Saturday, March 23, 2002

Nothing could be further from the truth. For the most part, however, it nestles close.
What is truly real beyond appearance?

Tell all the Truth but tell it slant-
Success in Circuit lies
Too bright for our infirm Delight
The Truth's superb surprise
As Lightning to the Children eased
With explanation kind
The Truth must dazzle gradually
Or every man be blind---

-- Emily Dickinson

The local community is astir over a newspaper essay that takes a skeptical, some say downright negative, view of the town of Camden and, by association, its mid-coast extensions. The writer begins with theme bait of a series of suicides over the past year. He proceeds to rhetorically neighbor these occurrences in some literary way to the credit card bank MBNA – juxtaposing bank, town, and suicide with a slant of affluent, manicured attention -- the preference of appearance to reality. (Who would really think that such a clean and well lighted place would enter so darkly, even with their annoying phone intrusions at dinner time, their bait and slap tactic luring new fish with low interest rates then tossing tardy payers into the punitive hold of jacked up rates?) Many on the Internet boards and letters to local community station have taken the bait of both Maine Times headline and cheap money promise.

The intelligent rail, the angry flail, the bruised hardly take time to heal. Those who don’t like the town are told to leave. Those who criticize are mocked with faux lure-lines of genteel first-name admonition. Those who misspell are corrected. And those who are misunderstood retaliate with further ambiguity. One joins the discussion with trepidation.

Then someone will point out what a jolly battle it is -- no one is bloodied, and isn’t this exactly what we fight for worldwide – the freedom to be critical, testy, irreverent, and even wrong. The combatants respite their skirmishes for a relenting while and join in hymns of praise for the friendly and freedom affirming battle.

It’s true. No one has strapped a bomb to their belt to detonate in a busy square, fired a semi-automatic into a crowd, or lobbed grenades into a church gathering. Opinions, even those unpleasant and arrogant, take to the air without intent to kill and maim. It is enough to speak and fume, clarify and expand, belittle or over-reach. There’s a freedom from fear in posting a view that invites the courageous willing-to-be-countered opinion holder.

The cry for truth – if such brazen appeal can be made in our ambivalent, spin driven culture – does have a longing for freedom to it. Seldom agreed upon, but sometimes -- like horseshoes – neared, truth hovers as nothing hovers. We try to grasp and narrow truth -- to bandy it as something we really don’t fear. We try to ignore nothing – maybe side step certain themes as one might shudder with schadenfreude passing a horrible accident or hearing of a sudden stunning death -- a neighbor by his or her own hand.

The experience of nothing – (the stomach wrenching bottom falling out oh my God what is to come of me is this the end) – that experience is closer to the experience of truth than we might comfortably admit.

One of difficulties encountered in contemporary culture exemplified hereabouts is the appearance the writer of the Maine Times article points out. Neat, tidy, organized, pretty, and well endowed is no substitute or hedge for truth.

One truth, if we were to consider the proposed theme of the essay sparking so much response, is that we die. All of us, we die. No matter what religious, philosophical, spiritual, or new fangled belief we have –we each die. Life might just carry on after death in some way we do not truly understand, but death is certainly a punctuation mark in that passage.

The experience of nothing, like the experience of truth, is more common than we admit. Youth, those in middle years, the elderly -- have had the experience. This experience of nothingness --when nothing matters, nothing comforts, nothing seems to loom on the horizon, and nothing can change the situation of our lives (or so we feel and think) – is part of what it means to live, breathe, and have our being. This reality, experienced as nothing, is felt and thought of as the truth.

And, it might just be the truth. We don’t know. In the same way, the experience of truth – one that opens, clarifies, and frees – is often a dizzying liberation from illusions and delusions we’ve carried with us long and without a clue. Truth has a way of insinuating itself without our fully realizing it. Still, in the face of either nothing or truth, we try to help one another feel better, think differently, and get on with life. This is a good thing to do.

Unfortunately, an experiential encounter with nothing, or truth, can be and is often devastating. A woman I knew committed suicide last year. Another woman I know died this week of cancer. Several others I’ve known or heard about from loved ones have gone the same way. This is true. No matter how the post-death appeal is made – gone to better place, not suffering, we’ll all go on here or elsewhere, (even the crass ‘get over it’) – we know deep in our coffee cups that there’s a hole and a whole lot here philosophy or biology courses, religious education or positive thinking affirmations don’t come close to touching.

These women and men are dead. Their bodies deteriorate and disintegrate. What some call “them” or their soul, spirit, or true selves – this has dropped through the center of their being and gone to a truth, a no-thing-ness that I do not yet comprehend. No-thing there -- is that the truth? Sure, there are memories, stories, even a sense of presence – these, too, are good. Still, no one answers the phone or comes to the door in the whereabouts of those dead. Our understanding has not caught up with our experience in these matters.

Our teachers, parents, ministers, priests, rabbis, therapists, writers, business leaders, or politicians in our communities – even the successful ones, no matter how intelligent or opinionated – are all in the same boat. We fish the same waters. Some bait smells more rotten than others. But all are trying to bring up something to take the edge off our hunger to understand that upon which we float, steer, and call our being.

We don’t always have the familiarity or ability to name or help each other through the stark and unsettling times these experiences of nothing or truth evoke. We try. But we usually call the troubling reality something else – like adolescence or middle age, adolescent turmoil or middle age crisis, depression or other clinical diagnosis. Naming it this way seems curious comfort to some. As if a handle makes it easier to carry the fright. Sometimes it does. Often, not. The Zen saying says, “Better to see the face than hear the name.”

Teenagers know nothing. (Make that phrasing a joke or a critical comment if you wish—but it’s not.) The phrasing, “Teenagers know nothing” is also a revelation we need to process. Our culture of appearances cannot fool them. Nor can we fool ourselves – not for long, anyway. Teenagers know, know, that what we genially agree upon as pragmatic continuance of everyday life with values and standards considered good measure for common living – these are agreed upon appearances that soothe and cover another reality.

That truth is known in the bones. Namely – we are impermanent -- we pass. Life (as wonderful as it is) is punctuated by and defined by death. Nothing -- certainly not our fastidious show of good taste, fine joinery, and swept sidewalks -- penetrates the truth of death.

Rather than a straw argument that approaches then withdraws from the subject, are we willing and able to speak both to each other and the issue at hand? How are we to live in the face of death? Is there a truth beyond my capacity to grasp? Appearances to the side – are we able to live and move through this existence in such a way that it matters, really and truthfully, to you, the world, and me? Would it make a difference if we loved each other? Would it help if I were to say aloud, “I love you?”

In paradoxical restatement of that earlier sentence: Nothing does penetrate the truth of death. ‘No-thing’ -- or radical interpenetrating awareness – does penetrate death. Similarly, Jesus was said to be obedient to death. The New Jerusalem Bible translates the Philippians' piece,

Make your own the mind of Christ Jesus:
Who, being in the form of God,
did not count equality with God
something to be grasped at.

But he emptied himself,
taking the form of a slave,
becoming as human beings are;
and being in every way like a human being,
he was humbler yet,
even to accepting death, death on a cross.

And for this God raised him high,
and gave him the name
which is above all other names;


Is death, like birth and life, a process of taking from us that which is unnecessary and extraneous – a spirituality of subtraction, not adding? Does death, long considered the enemy of life, serve as the pivoting point for a life willing to turn and free itself from what is not life? That would be an interesting shift – death as teacher of life from birth to birth, or from origination to resurrection. Perhaps one reason why suicide is so distressing is that it stops with ‘no’ -- cuts off the hard learning and continuing evolution within and before us. Death is not ‘no.’ Death is a fuller phrasing.

In its natural revelation death is a gateway to ‘yes’ – a passageway to a truth so alluring that only the prepared can appreciate its appearance. Too precipitous and negating a death, such as suicide, might mean the person will have to continue the work of moving toward ‘yes’ in another dimension, perhaps more slowly, and certainly dependent on the prayers and thoughts of those remembering them as they continue their journey. It’s not so much a matter of wasting one’s life, but more of having to begin again and work it differently than the way afforded by life’s earthly dimension. Those of us still here must remember. Our assistance, along with our own work, matters. We only appear to be separate. The reality, I suspect, is more non-separate.

So too, restating the first question of this piece: “What is truly real beyond appearance?” We arrive at a response to consider, namely: "What is" -- is truly real, and is beyond appearance.

“What is” is elsewhere referred to as “God.” Truth is “what is” revealing itself. And to the slang question, “What’s happening?” (That is: What is happening?) The response might easily be, yes! Whether our language is laced with theological references, philosophical references, or everyday street references -- it doesn’t matter which. What does matter is listening to what is being said. What further matters is the willingness not to separate ourselves or try to separate ourselves from that which we are.(Were we even able to separate ourselves from what we are, we would not be able to finish this sentence.)

Now that you and I have finished it, we can mull the pervasive and improbable ground of our existence. Yes, I am here. Yes, you are there. Yes, we are each and all in this place. And, yes, we are held as one another by something we have not yet been able to name, overcome, transcend, or transform. What is that? “Tat tvam asi,” meaning, “That is you.” The non-dual Advaita tradition of India would answer “there are no unenlightening beings in existence, anywhere, anytime.” The Advaita-Vedanta tradition teaches that the manifest creation, the soul, and God are identical. The latest discoveries of nuclear physics give meaning to this concept of nonduality.

Richard Rohr, Christian author, would add, “Yes, no, yes.” The first ‘yes’ is enthusiastic with promise. The following ‘no’ is necessary to empty our illusions and unnecessary baggage. The final ‘yes’ is mature, without illusion, clear hearted, and willing to move into unknowing trust --what is the nothing other of truth. Then, only following that “Yes!” can we contemplate, converse, and correspond with what is, with each other. The fuller phrasing of death involves this yes, no, yes spoken with, to, and as, what is taking place.

It is our task, sooner or later, to engage “what is” beyond appearance. Death will accommodate the task if we wish to wait. So will despair. So will devastating truth – such as news of a terrorist attack in a near and dear place. We could put it off. And wait. And even pretend we’ll never have to look at the question – that it will happen to us when we’re unconscious, or not there, or…whatever. (“Whatever,” a term so popular today, might be the perfect ambivalent current question/response to troubling encounter with the unknown, death, and truth. Ambivalent because it is the tone and emphasis of its pronunciation that suggests either genuine puzzlement or who-gives-a-shit exasperation.)

Put in terms more familiar to us: God is what is; we are wonderful; life is mystery; we’re not as smart as we think; pretty isn’t perfect; someone needs you; pay attention; pray for awareness; tip generously the waiter and waitress; buy low and sell high but don’t spend too much time thinking it matters; prepare a will; eat chocolate donuts; be kind, mostly, be kind to yourself; and, as Emily Dickinson suggests, “Tell all the Truth but tell it slant.” We’re not meant to clobber each other with the truth we see – just slide it across the table like a matchbook in a movie.

In Feminine Ground: Essays on Women and Tibet, Janice D. Willis (editor), in a chapter entitled “Dakini: Some Comments on its Nature and Meaning,” Willis writes,

Herbert Guenther offers the following gloss: “The Tibetan explanation for the word ‘sky,’ ‘celestial space’ is a term for ‘no-thing-ness’ (stong-pa-nyid) (Skt., sunyata) and ‘to go’ means ‘to understand.’ The Dakini is therefore an understanding of no-thing-ness.”

Again, James Robinson, in a description which is perhaps too anthropomorphic (?), comments: “The Tibetans render dakini as mkha’ ‘gro ma, ‘the sky-walking woman’. But the idea of ‘sky’ was interpreted as standing for ‘emptiness’, and ‘walking’ is equivalent to ‘understanding’, so that the dakini is ‘the woman who understands emptiness’, that is to say, the feminine embodiment of wisdom.”

The open, empty space of transparent clarity, what is called love, or God, or awakening, or – your very name. Is this what we long for – to hear, to speak – to love our true name?
Wisdom just might be feminine embodiment, one who understands emptiness.

This season of being-birthed, suffering, death, resurrection, and ascension is not an isolated or belief-specific season.
It is the season of existence. We’re right there in it. Nothing is more vital than the effort to visit each other, face the truth each longs to reveal, joyfully attend this season of our lives, and accompany each and all in the passage we traverse.

While with an eye made quiet by the power
Of harmony and the deep power of joy,
We see into the life of things.

-- William Wordsworth

I end revisiting the article in the Maine Times. This geographical area, Camden and environs, with its magnificent natural beauty, exquisitely wealthy corporation with all the power and willfulness that wealth affords, has indeed had its share of suicide. So too, many experience traveling alone without soul-friend -- too many. Probably the numbers are no more, no less than any other area, rich or poor, well educated or miserably denied. It just happens that concentration of wealth, arrogance of power, belief in security and surety, and the opinion that smarter is superior -- makes the suggestion of causal connection tempting.

Nothing could be further from the truth. For the most part, however, it nestles close.
What is, nevertheless, is truly real, beyond appearance.

Thursday, March 21, 2002

Wet snow broke one trunk branch of front cedar this morning. We were on cushions. The crack. The fall.

We cut away many broken limbs. Dragged the pieces back to stone wall near cabin. The fragrance, the red liquid of torn down bark. Sprayed gaping split with protection against water.

Reattached telephone line
Just like that.

Bruises, breaks, and bottoming out come just like that.

The early spring snow melts all day. Electric power returns. Sump pump in basement awakens, grabs inching water by ankles before it reaches bottom step, sends it up through tube, and out window by wood fence along Barnestown Road.

Cedar tree is still. Quiet. Like a patient after sudden accident, it stands in dusky inventory of itself. Something is gone. Much remains.

Like life.

Tuesday, March 19, 2002

We live, right now. And any sustained accounting or intelligible recounting cannot explain the fact we are alive right now.


It could have happened.
It had to happen.
It happened earlier. Later.
Nearer. Farther off.
It happened, but not to you.
You were saved because you were the first.
You were saved because you were the last.
Alone. With others.
On the right. The left.
Because it was raining. Because of the shade.
Because the day was sunny.
You were in luck -- there was a forest.
You were in luck -- there were no trees.
You were in luck -- a rake, a hook, a beam, a brake,
A jamb, a turn, a quarter-inch, an instant . . .
So you're here? Still dizzy from
another dodge, close shave, reprieve?
One hole in the net and you slipped through?
I couldn't be more shocked or
how your heart pounds inside me.

(Poem by Wislawa Szymborska, trans. by Stanislaw Baranczak and Clare Cavanagh in Could Have, 1972)

It is the feast of St. Joseph, best known as the husband of Mary – the man who didn’t divorce her or have her stoned for a seeming adultery. He’s also known as the foster father of Jesus – the man who shepherded his family by dreams from country to country in a middle-eastern drama of cloak and dagger.

One wrong turn and she’s dead, he’s dead, or the kid is dead.
Joseph is the wordless one, the silent one, unrecorded in scripture as uttering one quotable sentence. Today at mass cakes at foot of altar. A special blessing and, through the glass in the soup kitchen doors, tables set at St. Bernard’s for coffee and cake.

It is my sister’s birthday. Zazen at dawn with her photo ready for hermitage altar. Her life now silent. We pray by presence, seen and unseen, a sacred appreciation. Patricia, Joseph, Mary, Jesus – the aspiration of unseen, unsaid, intimate appreciation.

The world with its wars and noise, bickering and posturing, demands and ultimatums – the world that newspapers, radio, and television recount as real – the political, economic, cultural, and religious world of contemporary human anxiety – that world – is no longer important…or, is it?


It has come to this: I’m sitting under a tree
beside a river
on a sunny morning.
it’s an insignificant event
and won’t go down in history.
it’s not battles and pacts,
where motives are scrutinized,
or noteworthy tyannicides.

And yet I’m sitting by this river, that’s a fact.
and since I’m here
I must have come from somewhere,
and before that
I must have turned up in many other places,
exactly like the conquerors of nations
before setting sail.

Even a passing moment has its fertile past,
its Friday before Saturday
its May before June
its horizons are no less real
than those that a marshal’s field glasses might scan.

This tree is a poplar that’s been rooted here for years.
The river is the Raba; it didn’t spring up yesterday.
The path leading through the bushes
wasn’t beaten last week.
The wind had to blow the clouds here
before it could blow them away.

And though nothing much is going on nearby,
the world is no poorer in details for that.
It’s just as grounded, just as definite,
as when migrating races held it captive.

Conspiracies aren’t the only things shrouded in silence.
Retinues of reasons don’t trail coronations alone.
Anniversaries of revolutions may roll around,
but so do oval pebbles encircling the bay.

The tapestry of circumstance is intricate and dense.
Ants stitching in the grass.
The grass sewn into the ground.
The pattern of a wave being needled by a twig.

So it happens that I am and look.
Above me a white butterfly is fluttering through the air
on wings that are its alone,
and a shadow skims through my hands
that is none other than itself, no one else’s but its own.

When I see such things, I’m no longer sure
that what’s important
is more important than what’s not.

(Poem by Wislawa Szymborska, in The End and the Beginning, 1993)

It is the final day of winter. Hosmer Pond ice withdraws from its shore retreating to a centering circle to pause, and disappear. So too the Eucharist this morning – a centering circle, pausing, and disappearing into an unseen, unsaid, intimate appreciation.

As the poet writes, whether winter or Eucharist, it "is none other than itself, no one else’s but its own."

This is how we celebrate passing -- whether of season, or person, or matters of once seeming importance. How? We attend, appreciate, and abandon ourselves in the passing.

Allowing each its own. No one else’s. Each none other than itself.
Happy birthday Patricia! Happy feastday Joseph!

Now, winter. Now, spring.

Monday, March 18, 2002

Saskia told me Bunny is in the health care facility and is dying. Last night at Sunday Evening Practice the question was asked, “When did death become a problem?” Seth reframed the question to, “When did life become a problem?”

At Saturday Morning Retreat, this month Buddhist Lectio, we read the four noble truths “The First Sermon of the Buddha” as translated by Walpola Rahula in book Radiant Mind (ed. Jean Smith). Afterward the talk went to the cycle of arising from origin, flowering, deteriorating, and returning to origin. Elsewhere the cycle is called life and death – born, grow, peak, decline, and die.

Everything seems to travel that circle. Yet, we seem to want something different. Our minds grab on to one point of the circle and claim it as a desired permanent attachment. Our ego says ‘this is me’ and defends against any other interpretation or possibility. Our fear says, ‘ I’m afraid of change, I want it all to stay the way it is.’

When, I wonder, did our consciousness look at this cycle and consider it a problem?

If everything originates, expands, contracts, and returns to origination – then that is what will be with us. In the Christian season of Lent, at Ash Wednesday, the words are “Remember -- dust thou art, and unto dust thou shalt return.”

Marcus Borg ends a Lenten meditation; ”For Christians, Ash Wednesday and Lent are an invitation to follow Jesus on the path of death that leads to life.” (

Perhaps the problem isn’t one or the other – life or death. That is the dualistic way of saying it.
Perhaps what we really are saying is that the problem (of our making) is life/death, life/death, life/death.

Said once or three times, life/death is the inseparable experience of one whole fact. The mind fragments it. The ego prefers one to the other. The fear grabs tight what it wants not to change.

Life/death is the path all in existence take. One is the other. Without the other there is no one. It is what is. There is no other way.

The Buddha said, “I teach one thing and one thing only: suffering and the end of suffering.” Life is impermanent, conditioned, not completely satisfactory – and attachment is suffering. Craving causes suffering, by greed and thirst. Cessation of suffering is giving up craving, renouncing greed, emancipating oneself, detaching oneself from always wanting something more. The path leading to the cessation of suffering is eightfold – right view, right thought, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness, right concentration.

In Mark (8:34) Jesus says, If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.” To follow “the way” is to walk the path of seeing without choice. Choicelessness – the acceptance of what is -- is sufficient for Buddha and Jesus. Our problem is the discriminating and divisive mind we apply to what is.

Life is good. Death is good. You are good. We are good. There’s no choice. All is well, and all shall be well.

We pray for Bunny. She used to sit with us at centering prayer. We pray she might easily go where she is going, with love and attention, with our appreciation. With God.

Sunday, March 17, 2002

Somebody or something is on thin ice.

Maybe Lazarus. He'd stopped breathing, no coursing blood, tissues gone cold, set in cave tomb for the long haul.
Maybe Jesus. They script him cool and hip to the opportunity to do a media splash and photo-op the glory of God thing now that his friend had died.
Maybe it's the person in Saskia's dream who's on thin ice -- that's the words she was told: Justin is on thin ice.

The ice in mid-coast disappears fast and early this late winter. Chickawaukie Pond, the large body of ice last week along route 17 going into Rockland is completely melted, no ice, open water.

Maybe she got the spelling wrong. Maybe "justice" is on thin ice. And we are calling to help before it sinks out of grasp and we are left to surface views, surface memories, and surface transport -- but no justice.

This week we'll invite some people to speak with each other about justice and what we are learning following the thin ice experience one family is suffering in the larger family of the local Catholic Church.

Jesus fell through the thin ice. Grandstanding be dammed, he abandons the show -- and weeps. He comes to understand (or maybe the writers do) that his life is not a propaganda pamphlet. He is flesh and blood. His friend has died. Many are weeping. He awakens.

When he awakens, Lazarus awakens. So too, the writers awaken. The sisters see their brother through their tears. Jesus and Lazarus, Martha and Mary stand there, the other Jews attending this awakening also stand there. No cameras. No reporter's notebooks. No publicist's bus idling nearby. The scene is cleared. Anyone not belonging in that instant of awakening disappears.

Justice, finally.
From the Sanskrit yos, meaning welfare, L.jus, meaning right, justice -- the right understanding of the well-fare-ing of each in light of all. No one fares well until all fare well. It's not rhetoric. It's what is real -- all the way down.

Lazarus fell through, Jesus fell through, and those attending this love fell through -- all the way through. Maybe there is a correlation between thin ice, justice, love, what we call 'death,' and falling through into a depth of understanding and awakening. It seems our fears keep us on surface. When one who has broken through says, "do not fear," we are invited to go where true justice goes.

Few attend when justice occurs -- real justice is a quiet, almost intimate instance of awakening. Perhaps the "All," or, the glory of God, attends only when justice occurs. And not until.

It is Saint Patrick's Day. The Irish smile. And a sweet celebration that is!
But the ice is thin. Winter wanes. Spring longs for itself from the depths, from underground where water tables wander waking from winter frost.

That we each attend the welfare of all is only right.
Off with you! Save each other. Keep each other in mind and heart. Then, for God's sake and all our family's too -- cry for, and smile with, justice!

Top of the mornin' to us all!