 minutes. And the stuff that comes at you through the window of your car is even worse – no matter what you choose. Their oatmeal has twice as many calories as out-of-the-box Quaker Oats. I love to cook. It is completely relaxing and rejuvenating for me. I understand it is probably not this way for everyone, but I'm here to tell you that delicious, healthy food is easier than you think. And cheaper too.

Now there is a wrinkle that I must explain, but I want you to forget it as soon as you finish the next two paragraphs. Recently, I saw a movie called “Forks over Knives.” The movie is about the amazing health benefits of plant-based nutrition, completely plant-based nutrition – vegan. I was most of the way there already, and I've decided to give it a try. My health is good, but I want to see what better results I can muster.

Avoiding meat is also comfortable as a Buddhist. I have yet to make a conscious decision about my practice and meat, but ever since I began to take Buddhism more seriously, I have drifted toward the vegetables. A gradual decision like this, based on comfort and unconscious, is a better decision. Further more, not eating meat is very good for Mother Earth. The meat industry is responsible for more greenhouse gases than all the world's transportation industries combined. The amount of water, energy and [duh] grain that goes into a pound of meat is staggering. Switching to vegan is better for the planet than buying a hybrid automobile.

To help me with this change, I signed up for a Wellness Coach through the Center for Good Health in Holland, Mi [full disclosure: the CfGH is a satellite facility of Holland Hospital, my employer]. The CfGH is a great resource in Holland. They offer “a wide variety of childbirth, health & wellness classes, lectures, special events, support groups, personalized services and workshops in addition to fitness classes.” I saw the movie at the center and have taken yoga classes there too. For the next three weeks, I'm doing something close to the Engine 2 Diet – no meat, no dairy, no eggs, no processed foods and very little added oil. It's Day 5 and I feel great already, but on to healthy food the fast and easy way!

Bubba's Pasta Skillet #1, serves two to four.

2/3 cup of vegetable broth or water or 2 Tablespoons of olive oil for sautéing
Half an onion or so chopped [depending on your taste, anywhere from half to a whole medium onion]
Half a medium zucchini, chopped [I don't like the monsters, half of a 7 or 8” long zucchini, ymmv]
1/3 of a red bell pepper, chopped [bell peppers are a stock item in my kitchen]
2 tsp of minced garlic [stock item too]
½ tsp of Italian Seasoning [because I was lazy, fresh herbs would be better but not as fast]
Two or three stalks of celery, chopped [from the very heart with a few leaves, I had these around too]
A Portabello mushroom cap, diced [stock for me, but often available individually]
Three blanched Roma Tomatoes
Half pound or so of your favorite pasta [increase pasta & veggies for more guests]
a couple pinches of salt in the water

And, crank it up a notch with a hotter pepper, olives, artichoke hearts etc.

I know you're already quaking about the 'fancy' blanched Roma's but bear with me. This is easy peasy, you're going to boil water for pasta anyway. Start by chopping veggies, get your mind of the “blanched Roma tomatoes.” This sauce, because of these blanched tomatoes, will knock you out!

Add the salt and start heating a quart and a half of water in a 3 quart pot. As the water heats, start saut̩ing the veggies Рonions first, then as the onions reach translucent, add the mushroom, followed by the garlic and then the other veggies excepting the Roma Tomatoes. Add your enhancements here too. The skillet should be on Medium Low at this point if you're using broth or water like me or a bit higher if using olive oil.

When the pot water begins to boil, drop in the three Romas. In 3 to 5 minutes, the tomato skin will crack open. Dip the tomatoes out of the water with a slotted spoon and put them in a bowl to cool. Dump your pasta in the pot while the water continues to boil. Follow the pasta package instructions for time, etc.

The tomatoes will never cool fast enough if you're making this for dinner, but I discovered a secret weapon! I put the Romas in a bowl to cool and even put them in the fridge while I worked on the pasta. When I went to use the tomatoes and they were still pretty warm. Too warm to squeeze open in my bare hand. I found a long neglected silicone hot pad in the kitchen. Squeezing the tomatoes in a cloth hot pad would be a mess, but the silicone worked like a charm – and rinsed right off. Squeeze all the meat of the Romas right into the skillet with the other veggies. Turn the skillet down to a half a notch or so above all the way low. Chop the tomato meat up with a wooden spoon or spatula, but pull out the thick stem ends. Mix the well with the rest of the skillet. Discard the stem ends and the skin. Cook for 5 or 10 minutes more. The reason you are doing this is the wonderful richness of the Romas. This sauce will be as good or better than anything you've had in a restaurant. Way better than Fazoli's or Olive Garden, and healthier too.

The pasta should be getting done about now. Remember to keep an eye on the clock and the pasta. I always take a piece out to check how it chews anyway. I used whole wheat penne and whole wheat rotini pasta; half and half. Whole wheat pasta is a great healthy idea, but if you have regular pasta in the pantry - use it up. Mine was done in about 11 minutes, plenty of time to work the tomatoes in. When you are satisfied the pasta is done, drain it in a colander and toss with the vegetables in a skillet. Serve in pasta bowls. 

I cranked up the flavor in my skillet by adding a couple hot banana peppers right out of Mom's garden. I also had a jar of Alcaparrado on hand and added a half cup or so. Alcaparrado is a Spanish mix of Manzanilla Olives, Pimento and Capers. This salty, sour mix was the perfect compliment to the rich tomato and garlic flavors. I actually found my jar on clearance at the grocery store – a culinary bargain hunter's treasure!

I can't give you an exact cost figure on this meal. I had the pasta in the pantry. Most of the veggies, and the minced garlic, I keep around. The olive mix was about three bucks on clearance. I have less than $10 dollars in the whole thing. Further, I made two lunch containers for work after I ate a bowl and a half tonight. With more veggies and an appropriate amount of pasta [¼ pound per person before cooking], this could easily be stretched to feed four to six. A nice green salad, some crusty bread and a bottle of wine would still cost less than $30 dollars. A wonderful, simple meal for you and three of your friends that eats like an extravagance. I made mine completely vegan, but Parmesan or Romano cheese on top would be great. Not vegan? Try tearing up the breast meat of a deli roaster chicken and sprinkle that on top before serving; no more time and add only about five bucks more.

From foggy idea through Google search for blanching to chopping and cooking, and all the way to half eaten was less than an hour. Along the way, I kept a healthy promise to myself, learned the blanching that I saw Anthony Bourdain do on TV years ago and relaxed my way through chopping and cooking. This meal can be quick, but healthy is the point. If you can, saunter your way through the preparation; invite your family or friends into the kitchen to chat while you work. It won't be distracting, it will enrich the meal and your life. Better get two bottles of wine in that case. 


Just Return to Living

The evening had gone pretty well, but as in all stories like this - it gets nice and quiet just before something goes wrong. Late the Friday before, a patient needed a medication that is kept on hand for rare emergencies. The order to resupply wouldn't be received until Monday, but what were the chances that it would be needed again so soon? It was Sunday already, and we thought we'd made it through, when the call came in: new patient, same emergency, same antidote, we didn't have any in-house.

As my pharmacist held down all else, I called nearby hospitals desperately seeking a few vials. I had been on hold so long on the third call, I was about to hang up and move on. The tech came back on the phone and told me that her pharmacist was sure they had some; only they were having trouble finding it. It was just enough hope to hold on. I gave my pharmacist a tentative thumb's up.

Finally, she came back again, they had found some. I should have asked her exactly what they thought they had found [more later]. We sent a taxi in to the other hospital and waited for the meds to arrive. Our patient's vital signs were good. We were all holding our breath.

Forty five minutes later, the nurse called.

"I think we got the wrong med," she reported.

The panic is much worse after you've enjoyed the relief of thinking you had solved the problem.

"Get up there and find out what's going on!"

I ran out of the pharmacy and down the hall to the back elevator. My mind raced as I punched at the "up" button. With creaks and moans, rattles and clunks, the elevator took its own sweet time sauntering down the one floor from Main. With a final clunk, the doors began to open. I turned my shoulders, squeezed through the opening doors and began punching at another lighted button. The doors slowly creaked shut. I hoped our patient was still OK.

The elevator swayed and groaned as it carried me up from the basement. I strained against the increased gravity and willed the elevator to rise more quickly. It settled softly, shifted, and the doors creaked apart. Before I could run for the end of the ICU corridor, I was blocked by a big box.

There was a crowd of people in the small landing area. This was an isolated employee hallway where I rarely saw other employees, let alone a crowd - two hospital employees, a big box and five or six others - in street clothes. They were in my way, looking back at me, agape. Couldn't they tell I was in a hurry?!?

It was only a fraction of a second, and I can't imagine what kind of expression washed over my face as I realized the big box . . . was a casket. The two hospital people were pushing the casket down to the morgue. The crowd was family. A woman, surely the widow, leaned at the arm of someone while stiff, silent pain clung to her features. She stared, unbelieving, at the other end of the casket.

I attempted to give them a compassionate smile and held the elevator doors. It was right there - impermanence.  It struck me that rushing blindly through life is the bane of human existence. There are so many other things more important than being busy. Most important of all that nothing is permanent. Rushing along thinking that everything will stay the same prevents you from understanding how precious this is right here. It's precious exactly because it won't, it doesn't, it can't possibly last. That's not a bad thing, its just life.

Not comprehending this impermanence is the specific reason so many people are miserable. When I count on things staying the same and build my happiness - or what I think is happiness - on what I wish will stay the same, I can never be truly satisfied. Nothing stays the same. Flowers die, people change, things are not as they appear. This is precious. Savor moments. Don't worry over what you think should be, enjoy what is; deal with what is. 

The rest of the evening went fine, but I don't remember, nor do I care. The medication was, in fact, wrong the first time. We got the right stuff on a second taxi run. The original patient was fine. All those details run together and wash out like sidewalk chalk after a rain. I'm certainly not minimizing the plight of that first patient. And doing the job is, of course, important; paramount even. But living on the edge of frantic without an appreciation for being here - actually being here - is the dark side of the moon. It is not living. It is the dusty, hollow existence of only doing, not actually being.

There's an old zen saying "you should sit in meditation for 20 minutes a day, unless you're too busy; then you should sit for an hour." I had fallen helplessly into the trap. With two part time jobs and an old sailboat I'm resurrecting, I was usually headed in two directions at once. My practice had slipped. 

It started insidiously one morning when I was running behind. I had worked late at one job and had to be in early to the other. "I'll sit tonight" or "I'll sit tomorrow" or "I just won't worry about it for one morning" turned into two days, then three, then a week. After a time, it wasn't that it was hard to remember the last time, I wasn't even realizing that I'd fallen off the wagon; off the cushion as it were.

Luckily, the seeds of intention had been planted. It only took a few weeks of completely abdicating my practice for it to reach back for me. I didn't feel grounded. I didn't feel balanced. I wasn't moving, let alone moving in the right direction. I wasn't being. The same practice that beckoned me back is actually just returning to the breath.

We're told whatever happens in meditation, just return to the breath. If your thoughts have run wild and you're a million miles away, just return to your breath. If you're making lists or decisions, just return to your breath. If your eyebrow itches so badly, it's either scream out loud or scratch it, just scratch and return to your breath. If you haven't been sitting, just sit down and return to your breath. If you think that you will never get any of this stuff right, forget all that, just sit and return to your breath. If you think you're way too busy, shut up, sit down and return to your breath. It works for life too - no matter what happens, just return to living.

Picture NOT stolen off the interwebs, but actually taken by me, in Sunim's backyard and run through GIMP's Oilify filter.


The Trouble With Precepts.


Three weeks ago, I 'took the precepts' in a ceremony to be ordained as a Lay Buddhist in the Korean Taego Order. The precepts are simple guidelines for living in peace with love and compassion. It was an important day and the precepts are part of something I've been taking seriously for some time. Going through the ceremony, along with the support of my Sangha family at the Zen Center, helped to set the precepts at the forefront of my heart and mind during each day. I will strive to maintain this fresh momentum.
It is one thing to have decided that I would strive to live a certain way. It is a wholly different thing to feel that practice soaking in. There are so many things, especially in our Western world, where we cut corners in our life without realizing it. We don't think about the way we live or conduct ourselves. The hospital is refreshing because saving lives and healing people is so important that corners are not cut; procedures are followed. But I've worked in so many places where the news that some big wig is coming to visit causes all kinds of cleaning and panic. Suddenly we had to do things the right way … for show. This is completely self defeating because the policies and procedures become like inside jokes rather than the right thing to do. We often fall into living our lives like this as well; acting a certain way only one day week or dragging the family through an otherwise ignored ritual a couple times a year.
Recently, I missed something at work. It was not the end of the world, but it was something that I was supposed to do in the tasks I had that day. Moreover, it was one of those things that should be a habit. Further yet, it is one of those things that has to do with regulations and me missing it could cast the consistency of the whole department in a less than perfect light. I got an email at home asking if I had remembered to do it, but just failed to write it down. Setting aside that the act of doing this task is so physically proximate to the place it is recorded that one would be nearly impossible to do without the other. I also knew that, as bad luck would have it, there were inspectors from our accreditation agency visiting the hospital that week.
My instant reaction was to just claim I did it. In the two days that had followed since I forgot, if no one else had found a problem, all was continuing to be fine. But the same instant, I knew I wasn't going to lie about it either. Even before the precept ceremony, it was not my style to cover my ass with a patently false statement, but the precepts were right there. It was mine to do right.
The next, even stronger reaction was to write some classically corporate email that 'toed the line' of claiming I hadn't forgotten, while at the same time not really saying anything one way or the other. I was formulating the lines in my head and tweaking sentences to strip away any thing actually committing to either side of the truth. Call it the Grey Flannel Man response.
In the end, because I had made a commitment to myself, I stuck with the facts. I had had a busy night. I had thought of the need to check the temperatures while doing something else, but had forgotten to do so when I moved on to the next task.
In the last couple weeks, I've also stopped myself a few times weaving the truth and silence to leave a particular impression. The Buddha spoke of the false speech of omission; when we speak truthfully in a strict sense, but what we have left out colors the 'truth' of what we've said. I never realized that I had a particular skill at this. I'm not anywhere near pathological, but to commit to the “Right Speech” spoke of the Eightfold Path is to be truthful in words and in silence. I revel in that I have committed to doing what I set out to do. But its a pain in the ass too. I'm not drifting through life avoiding the 'crunchy' details of the truth any longer. It is or it isn't. Its not the complete elimination of grey areas, but there are way fewer shades of grey.
Of course, I was reminded of the work I still have to do. Driving along Market St., ironically on the way home from the Zen Center, a car was traveling right next to me all the way along the river and passed the Water Treatment Plant. I figure if you're on Market St., you've probably been on Market before. And we all know that just before the highway two lanes merge into one. But this person just hung in my blind spot. At the merge point, she could have slowed down and gotten behind me. She could have sped up and made the merge well ahead of time. But … no … she panicked at the sight of the yellow paint, barely sped up and came in ahead of me. Now she wasn't that close. There was no risk of a collision. And it really wasn't overtly rude; just stupid. Nevertheless, before I could stop it, my right fist raised, a particular finger extended, and I let her know, approximately, how I felt about her driving. There was no reason to emote. There was no reason to judge her driving. There was no reason to feel indignant … but I did.
I think there is something about our modern society that makes us think we have the right to be first, the right to be in a hurry, and the right to be right. While that is a whole topic for another day, I don't have the right to think that I drive any better than anyone else. I could have slowed down to let her in. At least, I hadn't sped up to trap her. I lived in Detroit where the morning commute is a contact sport, but I got better. There is a middle path between black & white and a million shades of grey.
When the precepts keep going off in my head like a game show buzzer, I just have to get it, get up, and keep trying. When Barbarossa said “The Code is more what you'd call guidelines than actual rules” it was nearly a Zen statement. The trouble with guidelines, also their strongest asset, 'Guidelines' put the onus on the individual. No one is telling you what it right and wrong. There is no one looking down from above to judge your actions. You must decide on your own and follow through – live it. I've made a commitment to myself. The responsibility, and the stakes, are much higher. To paraphrase a second un-Zen movie, I can handle the truth.


The 'Open' Road.

The long black ribbon stretched through the burnt oranges, yellows, deep garnet reds of fall. Beautiful bright colors had taken over from the lush green of summer.  The yellow center line danced from solid to broken, to double solid and back to broken – American backcountry highway. I swished and swayed down the road, surfing on the momentum of 80,000 pounds of truck, trailer and load. A magnetic satellite radio antenna hung on a pair of pliers that gripped the mirror bracket like a kid hanging on a roller coaster safety bar.  170 some channels of any damn thing I please - and yet, after three or four days, 13 hours a day, humming my way between the ditches, regardless of the quality or quantity of radio choices, my ears and my brain just tired of the stimulation.

Without realizing it, it was right there - with the radio off, driving on autopilot, gently bouncing along at 62 mph, lost in the hum of the big diesel engine under my feet - that I rediscovered the benefits of meditation.  Though I wasn't calling it meditation. I had attempted to start a mediation practice in a mid-Eighties dormitory at Michigan State University.  Needless to say, there was plenty of stimulation, and even some temptation, that prevented me from succeeding.  I had a shelf full of books on Buddhism and the spark of youthful enthusiasm but never quite found any traction.  Then life and career, marriage and divorce happened. 

Rolling along, just living in my own head, I began to see things more clearly. I toured different regions of the country.  I lived among people of different cultures; regional and international.  I saw the best and the worst of human behaviors.  I realized a simple truth: that which brings us together is good, that which separates us, or allows us to feel separated, is bad.

After a second divorce, mostly amicable but complicated, I was searching my past seeking how to be happy again; or at least contented.  Like an archaeologist, I dug through my memories for clues. I cataloged bits and pieces; tested hypotheses and ran experiments. I came across the memory of my earlier flirtation with Buddhism. 

After more than fifteen years as a hardcore atheist, there wasn't a chance that I could return to the Christianity of my childhood.  Since the age of twelve or thirteen, I had had issues with the 'F' word.  Try as I might, I could not muster 'capital-F' faith. On the road, I started reading about Buddhism again.  I went back to Suzuki, tried the Dalai Lama, stumbled upon Brad Warner.  I crammed my iBook with San Francisco Zen Center podcasts and listened as I traveled.  The meditation practice I couldn't get going 25 years previous in East Lansing was gaining traction on a three foot square sheet of plywood on top of the mattress in the sleeper bunk of my semi-cab.  Shortly after I quit driving to live and work in West Michigan, the Grand Rapids Zen Center opened. Surrounded by like-minded souls and an invaluable teacher, my practice has blossomed.

My mind had opened enough to let my heart expand.  The simple statement I had discovered – 'That which brings us together is good, that which separates us is bad" - fit like a lost key into a Buddhist way of thinking.  Just like a scientist, who is open to what he finds, not swayed by what should be but only by what is, the Buddha said 'don't take my word for it, try it yourself.' Be a light unto yourself. 

One thing I knew for sure after 500,000 miles, the traffic jams, the politics and the truckstop hustlers, what the world truly needed was loving kindness and compassion. I also knew that it could only start in my heart.  The world cannot be changed by arguing; by yelling and screaming. The world won't be changed by bluster or persuasion; not even by the pointing of a gun. The only way to change the world is to change your own heart.  The only person to convince is yourself.  Do the right thing for all of us at this very moment and everything else will follow. 
Image lifted from http://www.imperfectwomen.com/october-roads-lead-to-all-things-good/ without permission.
   from my Droid
Todd R. Townsend


What's so funny 'bout Peace, Love and Understanding?

Back to the prostrations and the sitting, my bones are doing better. My knees have stretched to take to sitting on the cushion. My back is accustomed to the new job and has grown stronger. The posture is more natural. These old bones have begun to make way for my heart.

At first, 3000 prostrations seemed like some stern Eastern hazing ritual; like having to 'man up' to deserve admission. In the last post, I described the physical problems I was having and the ego trouble that went along with them. To drop to one's knees and gently touch the forehead to the mat is a challenging physical act. To start sitting cross legged on the floor in midlife is a challenging physical act.

And yet asking us to do 3000 prostrations in 5 or 6 months had nothing to do with our physical bodies; nothing to do with hazing. The lesson of the prostrations was about the heart and mind. To decide that something is important to your humanness is relatively easy. To do something about it, even just once, a bit harder. Moreover, to actually dedicate yourself to do something deliberately every single day is next to impossible to accomplish on your own - just for yourself.

Its when I realized that this deliberate action was banking peace and compassion for all beings that it began to lighten. Its when I realized that the prostrating was part of a pledge to live a life of peace and love and understanding, that it became manageable.

As I begin to realize that I'm not doing this for myself at all, but for everyone and everything, the 'I' starts to dissolve into the 'all.' Its then that I can feel the universe is prostrating with me; has been all along. And it gets a little easier with all that help.


Prostrating Fool

In April, a Zen center opened in Grand Rapids. At first, I just dabbled. As I was returning to Buddhism in the last few years, reading Brad Warner, the punk contrarian Zen Master, and listening to podcasts from the San Francisco Zen Center, I had begun to think of myself as a Soto Zen Buddhist. In actual fact, I had never darkened the door of any Buddhist temple let alone a Soto one. I dipped my toe in the Korean Zen center only because it was the one I could get to. I held myself aloof. Then again, I was excited and happy to have a local temple and local practice opportunity.

Soon it became apparent, even to me, that it really is much better to study in a sangha, under a teacher. The author, Karen Maezen Miller, ironically a Soto Zen Priest, said “If you think there's a difference between Chinese Zen, Japanese Zen, Korean Zen, Vietnamese Zen and American Zen, it's not Zen.” I began to feel comfortable at the local center. As Fall approached, I joined a group at the center who aim to take the precepts in the Spring. To 'take the precepts' is to officially and publicly declare that you are a Buddhist and that you will strive to live your life accordingly. It is kind of like a confirmation or a baptism – only not.

With a bit of delicious pleasure, Sunim told us that we would have to do 3000 prostrations before the springtime ceremony to take the precepts in the Korean tradition. There was also something about burning our forearms with the end of a stick of incense to leave a permanent reminder of our commitment. As soon as he stated these requirements, my imagination ran wild. I was going to be the best prostrator they every saw. I would get my 3000 done right away. And not only that, when they went to burn my arm, I would lean into it and then have an enso tattooed around the scar.

Reality soon came to mock my silly ego. As soon as I started doing prostrations, I realized how unnatural a motion it was for my old knees. About the same time, my day job was causing a stiff back nearly every day. Often as I sat for meditation, rather than peace and harmony, all I knew was screaming knees and a painful knot in my back. The little whining ego began to chip away at my resolve. My meditation schedule waned. I stopped doing prostrations. The smallest distraction caused me to get up off my cushion and quit.

We preceptors are keeping a practice journal. The journal lists meditation time and number of prostrations along with what obstacles we encountered and a statement of gratitude. I began to dread when I would be asked to present my journal. Despite what I thought I was willing to strive for, my practice was sliding. I was sure that I was behind everyone else on prostrations. It seemed certain that I was lagging enough in effort that I might be asked to stop coming. My ego reaction had flipped and caused me to shrink away, rather than charge at my practice. I was feeling inadequate.

When I tried to make a big splash to restart, when I forced myself into a heavy practice session, all I ended with was sore legs and a couple more days off. I was very frustrated.

Last week, we were asked to use a new form and email a weekly journal. There was no request to see the journal in which I'd been recording my haphazard practice. Nevertheless, when I had to send in the first email journal, I had nothing to report. The holidays were a terrible distraction. It was wonderful to have lots of family around and catch up with them, but it was hard to carve out time for meditation. Then just as I was looking forward to having the house to myself again, contractors arrived to redo the kitchen. I was starting to doubt what I thought I wanted. I wondered if my distracted little pea brain could actually concentrate and begin to allow me to walk this path.

Rather than being asked to stop trying, I got the most wonderful answer to my empty practice report. Of course, my inadequacies were not deemed a problem. I was not judged and found lacking. Sunim told me that he thought that I was being pulled in a lot of directions and that it was more important to establish a habit, however light, than to try to take big swings at it and miss. Regular practice was more important than grandiose plans about long meditations and leaping up from prostrations. I think I can handle this.

It's already beginning to come back for me. Some of things in my crazy life may not be necessary. Some of it may be distracting. But rather than thinking of it like taking a stand, a small regular effort will erode at the rest. The dust and the chaff will wash away. That which is permanent – solid – will not only remain, but will shine again.