Monday, February 19, 2007


Buddhism has a kajillion icons to show you what you are, piece by piece.

This is Amoghasiddhi, one of the so-called transcendant Buddhas, whose Sanskrit name identifies him as "one who unerringly accomplishes the goal." Usually he is depicted holding up his right hand as in the picture above. In Buddhist iconography, this is the mudra of courage, abhaya. The icon links dilgence (unceasing effort) with courage. This rings true in my heart and feels deeply practical.

The very suggestion of "unerringly accomplishing the goal" suggests infinite repetition. It is complete, yet the process does not stop. One moment is complete, then the next, then the next. Again. And again. Only this.

To accept one's situation, see the relationship, and submit to one's duty moment after moment without ceasing - this requires profound diligence. To do that even one time a day is a good step for most of us. To let go of everything and show up completely for this moment goes against much of our conditioning. When I am feeling angry or jealous or manic, I can almost sense the blue smoke around my head, leaving me as sleepy as a drugged bee.

Confronted with that failure of effort, it is tempting to give up. Sometimes, the temptation to give up is very strong just in the act of sitting. My gaze is on the floor and suddenly this angry resistance, this soul-sick impatience, rises up and tries to pull me out of myself. Formal practice is stupid; people are stupid; sangha is worthless; screw it - have fun and run the clock out.

Thus one turns away from the light. When it feels like it might be easier to stop giving a fuck, this is fear. When you feel like a loser who will never get it right, this is anger. Fear and anger are unconscious ways of using your strength; you can use it in other ways, too - if you want.

What's another choice? Pick yourself up, note your mistake, and try again. The new match begins right now. Really: right now.

The legend says that this abhaya mudra is the gesture made by the historical Buddha just after seeing the morning star and attaining enlightenment.

You could try it out. Take a few breaths and imitate the gesture: raise your right hand to shoulder-level, extend the fingers, palm out.

Hands are sensitive - that's why they can be so expressive. Your hands and the way you use them express you in way that strains the limits of language. Your hands perceive. It moves me that the gesture for "courage" shows the hand so open: palm outward, receiving. It even looks like a wave: courage as a greeting.
...and not so different from Jesus's mudra of benediction, did you notice?
Even if you have no interest in Buddhist art whatsoever, you'll understand that if you practice meditation for a while: it does take courage to receive the world. And sometimes the hardest thing is to stop beating ourselves up or beating others up, and just put everything down and receive what appears, from the center of our being.
This does not mean letting people walk all over you.

It does not mean being quiet about injustice.

It means quietly doing what is necessary, dropping it off, and responding to the next moment without a trace.

Off you go! When you keep trying, stumbling, and faithfully trying again for 5, 10, 20 years - a widening perspective on courage and diligence appears. You can't practice forgiving yourself for that long without also forgiving the world.

Amoghasiddhi's job is to take envy and jealousy and transmute it into wisdom. (Maybe that's why the Tibetans paint him green?) With unceasing effort, moment after moment. This goes beyond forgiveness and impatience: it takes the "negative" substance and sees it as an ingredient for a nourishing meal.

Great diligence is the willingness to shuck everything and start again from zero. That is the paramita of dilgence or unceasing effort (virya). It is one aspect of what you truly are.

Friday, February 16, 2007

Remembering An Actor

My fifth-grade schoolteacher introduced me to a great actor. He was a repertory actor at my hometown theatre and was preparing a role for which he would later take to Broadway, earning him a Tony nomination. His name was Richard Kavanaugh and to this day I don't know whether to bless him or curse him. I have done both. A short while after his Broadway experience, he went mad, then recovered and went on to play more unforgettable roles. He passed away in 1988.

She arranged a tour of Trinity Rep for the whole class, and also found a way to give me time alone with Kavanaugh. He wore jeans and a hooded sweatshirt, well-worn. He was a heavyset man with a mop of brown hair and intense eyes. We talked about characters and I shyly asked him how he had played Renfield, the fly-eating slave of Dracula. His gaze got more intense and he said, "How? How?"

And he transformed before my eyes. His body and face changed, and for some reason he said, in a voice that was hideous and pitiful, "Help me." I don't think that was one of his lines. But I felt the icy-death winds of Romania, the stone castle that was a sepulchre, the yearning that never goes away, desire perverted, the need to eat what one loves.

Just as quickly, he restored and said, "I don't know."

I have never wanted to do anything else with my life.

Tuesday, February 13, 2007

Bodhidharma Walks In The Hood

Not really. Just a cool title for a blog about a nice surprise that hit my mind today.

You see, several staff members at this youth center where I work asked me to show them "some of that meditation." So I scheduled an hour in the dance room, brought in the cushions, sent everyone an email, and went in there at 1:00 Tuesday afternoon.

It was not very surprising that no one else made it. Busy place, people forget or can't make it. You may want to practice very sincerely, yet when sitting time comes there are always several important things that seem to need doing instead of meditating. That's what it's like trying to do meditation in the workplace. No sweat. I figured I might be sitting by myself, and that was okay by me. Great big room, a whole hour to myself. Great.

Then one of the kids walked in, looking around, and asked me what was going on. A nice boy, kind of shy. 14 years old. I told him what was going on. Then he did something I did not expect: he parked himself on a cushion, having made a firm decision he wanted to check this out.

Well... why not?

So I did the instruction with him and we sat together. Turns out he also tried yoga recently and likes that, too. He said he'd be back next time. (Which means I'm expected to do this again.) And if the room had been full of adults, as was the plan, I don't think he would have tried it. He did really well, and I made damned sure to tell him so.

A 14-year old South L.A. kid sitting Zen with me, two blocks away from the Crips' headquarters. This, I would never have predicted.

Don't know...

Sunday, February 11, 2007

Yes We Have No Buddhism

[3 February 2007]

It is Saturday morning, and in a little while it shall be time to load my collection of round, black cushions into my car and drive for an hour into Orange County to teach meditation.

Some of the students are actually pursuing certificates in yoga studies or Buddhist studies, and it takes some firm repetition to persuade them that this is not a Buddhism class. A few basics of what the historical Buddha taught are inescapable, but this is done with a lot of irreverence and humor. This is not a religious program.

Zen Buddhism makes an exotic wrapping paper, with its arresting asymmetric angles and whiffs of incense and ginger. People come in having read books full of ideas about emptiness and the void and "no mind" - proving that one can be full of emptiness.

No matter how much we crumple up the wrapping paper and toss it into the can, people have ways of retrieving and carefully un-crumpling it. Then they examine all the creases and the instructor thinks, "God, now it's even worse."

The 20th-century Korean master, Seung Sahn, used to talk to his western students about "subject religion" and "object religion." Object religion focuses on something objective: for instance, the Word of God, Allah and His Messenger, a personal Lord and Savior. It is something out there we can all talk about, so that we can live correctly. Subject religion focuses on how one experiences these things, on the listening and perceiving itself. Who is it that listens? Who is it that prays? To put it even more simply, one could say that in object religion, one must take heed; in subject religion, one must pay attention.

These are not really opposites. If one relies totally on subjective religion, one becomes a navel-gazer. If one relies too much on the other, they can become intellectual, doctrinal, even dogmatic. When the two are brought into balance, one can love Jesus with 100% of their being.

So instead of giving them an exotic new gewgaw that will soon be discarded, may this class encourage them to experience their own listening, the way their mind wanders away from the task of sitting with themselves and breathing, the way their imagination will exaggerate a physical sensation to the point that an itchy nose becomes evidence of a brain tumor.

In the midst of this confusion, there is a simple mechanism for coming back to a central point where the body and the mind are doing the same thing. (They were never two things to start with.) Anytime, anywhere. Like hitting the "C" button on the calculator.

The hope that somehow people are going to get "enlightened" and never be bad-tempered or obsessed with their weight or afraid of black people or want to eat steak is all false packaging. Buddhism, we are reminded again and again, is a story - a story that points to our need for that "C" button. I think of enlightened people as people who use their "C" button a whole heck of a lot. (There is not even any effort expended anymore.)

So go forth, you C-button bodhisattvas, and return to your church, your family, your office; kiss your mothers and go to your kid's play; listen to your doctor and your pastor and your CPA; sit for a few minutes every day, practice this C-button thing, and don't read books about Buddhism or Zen.

If you make Zen your refuge it will be your millstone.

Friday, February 09, 2007

My Anna Nicole Smith Blog

We are so funny about celebrities.

We talk about them as if they were extended family members or people we knew, yet we seem to forget they are autonomous humans. It's as if people become less real the more famous they become. In the extreme cases, actors are killed in their homes by people who watched them on television.

About a real person, we would be thinking of the baby and hoping she gets a daddy and a good stepmom. We might acknowledge the tough and challenging life this woman had. Because of her odd celebrity (she was best known for marrying an elderly billionare, and not exactly respected for it), people feel free to say inhumane things. Not exactly displaying ourselves at our best with that.

Light a candle, chant namu ami ta bul, pray one Hail Mary, whatever seems appropriate, friends. A mother of a newborn has died.

Thursday, February 01, 2007

Body Zen

At his weekly Tai Chi class in the park, Chris is trying to teach me self-defense against respiratory illnesses with bad Hollywood villain voices, as well as muggers or rascally cats.
What he is actually doing is bringing me back to the beginning of Zen practice. Attachment to sitting can be a pernicious problem. It's not a matter of willfully preferring sitting meditation to other activities, or considering the lotus position "special" - although that does go on in some places.

For me, it's less conscious. What happens is that the ease which allows body, mind, and breath to function as one event is associated with the sitting position. Stand up and walk around, and the unity explodes into habits and unconscious body language.

In desperation, Chris has me move into positions from a sitting posture to demonstrate - and then the connections make sense to my body.

* * *
If you're in town, why not join us? We meet on Wednesday nights in Barnsdall Park in Hollywood. The park is on Hollywood Boulevard, just west of Vermont. Drive up the hill, make a right, park, and walk up the stairs to the courtyard. The class is free and goes from 7:30 to 9:30 PM.