Slender Threads

Dew on Spider Web by Luc Vlatour, Creative Commons.

“Sometimes a life can hang by such a slender thread.” – Kate Wolf

Yesterday, around dinner time, I took my wife to the emergency room with severe chest pains. This morning, a little before 9:00, she texted that she was going into surgery in 45 minutes. I hurried over, but had to drive to the roof of the parking garage to find a spot.

As I sprinted down the steps, I spotted an acquaintance, who I’d seen earlier in the week at a meeting, who did not look well at all. He was entering the oncology building. I called his name but he didn’t hear me.

By the end of the day, my wife was stable. Though not out of trouble or the hospital, her prospects are encouraging. Not so, I believe, the friend I saw. He’s elderly but notable for a heart that is both wise and kind. This is a man who clearly does not have much money. Exactly the kind of man that the oligarchs want to strip of healthcare.

I thought of what Buddha said at the end of the Diamond Sutra:

“So I say to you –
This is how to contemplate our conditioned existence in this fleeting world:
Like a tiny drop of dew, or a bubble floating in a stream;
Like a flash of lightning in a summer cloud,
Or a flickering lamp, an illusion, a phantom, or a dream.”

It was a sullen day, and windy, with a threatening sky. The kind of weather that reminds you of mortality, even without anything explicit on the horizon. Buddha didn’t flinch from difficult truths, but he did make clear, as the Dalai Lama continues to do today, that in the face of this fleeting world, nothing matters more than kindness to other living beings.

In the end – and we shall all make this discovery, sooner than we would wish – everyone’s life is a slender thread, and when it breaks, bank accounts do not matter. Nobility of soul does – very, very much.

An End of Year Blessing from Anam Thubten

I wrote a number of posts about Anam Thubten in the early years of this blog. Not so many lately, though that may change in the future.

I’ve followed his teachings for the last dozen years – via his books, his daylong retreats in Sacramento (which happen about once a year), and his recorded talks on the Dharmata Foundation website.

His profound gift is his ability to present some of the oldest and most revered teachings in Tibetan Buddhism in clear and accessible terms to audiences around the world.

In this interview, posted on Buddistdoor.net on December 20, he shared some of his suggestions and hopes for the coming year:

As we bid farewell to 2018 and move into the New Year of 2019, Rinpoche deeply wishes that we all meditate, regardless of spiritual belief or affiliation, and to commit to looking inward. “There are lots of wonderful teachers. And they can be regular people…as long as they have a good heart.” 

The world is in a new period of uncertainty, and the energy of the globe is shifting unpredictably. In this context Rinpoche believes that the words “optimism” and “pessimism” are not helpful. “I wouldn’t say that we should be optimistic in the sense we try to shut off our minds and tell ourselves everything is hunky-dory. Yet too much pessimism leads to paralysis, and is an excuse for inaction. What we need is hope, an attitude of transformation and dealing with the urgent issues facing us. I’d like to have hope and faith in humanity rather than optimism.”

Last night I dreamed Roy Rogers died…

Roy Rogers was my first boyhood hero. For a time, around the age of three or four, I refused to answer to “Morgan,” insisting that my parents call me Roy.

Me as Roy, probably age 4.

No matter that any residual appreciation for him collapsed during the Vietnam war, after he came out as a hawk – Roy Rogers was the first person who carried for me, the imagination of what a life well lived might look like.

Upon waking, it seemed strange that I should dream of his death as a present day event, when it happened 20 years ago. Not so strange, after a moment’s reflection, as the nation watches, in real time, the complete collapse of any remaining shred of heroism among our ruling class and their paid minions in Washington. We still live in the world T.S. Eliot described in “The Waste Land.”

There is no way this ends well!

For 20 years, I followed the teachings of Paramahansa Yogananda (1893-1952), a Hindu master who moved to this country in 1920, to found an international organization that teaches the core unity of all religions and gives instruction in meditation practices to enable people to make this discovery for themselves.

In May, 1940, he gave a talk that was later published as a pamphlet called World Crisis. In it, he said:

“a great crisis is going to come, a crisis such as never before has hit this country…There is a world revolution going on. It will change the financial system. In the karmic firmament of America I see one beautiful sign; that no matter what the world goes through, she will be better off than most other countries. But America will experience widespread misery, suffering, and changes just the same. You are used to the better things of life, and when you are obliged to live simply, you won’t like it. It is not easy to be poor after being rich. You have no idea how this change is going to affect you through the years. Never before in the history of this land has there been so deep a contrast in living standards as will visit this country – the contrast between riches and poverty.”

I remember in college, how I used to marvel at the tragic heroes and their flaws, in Greek Tragedies and in Shakespeare – how their every action to escape their fate led them deeper into the jaws of the trap. We are seeing in real time, how a nation can tread the same course to disaster.

Last night’s dream reminded me of the discussions one of my latter day heroes, Joseph Campbell held with Bill Moyer’s in the mid 80’s. In their dialog on the “Heroes Adventure,” there was this exchange:

MOYERS: “Given what you know about human beings, is it conceivable that there is a port of wisdom beyond the conflicts of truth and illusion by which our lives can be put back together again? Can we develop new models?”

CAMPBELL: “They’re already here, in the religions. All religions have been true for their time. If you can recognize the enduring aspect of their truth and separate it from the temporal applications, you’ve got it…One way or another, we all have to find what best fosters the flowering of our humanity in this contemporary life, and dedicate ourselves to that.”

MOYERS: “Not the first cause, but a higher cause?”

CAMPBELL: “I would say, a more inward cause. ‘Higher’ is just up there, and there is no ‘up there.’ We know that. That old man up there has been blown away. You’ve got to find the Force within you.”

No single suggestion seems more relevant for our times: “You’ve got to find the Force within you.”

The Crazy Wisdom of Mr. Rogers

Fred Rogers and fan in “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?”

In “Won’t You Be My Neighbor,” this summer’s biographical film about Fred Rogers, he says “Love – or its absence, is all that really matters.” The sincerity and quiet strength of the man, an ordained minister who chose to express this philosophy through the medium of children’s television, is one of the reasons the movie won a 99% rating on Rotten Tomatoes.

As I watched Rogers’ interaction with children, the only comparison I could think of was clips I’ve seen of the Dalai Lama with young people. Both men – bodhisattvas by any reckoning – never lost their connection to the wonders and terrors of childhood.

I also thought of Saint Francis during the scene of Fred Rogers with Koko the Gorilla, who watched him on TV and was a fan.

At the end of the movie, we see a world that is changing for the worse. In a clip from a Fox News broadcast, commentators condemn Rogers for teaching children that they are all precious and lovable just the way they are. Let that sink in for a moment!

After his death, protestors gathered across from his memorial service to condemned him, not because they thought he was gay (he wasn’t), but because he accepted gays. One child in the crowd who looked miserable – in contrast to the children on Mr. Rogers’ show – held a sign reading, “God Hates America.” If Rogers had been there, he might have reminded the child and his parents that Jesus’ response to everyone he met was, “Neither do I condemn you.”

“Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood” first aired 50 years ago this summer. Watching this movie, I thought of the voice-over during the opening scene of Gandhi: “People of the future will find it hard to believe that such a man existed.”

Fifty years ago, America felt like felt like a nation torn apart: an escalating war in Vietnam; the assassination of Martin Luther King and the riots that followed; the assassination of Robert Kennedy and the police riot at the Democratic convention, were punctuation marks in a year of one bad headline after another. Frightening times, yes, but no one living then would have ever imagined a summer in which we’d see children caged in concentration camps as a fascist administration, emulating the tactics of 20th century dictators, tries to stir up anger and fear at a people convenient to scapegoat. Fred Rogers would have been heartbroken!

What would he have done?

The movie showed Rogers’ testimony before a congressional committee that seemed determined to gut funding for PBS. With quiet sincerity, in a brief speech, he convinced them to do otherwise. He would have certainly found a way to speak before congress.

Beyond that, it’s impossible to say, but it seems that those who behave as heroes in the face of naked evil – people like Gandhi, Martin Luther King, the Dalai Lama, and others, find ways to avoid growing numb in the face of repeated outrage, while keeping the anger alive, but under control, so it can be harnessed as energy.

One thing Mr. Rogers would have certainly told us is this: in the 2014 midterm elections, only seven states saw a voter turnout higher than 50% (source: The United States Elections Project). He would have made certain that every child in the audience understood how important it is that this November be different.

Now that Rogers is gone, it’s up to us to figure it out for ourselves!

A Buddhist Statement on the Separation of Families

“Whatever the legal status of those attempting to enter the US, separating children from their parents is a contravention of basic human rights. Parents seeking asylum make long, dangerous and arduous journeys in an attempt to find safety and well-being for their precious children. Ripping these vulnerable children from their parents is cruel, inhumane, and against the principles of compassion and mercy espoused by all religious traditions…

Separating children from their parents and holding them in detention inflicts terrible and needless trauma and stress on young children that hampers and damages their development, causing long-term damage. This policy being employed on United States soil is morally unconscionable. That such egregious actions be employed as a deterrent for families seeking entry and/or asylum in the U.S. – using the sacred bond between innocent youth and their parents – is unjustifiable on any level.”

A Statement on the Separation of Families.

Reflections on Crazy Wisdom

So far in this 21st century, much of our conventional wisdom has failed us. Crazy times demand a matching wisdom, and these are crazy times. That made it all the more strange that I couldn’t seem to write a followup piece to my last post, Crazy Wisdom is No Bull, which I thought would be the start of a series.

I’ve come to believe it’s because Picasso and the others I’d planned to feature were exemplars in their fields, people we think of as “special,” a breed apart from the rest of us. This is the opposite of the real point I want to make. The modern concept of “genius” was born in the 18th century. Of far more use to us now is the original meaning of this Latin word:

Genius of a family. Roman, 1st c. Photo by Luis Garcia, 2009. CC-by-sa-3.0

“In ancient Rome, the genius (plural genii) was the guiding spirit…of a person, family, or place. The noun is related to the Latin verb, genui, genitus, ‘to bring into being, create, produce’, as well as to the Greek…word for birth.” [1]

The genius of a man, or Juno of a woman, was similar to our modern idea of a guardian angel – a protective spirit as well as a creative guide to our individual destiny  and life’s meaning [2].

From this perspective the difference between you and me and the great creative spirits of history is not that they have a genius and we don’t. It is more a matter of degree – “The Force is strong in that one.”

Since none of us really believe that some white-hatted genius is going to ride into town and save us from ourselves, it is more important than ever for as many as possible to find their genius or juno within and begin to listen and cultivate its wisdom. Continue reading

Winter Feast for the Soul, 2018

The Winter Feast for the Soul, now in it’s 11th year, is a 40 day, worldwide online meditation intensive that encourages people to begin or deepen a spiritual practice. Instructors from all spiritual traditions suggest simple practices that fit into the schedules of busy people.

I am delighted to see that Anam Thubten, the Tibetan master who inspired me to explore this tradition a dozen years ago, continues to be an active participant. On his page, you can listen to simple but profound guided meditations he recorded for the Feast in 2016 and 2017.

Anam Thubten

I encourage everyone who is interested to explore this rich practice opportunity!

The White Snake – An Enigmatic Tale from the Brothers Grimm

Illustration for “The White Snake” by Walter Crane, ca. 1886, Public Domain

I once had a professor who made an extensive study of world folklore and said the greatest predictor of success for a fairytale hero is winning the help of an animal guide. Most often, the helpful animals are mammals, like Puss-in-Boots or talking horses.

“The White Snake,” a story from the Brothers Grimm, alters this pattern in startling ways. The helpful creatures are far more primitive, and the hero actually kills his horse – yet things come out right. The story has stayed with me since I first encountered it, as a wisdom tale centered on the theme of knowing the right thing to do at the right time, even when it violates norms and expectations.

Commentary on myth and folktales is a recent tradition that arose after the old ways of absorbing these stories, around hearth and campfire, disappeared. We can imagine earlier listeners holding the stories in imagination, letting the magic sink in over time, as we do with favorite novels and movies. This is a great way to experience a story, and we’re fortunate to have a good eight minute recording of The White Snake, accompanied by the text from the Brothers Grimm.

I suggest you read and listen to the story if you don’t know it, for the rest of this post will simply be my reflections on a few of the key questions The White Snake raises. Continue reading