Visiting Mr. Paul
Visiting Mr. PaulBy:
Not having seen me for a quarter century, he invited me in with the easy grace he extended to everyone: "Mr. Barry, so good to see you."
"Don't try to invent characters. The almighty has given us enough."
I found this quote scratched on a piece of paper lodged in an anthology of short stories I'd saved from college. The paper served as a bookmark for Isaac Bashevis Singer's Gimpel the Fool. The title page was autographed by the author and the notes came from a session I attended where he discussed his thoughts about story writing.
I have always cherished those few moments of interaction with Singer. Literature, to Singer, so say my notes, was not for messages. It could only "stir the mind, not direct it." I recall asking whether the value of the stories one tells comes from the value of one's life, its intensity, its attractiveness to the world at large. He responded emphatically that story and character were equally as rich in one person's experience as in another's.
Singer's Gimpel brought to mind a character in my own life, Paul Steinbach. Mr. Paul, as he is known, must have been approaching 70 when I worked in his dress shop in junior high, and when I dropped by to see him last summer, he was approaching 100. He was slightly misshapen and his mouth hung open to facilitate his breathing, but he was vital. Not having seen me for a quarter century, he invited me in with the easy grace he always extended to everyone, instantly acknowledging me in his broad Hungarian Jewish accent: "Mr. Barry, so good to see you."
Mr. Paul is far from the village idiot type embodied by Gimpel, the butt of incessant practical jokes, a genuine schlemiel. Mr. Paul is not a simpleton, but he is a simple person, and in his relation to the society around him as ill-fitting as Gimpel. In the southern Pennsylvania Presbyterian stronghold where I grew up, you could go your whole life without ever meeting a Jew, unless like me and my brothers, you went to work as a store boy at Mr. Paul's little dress shop.
It's hard to imagine a job today with so simplistic a title. In those days, one could progress through a series of upwardly mobile "boy" jobs-from paper boy to store boy to bag boy. For about an hour each day after school, Mr. Paul's store boy swept the floor and the sidewalk out front, collected the hangers, made up boxes, and Windexed the glass cases and the mirrors. He even trimmed the few tufts of grass out back, with a sickle no less, one of the many little ways in which Mr. Paul linked you to a simpler time.
A flighty sort, I was never very good at these jobs. There were many corners missed and surfaces smudged, but unlike so many "boy" employers, Mr. Paul never raised his voice. He registered his disapproval with a slight comment and a winsome smile. Mr. Paul was an Old World gentleman, whose regard for people superseded any other consideration. His manners were courtly but warm. His use of "Mister" in front of first names was a kind of honorific: people deserved more respect than simple blurting out their name. Without fail, Mr. Paul asked after family before engaging in any other kind of talk, always remembering not only details of their lives but something of their personalities as well.
Mr. Paul was observant-of people, of ritual, of religion-yet his life was circumscribed by very small parameters. He conducted his affairs from a dark closet-sized office. Each day at the appointed times, he donned his hat and walked over to meet his brother, who operated a dress shop a half-block away, for morning and afternoon coffee and for lunch. He went to temple on the sabbath and the high holy days. An eminence grise amid an ever-declining group of observers, he is still concerned about how they will afford to fix the roof.
After asking about all my family, Mr. Paul allowed himself a reverie about the time back in 1965 when a couple insisted he accompany them on a tour. With evident joy, he recounted the month he spent traveling to Israel, Athens, Rome, Paris and London. "It was the greatest time of my life." He had not ventured overseas since; one month out of almost 100 years would suffice for wanderlust.
The man who drives him called and they went over his arrangements for the following day-grocery shopping, lunch and a meeting at the bank, the same old rituals. He should be long past caring about anything or anyone, but not so. When it was time to leave, Mr. Paul looked at me endearingly and said as if to absolve me of the small sin of being a lousy store boy all those years ago in comparison to my brothers who did the job so well, "You were the thoughtful one of your clan, I believe. I missed you, Mr. Barry. I wondered, 'Has he left or does he just not come to see me?' I feel better now than I did before you came."
If being a simple man is foolish, then Mr. Paul is indeed a fool. When Gimpel consulted his rabbi about this condition, he told him, "It is written, better to be a fool all your days than for one hour to be evil."
Barry Campbell Boyce is a writer and teacher of writing. He is president of Victory Communication.
Yoga for Two
Yoga for TwoBy:
When we let our senses dominate, we relate to other people in a different way-sensitive, sensuous, physically awake, and alive like an animal! Who doesn't want a little more of that in their relationship?
Often I begin my yoga classes by asking the students to sit quietly, with their legs crossed and palms down on their thighs in the mudra of calm abiding. I invite them to let go of their thinking mind and drop into their feeling body. Even though that is a vague instruction, everybody knows what it means and there is a palpable sense of relaxation, a physical sigh throughout the room. What a relief to unclench our brain fists!
It can also be beneficial to relax the tension and inattention that can develop between us and those with whom we are close. One of the best ways to do that is to work with our immediate sensory relationship, not just the conceptual framework we share.
Sensory perceptions lie at the root of our relationship with our world and the other people in it. Our perceptions are inherently sacred and by nature they are always occurring now. They are the tools that allow us to dive into the river of life. But in order to experience the sacredness of every moment right when it is happening, we must learn both to give and to receive. We smell something delicious, savor it, and exhale it out. We keep it moving. That's the idea, anyway. But we all know that's not what always happens. Instead we tend to cling to what smells good and shut out what smells bad.
In the classical eight limbs of yoga, there is a practice called pratyahara, which is often translated as "withdrawal of the senses." This can be a quite helpful practice, since most of us are walking around with not just our eyes bugging out, but our ears and noses as well. When we push our senses so much we stop feeling anything; we become numb and then mistakenly look to our conceptual mind for experience.
So relaxing our outward effort may good at first, but unless we want to become cave-dwelling ascetics, we active citizens of the world need to keep rolling around in the lava lamp of our senses. Rather than ignoring what we feel, we can practice letting go of the grasping mind that quickly arises on the heels of sensory experience, and return to what our eyes, ears, nose, skin and tongue are telling us.
When we let our senses dominate, we immediately feel the heat between ourselves and others, our shared exchange of breath, and the universal pulsation of our hearts. We begin to relate to ourselves, our world and other people in a different way- sensitive, sensuous, physically awake, and alive like an animal! And who doesn't want a little more of that in their friendships and partnerships?
By contrast, we often find our relationships are dry, conceptual and theoretical. We're afraid to look into each other eyes and we talk so much we don't even know what it feels like to feel. The habits of a relationship become so stuck that we don't see or hear each other any more. One partner may have changed and the other one didn't even notice. One partner may have left and the other one didn't even notice. We try to talk with each other but we have the same broken record conversations year in and year out. Communication is no longer two-way, but no-way.
Since our sensory perceptions are our primary and most accurate means of communicating with each other, one of the best ways to get some of that animal nature back into our life is by engaging in mindful physical activity with each other.
My parents, Allan and Mildred, have been married for over 50 years. (Can you imagine how often they have said the same thing to each other?) They are not yoga practitioners, but when I asked them if they would be willing to try, to my surprise and delight, they agreed without hesitation. Allan and Mildred are both in their mid-70's and when I told them they would have to sit on the floor, they laughed and said, "We can do that. We might not be able to get back up, but we can get down!"
That playfulness and willingness is all it takes. You might feel awkward or silly or self-conscious, but you will at least feel something. And that something will be shared together and it will be different and immediate every time you do these exercises.
1. Begin with a little bow of respect to each other.
2. Touch your palms together and close your eyes. See if you can feel your breathing moving together in one rhythm.
3. With your palms slightly separated, feel the heat between them.
4. Gently place your hands on each other's knees. Inhale and lift your chests and faces up, opening your hearts to each other.
5. Exhale, and curve your back. You can repeat steps 4 and 5 several times.
6. Place your left hand on your partner's left knee and your own right hand behind you. Inhale, and then as you exhale, twist to the right. Stay here for three breaths. Then reverse the twist.
7. Tree pose. My parents used the wall to help them balance. You can do that or you can try it freestanding. They also told me that when they strongly pressed their front hands together it was easier for them to stay up. This is a great way to explore supporting each other and still carrying your own weight-just what we want to do in relationships anyway.
8. Acknowledge your partner's generosity, patience and open heart with a bow.
Partner yoga can be done between any two people: brothers, pals, lovers, parent and child, anybody. It's a way for us to begin to have a conversation through our skin, our breath, our heartbeats. It's a way of using your body and your senses to get to know each other, support each other and get in shape all at the same time. Try this program both when you are feeling close to each other and when you are not feeling close. Let it be a way to open up to your partner, to receive whatever they have to give, and to find out what your energetic circle is together. My dad enjoyed making the close connection with my mom, and my mom exclaimed, "I liked it because I could do it!"
Cyndi Lee is founder of the OM Yoga Center in New York and co-creator of OM Yoga in a Box, available at www.omyoga.com.
How We Make Ourselves Suffer
How We Make Ourselves Suffer
“Our problem is that we don’t really understand what is going on: this seemingly solid world is volatile by nature.”
When we study the Buddhist dharma, we are not supposed to blindly accept what we are told. Instead, we should study our experience. It’s not easy to believe the truth, even if we have heard it many times, even if we want to believe it. We have to look at our own experience and discover the truth of the teachings there. Discussions about dharma have been going on for thousands of years. To find our way, it helps to go slowly and see how it works.
One of the fundamental Buddhist teachings is that all sentient beings suffer. There are lots of reasons for this and logics for how to understand the reasons. But the main avenue for understanding this truth is to look at our own experience.
This suffering we are talking about has many qualities and facets. Suffering is complicated. Why do we suffer? We have to look deeper in order to understand. We have to understand how the whole thing came about. How do we begin to understand that? We meditate on it. By meditating and contemplating, we can begin to unravel the source of our suffering. Otherwise, we sit and suffer in ignorance, not knowing what is going on and how we perpetuate our own and others’ suffering.
One cause of suffering is trying to deny the truth of impermanence. Understanding impermanence is truly understanding causes and conditions. We are mistaken if we think that because someone we know dies and we can accept the loss, we understand impermanence. It is not that simple.
According to Buddhism, all conditioned things are impermanent. What does “conditioned” mean? Everything that occurs is conditioned. All actions are conditioned, or tainted, by causes. Particular causes and conditions come together to create something.
We ourselves are conditioned. Everything in our life is impermanent, from physical possessions to plans about the future. Every moment of our experience is impermanent. There is nothing solid about any experience we have. However, we feel that we are solid and permanent and that definite events occur in our lives. We try to hang on to these moments of experience, but they are like sand running through our fingers.
When we slow our mind down until it is steady enough to settle on these truths, they can begin to sink in. The mind tries to create a sense of permanence for itself all the time, but if we reach a more subtle level of watching the mind, we see how causes and conditions come together to give us the illusion of our own permanence.
Even our current thoughts are based on causes and conditions. We can contemplate this notion by trying to come up with something we know that is not caused and conditioned. We won’t be able to. But we can slow down enough to simply notice what is going on. We can examine our own experience this way and discover how, through creating and believing in a self that is permanent, we cause suffering.
Making the Self Real
The notion of suffering at this level is straightforward: it is not being content. Whether we experience physical or emotional discomfort, our mind is not at ease. Because our world is constantly coming together and falling apart, we are always trying to pull one over on ourselves by imagining that we are in a permanent situation. We are always trying to make things real. Our problem is that we don’t really understand what is going on: this seemingly solid world is volatile by nature. Our suffering comes from not understanding or acknowledging that this is the nature of the self.
The fact is that when we examine the issue, we actually have a hard time finding a self in anything, anyone, or any situation. Say, for example, we contemplate Karme Choling meditation center in Vermont. We have a definite sense of what it is. But where is the “self” of Karme Choling? Is it in the meditation hall? Is it in the trees? Is it in the dining room or the hallways or the front office? When we examine and contemplate, we can’t really find the self, the thing that is Karme Choling. In the same way it is hard to find a self, a thing or entity, that is “me.” We are made up of a lot of constantly shifting pieces, really, but we desperately try to think of them as one being, myself.
Birth, Aging, Death
As soon as we are born we begin to age. We suffer the whole way along, not only when we get old. When we are babies we are helpless, then we have the pain of growing up, the pain of adolescence, finding our way. We come together, grow, and decompose. We get sick along the way, and then we die. But we are always trying to maintain ourselves. We try to avoid getting sick; we are terrified of death, even if we prepare ourselves for it. In death, everything we have tried to gather about ourselves dissolves completely. All our life we have maintained this body, and when we die the experience of loss is far beyond what we can imagine.
So I’m suggesting that it is helpful to understand that at every moment our mind, thoughts, and body are changing. They are uneasy and unstable and this feels uncomfortable and dangerous. It feels so dangerous and threatening that we want to force our existence to be solid. But in our attempts to deny the truth, we can’t deny a certain agitation, a certain knowledge that we are kidding ourselves sneaks through. We are trying to have a good time, trying to enjoy birth, aging and death, but pleasure just keeps turning into pain. The first step toward relating to that pain is to recognize how we do all this. The next step, of course, is to try to stop.
Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche is president of Shambhala International and holder of the Shambhala Buddhist tradition of his father, the late Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche.
On the Importance of Relating to Unseen Beings
On the Importance of Relating to Unseen BeingsBy
While Westerners have tended to view unseen beings as superstition or mere symbolism, Reginald A. Ray argues that communication with unseen beings through ritual is at the very heart of tantric Buddhist practice.
makes little sense and has no real impact if it is merely a collection
of abstract ideas. Truth that is living experience, on the other hand,
is challenging, threatening, and transforming.
Tibetan Buddhism is a way of experiencing the world. In many ways, it is quite different from the dominant trends not only in the West, but in the “modern, technological culture” that is now rapidly encircling the globe. There are many parts of the traditional, conservative, medieval culture of Tibet that we will never be able to appreciate or understand. But there are other parts, particularly its Buddhist heritage, that can help us see with new eyes the limitations and possibilities of our own contemporary situation.
Buddhism is a particularly interesting tradition because it has one foot in the past and one in the present. On the one hand, it arose at a time when India was undergoing transformation from a more primitive to a “high” civilization. Buddhism has the same literacy, scholasticism, professional elites, institutionalization, hierarchies, political involvements, and monetary concerns as do the other “high religions” that evolved after the invention of agriculture and that we now largely identify as our own ways of being religious.
At the same time, the Buddha claimed, “I follow the ancient path,” and by this he meant to show a “way back” to a more fundamental experience of human life than the one evolving in his day. Tibetan Buddhism, perhaps more than any other form of Buddhism, has retained the raw and rugged experience of this “primordiality” as the basis of its spirituality. In this sense, it is concerned not with truth that is fixed and dead, but with truth that is alive and constantly emerging.
Traditional Tibetans lived in a world that is, in many respects, quite different from the one assumed in modern Western culture. It is not so much that the classical Tibetan worldview contradicts the findings of modern science, but rather that it emphasizes different things and has a different overall shape and configuration.
Most importantly, in the classical Buddhist view, the world is defined not only by what we can perceive with our physical senses and think about rationally. It is equally made up of what cannot be seen, but is available through intuition, dreams, visions, divination, and the like. The senses and rational mind provide access to the immediate physical world, but it is only through the other ways of knowing that can one gain access to the much larger context in which this physical realm is set. Can modern people have experience of this traditional Tibetan cosmology? Tibetans will tell you that their experience of the universe is accessible to anyone who cares to know it. If you know where to look and how to look, they say, you will see for yourself what we are talking about.
The Tibetan cosmos is a vast one, beginningless and endless in terms of time, and limitless in extent. Worlds, each inhabited by sentient beings, extend on and on throughout space, with no end. This context of infinite space and time, with innumerable worlds, provides the arena for samsara, cyclic existence. Samsara refers to the condition of beings who have not yet attained liberation, whose existence is still governed by belief in a “self” or “ego.” Those still within samsara are thus blindly driven, through the root defilements of passion, aggression, and delusion, to defend and aggrandize the “selves” that they think they possess. This action produces results or karma, that become part of who they are. When samsaric beings die, they are subsequently reborn in the same or another realm, in accordance with their karma. Normally this process, and the cycles of pain and pleasure that it entails, goes on without end. The various samsaric worlds are known as “impure realms,” that is, places where the condition of samsara prevails among the inhabitants.
The situation is not hopeless, however, for there are other realms of being that stand outside of samsara. These are the “pure realms,” characterized by enlightenment, the abode of the “realized ones,” those who have attained liberation from samsara and who dwell in various pure lands. These beings are: the celestial buddhas with their various manifestations; the yidams (personal deities), male and female, also called wisdom dakinis and herukas; the great bodhisattvas such as Avalokiteshvara and Tara, who will come to the aid of beings; the dharmapalas (dharma protectors), who watch over and guard the dharma itself and those on the path; the enlightened men and women who have passed beyond this world, and others. These various enlightened ones represent a state of realization that is available to suffering sentient beings. In fact, according to the type of Buddhism followed in Tibet—mahayana Buddhism—the state that they embody is the ultimate and final destiny of all humans and other sentient beings. All sentient beings are on the path that will one day lead to the attainment of the complete and perfect enlightenment of a fully realized buddha.
Although the “home” of the buddhas and high-level bodhisattvas is outside of samsara, they appear in our world to help us enter the path of liberation and follow it to its conclusion. The human Buddha Shakyamuni thus appeared twenty-five hundred years ago, bringing the dharma to this world for the first time and founding a lineage of the study and practice of the teachings. Likewise, the celestial buddhas, bodhisattvas, protectors, dakinis and departed teachers appear in our world in various ways, bringing blessings, protection, and guidance on the path.
The Tibetan cosmology, then, is not meant to present a disembodied, abstract “scientific” picture. It rather shows us the realms of potential experience that make up this cosmos. It describes the various realms of being—only one of which is human—that are possible and exist within the totality of being. Some of these modes of being are defined by the suffering of samsara, while others represent liberation from samsara. Traditional Tibetan cosmology, then, contrasts with modern conceptions of the universe that are essentially rationalistic, gained by ignoring all experiential data except ones that conform to limited physical criteria such as matter, extension and motion, and that can be proven to any observer through logical demonstration. The Tibetan picture has been gained through different means and includes different “data.”
There are now many Tibetan teachers who understand very well the kind of universe that is described by modern science. Their response to our ideas is, “Yes, but all of this is just the human world. There are other realms, and these are outside of and beyond this human realm. You cannot see them by using scientific instruments.”
Moreover, even this realm has more dimensions and subtleties than modern people usually ascribe to their world. In the traditional Tibetan view, the animate and inanimate phenomena of this world are charged with being, life and spiritual vitality. These are conceived in terms of various spirits, ancestors, demigods, demons, and so on. Every river and mountain has its spirit embodiment or inhabitants. Each human habitation has a spiritual presence as part of its own being. As this variety suggests, spirits appear with various levels of development and motivation. Some are malevolent; some are neutral, and others are generally beneficent.
These traditional cosmological perspectives create a uniquely powerful environment for the practice of Tibetan Buddhism. The boundless temporal and spatial vistas reveal the fragility, brevity and ultimate futility of human life, taken on its own terms. The view of the phenomena of this world as spiritually charged allows intimacy, relationship and mutuality with the relative world. The understanding of samsara as the endless repetition of life followed by death followed by life, all governed by karma, suggests that lasting happiness in the ordinary sense is not attainable. The introduction of buddhahood as standing outside of samsara provides an alternative to this daunting and frightening prospect. The fact that buddhahood is not only available but is the ultimate and final destiny of all instills fundamental optimism and a sense of the value of life. And the limitless time frame in which this can be achieved enables people to relax and to take their spiritual journey at its own pace. In this way, Tibetan Buddhism has achieved the seemingly contradictory goals of revealing the radical inadequacy of samsara, leaving its adherents little option but to look to a spiritual path, while at the same time rousing them to a sense of confidence, joy and well-being at their human condition and its literally infinite possibilities.
To what extent can the contemporary Western Tibetan Buddhist practitioner dispense with some or all of these unseen, nonhuman beings? From the Tibetan point of view, relationships with the unseen world are essential to a full and successful human life. Ignoring one’s relationships with the whole world of unseen spirits and spiritual beings is, in fact, as senseless and counterproductive as ignoring the people and conventions of one’s own immediate human society. It is simply not possible to live in such a way.
Buddhism is normally thought of as a nontheistic tradition, and this raises the question of how such spirits, gods, and deities are to be understood within the Tibetan Buddhist framework. Certainly in Tibetan life, whether it is a question of the malevolent mamos, the potentially beneficent hearth god, the deities of the god realms, or the dharma protectors or tantric yidams, the nonhuman beings are understood at least on one level as more or less independent, objective entities. They are beings with whom one must be in constant relation, even though they are nonhuman and usually not visible.
At the same time, however, from the point of view of the philosophical and meditative tradition, all such nonhuman beings are ultimately seen as aspects of one’s own mind and not separate from it. But what does this actually mean? Frequently, particularly in the West, this standard Buddhist assertion is taken to indicate that such spirits and deities, taken as external beings by ordinary Tibetans, are not really external at all; that in fact they are mistaken projections of psychological states. This, then, becomes a justification for treating them as nonexistent and provides a rationale for jettisoning them from Western adaptations of the tradition. The problem with this approach is that it reflects a misunderstanding of what is meant by the statement that such entities are aspects of mind and inseparable from mind.
The deities are more properly said to be aspects of one’s own innate mind, or reflexes of one’s awareness. For example, the buddhas, although apparently objectively existing beings, are fundamentally nothing other than our own enlightened nature. The protectors are representations of the wrathful and uncompromising energy of our own awareness. And the gurus are objectifications of the teaching and guiding principle as it exists within each of us. In a similar manner, the various samsaric spirits and demons may be seen as embodiments of peripheral states of one’s own mind. These apparently externally existent beings, then, are false bifurcations of the primordial nondual awareness that lies at the basis of all experience.
So far, so good; but here is the really critical point: it is not only the beings of the unseen world that have this status, but all of the phenomena of duality. In the Tibetan view, ourselves, other people, trees, mountains and clouds—indeed all of the phenomena of the entire so-called internal and external universe—are nothing other than false objectifications and solidifications of nondual awareness.
To say this is not, however, to discount their external and “objective” existence within the relative world of apparent duality. The samsaric beings of the six realms, as well as the Buddhist deities existing in the state of nirvana, initially make themselves known to us ordinary, unenlightened people as external, objectively existing beings. In fact, on this level, they can appear as significantly more real, vivid and powerful than the ordinary physical universe that surrounds us. On one level, then, such beings certainly do exist and are important co-inhabitants of our cosmos. Thus to say that they are aspects of mind is not to deny their existence on the relative level. Nor does it obviate our responsibility to deal with them and relate to them on their own level and as they present themselves to us.
What, then, does it mean to say that these unseen beings are all aspects of mind? It means simply that the way we experience and conceive of them has to do with our own psychology and level of awareness. Ultimately, the apparent duality of subject and object is not given in reality. It is a structure that we, out of fear and ignorance, impose on the world. When we see the phenomenal world truly as it is, we realize a level of being that precedes the subject-object split. This is the true nature of “experience,” “awareness,” or “nondual mind,” understood at this point as interchangeable categories. When Tibetans say that the spirits, gods and deities are aspects of mind and nothing other than mind, they mean it in this sense, that their fundamental nature—as indeed the nature of all phenomena—is nondual awareness.
We humans, then, are just one part of a vast, interconnected web of relationships with all other inhabitants of the cosmos, both those still living within delusion and those who are awakened. An awareness of these relationships is critical because, to a very large extent, who we are as humans is defined by this network of relations. From the Tibetan perspective, to live a genuinely human and fruitful life, we need to discover our relation with all these various beings of samsara and beyond, and to act in ways appropriate to our connection. The way we do this is through ritual.
Ritual is action that expresses a relationship. It is the vehicle of communication with another and is itself that communication. In Tibetan Buddhism, ritual is used in relation both to the seen and the unseen worlds, and the essence of Tibetan Buddhism is communication with the awakened ones—departed masters, bodhisattvas, buddhas, and so on. We call them to mind, open our hearts to them, and receive their blessings.
In revered teachers, a state of realization is embodied in human form. In the celestial buddhas and high-level bodhisattvas, however, the embodiment is more ethereal and not within the human realm. Nevertheless it is not only possible but essential that, as we go along the path, we also discover and deepen our sense of communication with these nonmaterial, awakened ones. According to Tibetan tradition, in fact, as we mature, the “sky draws closer to the earth,” so to speak, and the celestial buddhas and bodhisattvas seem more and more our ever-present protectors, mentors, and guides.
One of the most common ritual means for communicating with the realized ones is the sevenfold offering of mahayana Buddhism: one visualizes the being or beings in question, then  offers salutation,  makes real and imagined good offerings,  confesses one’s shortcomings and harm of others,  rejoices at the existence of the awakened being or beings who are the beloved object(s) of devotion,  requests them to teach, thus expressing one’s openness and longing for instruction,  asks them to remain in connection with suffering samsaric beings and not disappear into nirvana, and  dedicates whatever merit or goodness one has accumulated to the welfare of all beings. In this simple, brief rite, one makes a link with the transcendent ones, affirming and actualizing a specific kind of relationship with them.
The reason that we can do this in the first place is that the buddhas, bodhisattvas, and departed masters already represent who we most essentially are and must in fact become. This is why, in Tibetan Buddhism, even the most devotional supplication to the most seemingly external being is not finally theistic. For, in truth, we are longing to meet our deepest selves face-to-face, and we are supplicating our own hidden being. The path to this goal is first, to discover our innermost being in the other, the awakened one, and then, through relationship with him or her, gradually to come to awareness of that transcendent nature within ourselves.
In Tibetan Buddhism, there are many ritual stages along this path to awakening. What they share is visualization. We create a mental picture of a departed teacher, a high-level bodhisattva, or a buddha. Then we carry out a ritual in which we open ourselves and communicate with this being in various ways, ritually participating in his or her awakening. In this way, we cultivate our own awakened state.
This process of visualization is a powerful one. For example, in our ordinary life, what we do not visualize as existing does not exist for us. If we do not see another person as human, then for us their humanity does not exist. The same is that much more true for beings who live in nonmaterial forms outside of samsara. We may be surrounded by buddhas and bodhisattvas all the time, but until they have a shape and a name, we do not see them or have access to a relationship with them. For us they might as well not exist. But the moment we give them a form in our mind and begin to communicate with them, they exist, and their wisdom, compassion, and power can enter into our own systems.
It is the many ritual forms of Tibetan Buddhism that enable us to do this, and within traditional Tibet, the reality of ritual is simply accepted as a matter of course. It is assumed that just as there are forms by which to relate to other human beings, so there are other forms that are used to communicate with the nonhuman and nonmaterial realms.
The status of ritual among Western followers of Tibetan Buddhism is, however, more in question. Many have felt unable to entertain the ideas of reincarnation or of the six realms. For them, many of the traditional Tibetan rituals dealing with other beings and other realms do not make sense. Sometimes this extends to thinking that even talk of nonmaterial buddhas, bodhisattvas and protectors is “symbolic,” and that there is nothing that really corresponds to these designations. In that case, many of the Tibetan liturgies are seen as directed to no real object, but are rather understood as psychological ploys to bring about certain effects.
Even if we Westerners do pay lip service to the traditional Tibetan cosmological ideas, often, as Jeremy Hayward has argued, we remain at heart what he calls “scientific materialists.” In other words, while we may accept the idea of other realms and other beings within and outside of samsara, we do not actually believe in them. Instead, we live as if the world were dead and this reality the only one that exists.
This attitude is reflected in many Westerners’ difficulties with Tibetan ritual. Among Western practitioners, there is frequently a kind of dead feeling in ritual, and many of us fall back on the idea that rote repetition, without any particular engagement or feeling, is sufficient. We fall back, in other words, on attitudes to ritual learned in our upbringing, where simply to be physically present was all that was required. In order to survive the many meaningless rituals we may have been subjected to, we also learned to disengage ourselves psychologically and to occupy our time with thinking about other things. What is missing here is the understanding that ritual is a way of communicating with beings who, on the relative plane, really are there and really are important to us. This lively and compelling sense of ritual is, at present, sometimes hard to come by in Western adaptations of Tibetan Buddhism.
Through ritual, genuinely undertaken, one is led to take a larger view of one’s life and one’s world; one experiences a shift in perspective—sometimes subtle, sometimes dramatic. This shift feels like a diminishing of one’s sense of isolated individuality and an increase in one’s sense of connectedness with other people, with the nonhuman presences of our realm, and with purposes that transcend one’s usual self-serving motivations.
Ritual is a way of reconnecting with the larger and deeper purposes of life, ones that are oriented toward the general good conceived in the largest sense. Ironically, through coming to such a larger and more inclusive sense of connection and purpose, through rediscovering oneself as a member of a much bigger and more inclusive enterprise, one feels that much more oneself and grounded in one’s own personhood. Through ritual, one’s energy and motivation are roused and mobilized so that one can better fulfill the responsibilities, challenges and demands that life presents.
Adapted from Indestructible Truth by Reginald A. Ray. By permission of Shambhala Publications. © Reginald A. Ray.
Reginald A. Ray, Ph.D., is Professor of Buddhist Studies at Naropa University in Boulder, Colorado and teacher in residence at Rocky Mountain Shambhala Center. He is the author of Buddhist Saints in India (Oxford University Press). This article is adapted from his new book, Indestructible Truth: The Living Spirituality of Tibetan Buddhism, from Shambhala Publications.
A Roshi on the Row
A Roshi on the Row
Kobutsu Malone takes Shodo Harada Roshi on an unprecedented visit to Arkansas death row, where two condemned men now practice Zen. One of them, Damien Echols — subject of the hbo documentary “Paradise Lost”— is believed by many to be innocent.
This story begins, in a way, with the execution of Jusan Frankie Parker. Actually, it begins long before he was executed, in his more than eight years of intense practice while he was on death row of the Arkansas Department of Corrections in the prison known as Tucker-Max. This story is about the legacy of this remarkable human being, himself a killer, who by his own efforts transcended his karma through the practice of zazen while awaiting the executioner’s needle.
Frankie Parker affected many lives from his cell, both inside and outside of prison. Our present story involves two condemned prisoners who were inspired by him, and the abbot of a three-hundred-year-old Japanese Rinzai Zen Monastery .
I first met Damien Echols and Jack Jones on August 9, 1996, the day after Frankie Parker was executed. That morning, I had gone to the mortuary to perform a chanting ceremony over Frankie’s body and remove his mala and rakusu before his body was placed in the oven for cremation. I was really shaken when I lifted his head up to remove the rakusu; his head was stone-cold and lifeless, the same head I had held in a loving parting embrace the night before. Immediately after his body was placed in the oven, I did three prostrations on the floor of the mortuary. I will always remember the gritty feeling on my knees and hands from the ash and bone fragments of previous cremations.
Back at Tucker-Max, I was taken into the warden’s office and given Frankie’s ordination robe. Warden Morgan was accommodating and he gave me permission to visit with the men on death row and reassure them that Frankie had died in a brave and dignified manner. Being “on the row” was a new experience for me. I moved from cell to cell, visiting with each man, shaking hands, exchanging a few words. Many of them were very pleased to see me and expressed their condolences. Some cried openly. Passing Frankie’s empty cell, I could see for the first time where he had lived, where he had written us, where he had practiced.
Frankie had specifically asked me to see Damien Echols, Jack Jones and a few others. Damien’s is a famous death penalty case, involving an horrific crime and a controversial trial. He was convicted of leading two other teenagers in the brutal murder of three eight-year-old boys in West Memphis, Arkansas, in 1993. The case has been the subject of two documentary films, “Paradise Lost: The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills “and this fall’s “Paradise Lost 2: Revelations”, which raise profound doubts about the guilt of those convicted and the fairness of the trials.
I found Damien standing in the middle of the cell, his long black hair cascading over his shoulders. I immediately felt his intensity and presence, and I was struck by how young he was, very close in age to my own son. Damien appeared distracted, obviously upset over Frankie’s death, but he was cordial and pleased to see me.
Meeting Jack Jones was a moment of real import. He had committed a rape and murder, but his deep sense of connection to Frankie was obvious. Although I did not hear from Damien for some time, Jack and I developed an on-going correspondence over the following months, and periodically I would send him some Buddhist books and literature. Jack shared them with Damien and over time Damien developed an interest in Buddhism. When I visited Tucker-Max last year, I was amazed at how Damien had changed and how open he had become to the dharma. Our correspondence increased and we have had an intense relationship ever since.
I spoke to many people about Frankie Parker and the experience of witnessing his murder in the Arkansas “death chamber.” My friend Kyogen Carlson, abbot of the Dharma Rain Zen Center in Portland, Oregon, talked about Frankie to the Venerable Shodo Harada Roshi, abbot of Sogen-Ji monastery in Okayama, Japan. Harada Roshi was deeply moved by Frankie’s story and he repeated it often in lectures and formal teishos.
It was through this connection that Harada Roshi invited me to Sogen-Ji to teach and also offer some lectures on the death penalty for the Japanese people. In return for this profound honor, I invited Harada Roshi to visit the Arkansas death row to serve as the preceptor for a Jukai lay ordination ceremony for Jack Jones and Damien Echols. For almost six months I corresponded with Harada Roshi about his visit to the Arkansas death row, or pilgrimage as he referred to it. There were countless difficulties to overcome but arrangements were successfully made with the prison authorities. On September 19, Harada Roshi was given unprecedented access to the Arkansas death row.
The day of the visit, Harada Roshi’s flight was due in at the Memphis airport at 11:45 AM. We wouldn’t have much time to rent a car and then drive the 156 miles to Tucker, Arkansas, the former plantation town which is home to the Tucker-Max Unit. I packed my “traveling zendo” kit, a black detail case that I’d dragged into dozens of penitentiaries over the years. It contained a Buddha image, bell and clappers, altar cloths, incense burner with makeshift polyethylene cover fastened with a rubber band, incense, charcoal and other supplies used for performing various ceremonies.
I downed coffee with my compadre Dakota Rowland, not a Buddhist but someone with truly remarkable intuitive insight. She, a revolutionary social justice worker and prison abolitionist. I, Irish-American renegade Zen priest with a checkered past. Both of us broke. We were unable to rent a vehicle due to lack of funds or a credit card, so we had to take the airport shuttle and rely on our friends from Japan to take care of the vehicle rental.
We arrived at the gate with about twenty minutes to spare and I was feeling nervous. I had never met Harada Roshi and had very little information about him, only a few descriptions from some friends who had studied with him. Universally, they had told me that Harada Roshi was a very powerful teacher, known as a “master’s master.”
Finally Harada Roshi walked through the ramp door, and my apprehension evaporated instantly at the sight of him. I felt an overwhelming sense of gratitude and bowed deeply as he approached. Finishing my bow, I looked straight at him and found him smiling with great intensity. I could feel a tremendous warmth emanating from him. He shook my hand American-style, said “Hello,” and told me how pleased he was to see me. I sensed immediately a deep karmic connection with him. We were all smiling and felt good about being together, preparing to travel into the “belly of the beast.”
Leaving Memphis in our rented van, the first town we encountered in Arkansas was West Memphis, where the three eight-year-old boys had been murdered in a wooded area just a few yards from the I-40. As we approached the area known as the “Robin Hood Hills” woods, I pointed it out to our guests.
Dakota had a lot to say about the history of slavery and oppression that permeated the South and spoke on these topics as the miles of Mississippi Delta farmland rolled by. This conversation led naturally to the blatant racism of the present prison system, the spread of “private” prisons run by big corporations, the death penalty, and the horrific incarceration rate in America. Harada Roshi spoke about the death penalty in Japan, the secrecy surrounding its application, and the isolation of death row prisoners.
As we entered the town of Tucker, we encountered a sign informing us that we were entering a penitentiary area and should not pick up hitchhikers. As we came into view of the Tucker-Max facility, we were assaulted by the sight of modern slavery—rows of prisoners clad in “prison whites” toiling with hoes at the roadside, overseen by armed guards on horses.
We were met at the reception building by Chaplain Norman McFall. Each one of us had to walk through a full-body metal detector and the items in my “Zendo kit” were examined and checked off against the master list I had provided months before. All was in order and we were pleased that there was no objection to bringing in our disposable cameras.
Tucker-Max is a relatively modern prison, with air conditioning in the cell blocks and general areas. This is a far cry from many other prison facilities in the South, in which the heat sometimes reaches a hundred and twenty degrees in the upper tiers. As our group walked down the ten-meter-wide main corridor toward the “Five Pod,” death row, we were scrutinized by prisoners and guards alike. How strange we must have appeared—Roshi, Chisan, the female Zen priest serving as his translator, and I in monastic garb, and Dakota in a bright, flowered, short-sleeved shirt. Dakota was concentrating on acknowledging as many prisoners as possible. Just by smiling, waving and making eye contact, she was reaching out in solidarity to them. Their response was in-kind and appreciative. Whether it’s through a formal Buddhist ceremony or just a smile, the indomitable human spirit shines through.
We arrived at the death row pod. We were now in “the belly of the belly of the beast”—three tiers of steel cages designed without compromise to hold human beings in isolation from the community and each other. I turned to Roshi and told him that every man in this unit had been condemned to death. I pointed out Jusan Frankie Parker’s cell, where he had lived and practiced for so many years. We saw Jack first, standing at his cell door, wearing his wagesa refuge sash and smiling. Looking around, we spotted Damien on the second tier at the far end of the unit.
The guards began their preparations, handcuffing Jack and Damien before opening their cell doors. The prisoners were brought out to the pod floor, where leg irons were applied to their ankles and double-security lock boxes were placed over their already double-locked handcuffs. I was pleased to be able to introduce both men to Harada Roshi, Dakota and Chisan. Damien and Jack bowed deeply to us all and were profoundly moved. They had both been looking forward to this day for many, many months.
We were allowed to enter a very small chapel room situated just off the floor level of death row. Damien and Jack had brought their Sutra books with them for the ceremony; I made a brief introductory statement and our meeting began. Jack presented Harada Roshi with a beautiful hand-made box covered in Japanese-style pen and ink drawings. Damien presented a hand-made box to me and gave both Roshi and me rosaries as gifts.
I asked them, “What do you think, how do you feel?” Jack replied to Roshi, “I am very, very nervous. I don’t know what to say to you because I am just so nervous.”
Damien, addressing Roshi, said, “I have been waiting so long to talk to you. I am so sorry because I wanted to ask this and that, a hundred questions, and now that I am with you my head is a complete blank. I am so sorry, please excuse me.”
Jack then asked Roshi, “What do you think of this place?” Roshi responded, “This place has an incredible sharpness. There is a very concentrated atmosphere here.” Jack said, “Yes, this is a very concentrated place. Every single day in here, every instant, is this whole world.”
Roshi responded, “Yes, I have thirty students, and for all of them, the most important point is each and every moment being the only moment there is.” To which Jack answered, “Yes, for us there is no time whatsoever here. I read many books but there is nothing in those books which compares to the depth that is in this one moment. It is because of my certain death that I have been able to realize this. If it were not for the fact that I am in these circumstances, this would never have become clear to me. Every day I do zazen and it is the most important part of my day. Every day I do zazen on my bed facing the wall.”
Just prior to leaving the small chapel room, I asked Chaplain McFall if it would be possible for Harada Roshi to take a look in Jack’s cell so that he could see how he lived. The Chaplain asked the ranking guard and we were granted permission to visit Jack’s cell, which was close to the chapel room at ground level.
As we walked over to the cell, I jokingly mentioned to Roshi that we had arranged for him to have an extended visit, and gestured for him to enter first. He responded to my joke with his broad smile. We entered Jack’s cell and looked around. It was a small space with a narrow vertical slit window which admitted some natural light. There was a narrow bunk bed with a thin mattress and a writing desk with built-in chair next to it. The front wall of the cell had a small stainless steel toilet/sink appliance. It enabled the commode to be used with the prisoner facing into the cell but still enabled anyone outside the cell to observe the prisoner at all times. There was no corner of the cell which could not be seen from the barred cell door.
Jack had a small shrine set up on his desk and mounted on a piece of cardboard over his desk were photographs of his two boys and pictures of a woman he writes to in Holland. We all looked at the photos and Jack explained who they were. It was, I am sure, a truly unusual event to be taking place on death row. Two large guards stood by at the door of the cell, keeping an eye on everything that was taking place. Finishing our tour of death row, we returned through the security sally port to the main hall. My black bag “Zendo kit” had been placed in the visiting room for the Jukai ceremony. We were admitted through a barred gate and Damien and Jack were escorted in. There were windows on both sides of the long visiting room and there were people we had not seen before behind them, watching us as we entered.
I chose one of the visit cubicles directly on the spot where Frankie had received Jukai four and a half years earlier, and began setting up an altar for the ceremony. I had purchased a supply of extra fine jinko, an extremely expensive and rare natural wood incense. Our altar consisted of a carved wooden Buddha, a ceramic incense burner, a ceramic water offering bowl, a candlestick and white candle, a small hand bell and a larger inkin meditation bell, and two shiki-shi calligraphic pieces done by Harada Roshi as gifts for Jack and Damien. Harada Roshi had also brought from Japan two beautifully made rakusus, inscribed with their new dharma names. I had made rings for the vestments from pieces of spaltered maple harvested from the forest surrounding Dai Bosatsu Zendo, my home temple in Livingston Manor, New York.
I gave a Jukai exhortation written by the Venerable Eido Roshi based on the Dharmapada. (It was a dog-eared copy of the Dharmapada, thrown with contempt on the floor of an isolation cell in “the hole,” that with its first reading changed Frankie Parker’s life so profoundly.) Jack, Damien, Roshi and I offered incense and we chanted the Purification, the Three Fundamental Precepts, the Three Refuges, and the Ten Precepts.
Harada Roshi explained the dharma names he was giving to the two men and presented each with a black rakusu. Damien received the name Koson, meaning “Searching for the Light.” Jack received the name Dainin, meaning “Great Patient Forbearance.” We chanted The Four Great Vows for All in Japanese and in English, I made a closing remark, and our ceremony was complete.
As the others gathered around Roshi afterward and talked, I took Damien and Jack aside for a few personal words. This was the first opportunity I had had in more than eight months to see them in private. We walked to the end of the corridor, being certain to remain in the sight of the four guards, and I chatted with each one for a few minutes. I asked them to write an account of the encounter while it was fresh in their minds.
Chaplain McFall had many questions for Roshi. He asked why we shaved our heads. Roshi responded, “To remind us that we really want nothing.” I couldn’t resist rubbing my own head and commenting, “How come I still want a Harley Davidson?” We all laughed.
It was hard saying goodbye. Jack and Damien both bowed deeply and embraced Harada Roshi as we parted.
On the way out of the unit we were delayed waiting for a security gate to open. We noticed the prison shoeshine shop and saw a black prisoner intently shining an officer’s boot. I said to him, “Shining the man’s boots, huh?” He said, “Yep!” and I said to him, “Be sure to give them a spit and polish shine—heavy on the spit.” We all cracked up over this, no harm was done, the boots got shined, and three people experienced a brief moment of solidarity. We left the facility, the hoe squads long brought in and locked down. We headed for a meal, and got back on the road to Memphis. Our trip back was quieter. Roshi took notes in the back; I drove the miles of darkened interstate. The next morning at the airport, Harada Roshi said to me that he would come back. I felt relieved, because I knew he had been affected by what he had seen and that through this man true dharma would flow into “the belly of the beast.”
The remarkable teaching of this experience was that there is an alternative to death row. Death rows and prisons do not exist in a vacuum. When we ourselves do not live in a state of sustainable harmony with each other and our surroundings, we perpetuate oppression. Harada Roshi’s pilgrimage to death row is an invitation to all of us to “Wake up!”, to look deeply and see things clearly, to walk on the path of the awakened state of mind in solidarity with our sisters and brothers.
Words cannot convey the intense personal pain, degradation, torment and torture that are experienced daily in our prisons. Inevitably, some of you reading these words will at some point find yourselves in prison, experiencing the horror firsthand. Any one of us could find ourselves accused, convicted and sent to prison at any time. So let’s rid ourselves of any notion that it’s “them” in prison, and “us” out here. Ain’t like that.
Kobutsu Malone, Zenji, is a Rinzai Zen priest of the Gempo-Soen-Eido lineage. He is a co-founder of The Engaged Zen Foundation, which fosters meditative practice in prisons and develops monastic alternative sentencing/post-release programs. The Engaged Zen Foundation can be contacted at Post Office Box 700, Ramsey, NJ 07446.
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