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About a Poem (November 2013) Print

Shambhala Sun | November 2013

About a Poem: Christopher Martin on
Byron Herbert Reece's "Mountain Fiddler"


I took my fiddle

That sings and cries

To a hill in the middle

Of Paradise.

I sat at the base

Of a golden stone

In that holy place

To play alone.

I tuned the strings

And began to play,

And a crowd of wings

Were bent my way.

A voice said

Amid the stir:

“We that were dead,

O Fiddler,

“With purest gold

Are robed and shod,

And we behold

The face of God.

“Our halls can show

No thing so rude

As your horsehair bow,

Or your fiddlewood;

“And yet can they

So well entrance

If you but play

Then we must dance!”

Byron Herbert Reece (1917–1958) was a poet of moderate success in his lifetime, though today he is nearly forgotten, especially outside his homeland of the north Georgia mountains. His work emerged as an expression of the natural world around him — what he called a “speechless kingdom” to which he “pledged his tongue.” Once, after his publisher urged him to leave north Georgia for New York in order to be at the center of the literary world, Reece replied that the slopes and valleys around Blood Mountain were just as good a place for wrestling angels as any other. Though at times he left home for writing residencies and teaching positions across the country, he never stayed away for long. His family’s farm on Wolf Creek and the mountains around it always held the poet close.

Reece was bound to his home by necessity as much as anything else. Both his parents contracted tuberculosis in the 1930s, so he assumed full responsibility for the farm at the height of his literary career. Because he never found financial success through his writing, he always depended on farming for income as well as sustenance.

But Reece’s connection to his homeland ran much deeper than necessity. He belonged to the north Georgia countryside physically and also spiritually, as “Mountain Fiddler” and many of his other poems suggest. Yet in Reece’s work, the spiritual and the physical are not as dualistic as Western traditions often render them.

In “Mountain Fiddler,” Reece takes us to a clichéd vision of heaven, a place where everything is made of gold. He carries a homemade fiddle with him, though, and the homemade — that which arises from its locality — can never be cliché. It is commonplace to paint heaven in terms of mythological extravagance and duality, but good poets remind us that heaven abides in that which surrounds us. And so it is the angels, though they initially greet the fiddler by scoffing at his lowly “horsehair bow” and “fiddlewood,”who end up dancing to the earthly music. The heavenly harp holds no sway.

Christopher Martin is the author of the poetry chapbook A Conference of Birds and founding editor of the online literary magazine Flycatcher.


From the November 2013 Shambhala Sun magazine. To see what else is in this issue, click here.

Books in Brief (November 2013) Print

Shambhala Sun | November 2013

Books in Brief



Buddhist Yogic Exercises

By Rose Taylor Goldfield

Shambhala Publications 2013; 186 pp., $16.95 (paper)

Lujong, which means “body training” in Tibetan, is one of many systems of physical practice in Vajrayana Buddhism. In Training the Wisdom Body, Rose Taylor Goldfield teaches us the form of lujong she learned from her teacher, Khenpo Tsultrim Gyamtso Rinpoche, enhanced by her own studies of martial arts, sacred dance, and Indian, Chinese, and Japanese yogic forms. The book begins by exploring the foundational view of Buddhist yoga, including an excellent explanation of the subtle body. Then it explores seated meditation, which Goldfield reminds us is not just a practice for the mind. The body is important, too — the exact curve of the spine, the position of the head, chin, soft palate, and hands. Next the book covers ways in which we can extend our practice beyond the physical body, such as the use of sound. Finally Goldfield presents the lujong exercises. Her instructions are clear, but the accompanying photos are helpful for verifying that you’re on the right track.


Science for Monks and All It Reveals about Tibetan Monks and Nuns

By Bobby Sager

PowerHouse Books 2013; 312 pp., $60 (cloth)


Portraits of the Human Spirit

By Alison Wright

Schiffer Publishing 2013; 208 pp., $75 (cloth)

In May 2000, entrepreneur Bobby Sager met with the Dalai Lama in an L.A. hotel room — the Dalai Lama sitting next to the minibar. Sager explained that he wanted to work on a project with His Holiness and that he was open to virtually any idea. To Sager’s surprise, the Dalai Lama knew immediately what he wanted to propose: a program teaching Western science in the monasteries. Beyond the Robe explores the development of Science for Monks, which has introduced science to more than 200 monastics. The book’s stunning photos are by Bobby Sager and the essays are by a variety of contributors, including Matthieu Ricard.

Another new and notable coffee-table book is Face to Face by Alison Wright, a contributor to the Shambhala Sun. It is a collection of evocative portraits that Wright has taken around the world, from Cuba and Mexico to Tibet and Japan. In the introduction she writes, “I have learned during my years of global travel… that no matter how unique we may look in appearance, from the exotic to the mundane, we basically have the same universal desires and concerns.”


Mindfulness for Everyday Use

By Annabelle Zinser

Parallax Press 2013; 170 pp., $14.95 (paper)

Small Bites is a collection of thirty-two meditations grounded in Annabelle Zinser’s many years of study with Vipassana teacher Ruth Denison and Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh. The first chapter gives instructions for basic sitting meditation. Then Zinser offers meditations for a wide range of situations, including recognizing our ancestors, opening up to physical pain, dealing with sexual feelings, and enjoying a cup of tea. Readers are invited to practice the meditations alone or with a group, and there’s no need to work through them chronologically. Small Bites is designed to be nibbled; simply dip into it and find the meditation that suits this very moment. Zinser is one of Germany’s most prominent Zen teachers, and in 2007 she was the recipient of the United Nations’ Outstanding Women in Buddhism Award.


By Norman Fischer

Singing Horse Press 2013; 116 pp., $15 (paper)


By Ira Sukrungruang

University of Tampa Press 2013; 78 pp., $14 (paper)


By Thich Giac Thanh

Parallax Press 2013; 144 pp., $14.95 (paper)

The Strugglers and In Thailand It Is Night are two noteworthy poetry volumes by Shambhala Sun authors. In his poems, Zen priest Norman Fischer rarely touches Buddhism head-on, but between the lines Buddhist sensibilities shine through. I particularly enjoy his lyrical cracks at consumerism. He draws our attention to the “hopeful purchasing mood” of shoppers “who sip syrup-laced coffee at Starbuck’s.” He takes us to Bed, Bath, and Beyond, and “further still—this once green valley/Paved now with glitter in the shadow of its mountain/For the Seasonal Sales.”

Using clear language that packs a powerful punch, Ira Sukrungruang is particularly gifted at using his poems to tell a story. He begins In Thailand It Is Night with a section called “Guruda,” a bird creature of Buddhist mythology. “Start with meditating hands because the hands hold/suffering,” he writes in the poem “Drawing Buddhas.” “Be sure to curve the fingers/and palms, and be sure the curve cups karma,/or a splashing sparrow, or a sleeping cat.”

Another new book of poetry, Scattered Memories, is by Thich Giac Thanh, the late Vietnamese monk who served as the first abbot of Thich Nhat Hanh’s Deer Park Monastery in California. He wrote his poems over a thirty-year period, many of them when he was in dire straits, such as preparing to escape his homeland by boat. Nonetheless, there is a thread of joy that runs through his work — an appreciation for everything from sunshine to plum blossoms to drifting mist.


By Sara Gran

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt 2013; 280 pp., $20 (cloth)

Private investigator Claire Dewitt is the type of person who rifles through acquaintances’ medicine cabinets and steals whatever numbing prescription pills she happens to find. She also likes fat lines of coke and casual sex — or maybe it’s not so much that she likes these things as much as they help her keep a lid on her troubling emotions. Beyond being haunted by memories of killing two men and having her best friend mysteriously disappear, Claire is also way too involved in her current whodunit: her ex-boyfriend, Paul, was murdered in his home and the suspects are many, including his gorgeous wife and her punk-rock lover. Spoiler alert: there are a few things that keep this hard-boiled detective novel from having a sad, sordid ending. One is that Claire finds Paul’s killer. Another is that she does a stint at a Buddhist temple. Years ago, her mentor sent her there to study with a lama, but she got caught in the toolshed having sex with a monk-in-training and was kicked out. This time she discovers that the temple is a place of healing.


Even If Your Boss Sucks, Your Ex Is Torturing You & You’re Hungover Again

By Lodro Rinzler

Shambhala Publications 2013; 224 pp., $14.95 (paper)

“I should mention that I’m sort of a mess and also okay,” Lodro Rinzler writes. “Sometimes I’m sad or angry, and yet I’m also confident that at my core I am a buddha.” What this Gen-Y dharma teacher means is that even when he’s confused, he’s inherently awake. Rinzler offers Walk Like a Buddha as a guidebook to developing an unconditional faith in our wakefulness. It began with a blog called What Would Sid Do?, in which Rinzler explored how Siddhartha might have navigated the modern world, with its speed dating, climate change, designer drugs, and office politics. Walk Like a Buddha retains little of the actual material from the blog, yet it is likewise unflinching in its exploration of Buddhist practice today. Let me put it this way: in the section entitled “Getting It on Like a Buddha,” one of the topics addressed is whether having an open relationship can be in harmony with the Buddhist path.

From the November 2013 Shambhala Sun magazine. To see what else is in this issue, click here.

Review: How to Be a Friend to a Friend Who’s Sick (November 2013) Print

Review: When a Friend's in Need

When someone we care about is seriously ill, we often feel uncomfortable and don’t know what to do. TONI BERNHARD says there’s good advice in How to Be a Friend to a Friend Who’s Sick.

How to Be a Friend to a Friend Who’s Sick

By Letty Cottin Pogrebin

PublicAffairs 2013; 304 pp., $24.99 (cloth)

When I became chronically ill in 2001, I thought it was my fault. I blamed myself for not recovering from what appeared to be an acute viral infection, as if not regaining my health was due to a failure of will. I’d been a practicing Buddhist for many years, but in my confusion and fear, I’d forgotten a teaching from the Buddha that I’d learned early on: the five remembrances. These are five facts that he said “ought to be often contemplated upon by everyone—whether man or woman, householder or monk”:

• I cannot avoid aging.

• I cannot avoid illness.

• I cannot avoid death.

• I cannot avoid being separated and parted from all that is

dear and beloved to me.

• The only thing I control is my actions.

Illness is a natural consequence of being in a body. And yet, in the chronic-illness community (which numbers over 130 million people in the United States alone), it’s a commonly held conviction that illness is the fault of the person who is sick. Indeed, the belief that illness is unnatural — literally, going against nature — is shared by many in the population as a whole.

This deluded thinking about illness is due in large part to cultural conditioning. We live in a society that bombards us with messages that fly in the face of the Buddha’s second remembrance. We’re repeatedly told that bodies can indeed avoid illness: Eat right and you won’t get sick. Exercise and you won’t get sick. Minimize stress and you won’t get sick. Think positively and you won’t get sick. And if you do happen to get sick, a pill can make you not sick soon enough.

One of the consequences of living in a culture that distorts the truth about inhabiting a body is that many of us feel uneasy and even fearful when a friend is ill; we don’t know what to say or what to do. In her new book, How to Be a Friend to a Friend Who’s Sick, Letty Cottin Pogrebin undertakes to teach us this skill. During treatment for breast cancer, Pogrebin discovered a “disconnect between how people treat sick people and how sick people wish to be treated.” She began gathering information from other patients and from veterans of chronic illness, asking them how they wanted their friends to talk to them, comfort them, and help them.

Drawing on their stories and her own experience, Pogrebin has written a candid, practical, and user-friendly guide that’s equal doses reportage and memoir. The book is an encyclopedia of helpful advice, mostly in the form of tips and lists of dos and don’ts. For example, here are a few of her tips for talking to friends who are sick:

• Avoid hackneyed platitudes and feel-good clichés.

• Listen to how they are; don’t tell them how they should be.

• Respond to what they say; don’t just move right along or talk about yourself.

And here are a few of her tips for visiting with a sick friend who’s housebound:

• Bring an item of interest to help get the conversation started — a newspaper clipping, a CD, a new app.

• Bring a few games or a DVD to watch together and talk about afterward.

• Arrive with a chore or two in mind you can do — cooking a meal, watering the plants, taking the dog for a walk, making some needed phone calls.

Although the book focuses on being a friend to a friend who’s sick, it can also help you be a friend to a friend who’s facing any of the first four of the Buddha’s five remembrances: aging, illness, death, or loss of a loved one. How to Be a Friend to a Friend Who’s Sick has breadth and depth. For this reason, I would recommend it to everyone.

I do have one reservation about this otherwise valuable book. From a Buddhist perspective, I would caution you not to set a behavioral standard for yourself. This can trigger negative self-judgment if you decide you didn’t say or do just the “right” thing.

The book contains so many “do” and “don’t” commandments that at times it feels as if the bar for being a good friend may be set too high to clear.

For example, Pogrebin relates how a simple “How are you?” can be terribly upsetting to a sick person if it’s not spoken in just the right tone of voice. In another section, she lists nine variables for a friend to take into account when deciding how long to stay when visiting someone in the hospital. And in the chapter titled “The Perfect Present,” she sets out a host of criteria that a friend should consider before gift giving.

The book’s many “do’s” and “don’ts” reflect Pogrebin’s view that good intentions are not enough. She writes: “Thin and permeable is the membrane between good intentions and bad behavior.” From my perspective as a Buddhist practitioner, behavior that is born of truly good intentions cannot fairly be characterized as “bad.”

So, what are good intentions? The Buddha identified three of them: kindness, compassion, and generosity. They are beneficial because speech and action that stem from them are likely to ease suffering and enhance well-being in others as well as ourselves. Speaking as a person who is sick, my friends’ intentions are more important to me than their behavior. When I consider what they’ve said or done, I ask myself, “Did they intend to be kind and compassionate? Did they intend to be generous?” If the answer is yes, then even if their words weren’t on the mark, or if they didn’t pick up a cue that they were staying too long, or if they brought me a gift I have no interest in, that’s okay with me. I’m grateful for their efforts.

If your friend is sick, being a good friend is not about using just the right words or bringing the perfect gift. It’s about speaking or acting in a way that you believe in your heart will ease your friend’s suffering and help him or her feel more at peace with life as it is. For example, in twelve years of illness, I’ve lost count of the number of times people have said to me, “But you don’t look sick!” I used to bristle at the comment and had to restrain myself from saying something rude in return. Now I recognize that their intention is to be kind and compassionate — they’re just trying to make me feel good. So I let it go.

Instead of setting a behavioral standard for being a friend to someone who is sick, try taking your cue from Pema Chödrön’s powerful teaching “Start where you are.” Don’t be surprised if that starting point is one of aversion to the whole notion of illness. That’s your cultural conditioning coming into play. If this happens, begin by acknowledging your aversion, without judgment. Recognize that due to past conditioning, you’ve never developed the skill of treating illness as a natural and normal part of life. Be aware, also, that the Buddha offered encouraging words about conditioning. He said that the mind is as soft and pliant as the balsam tree (something that modern neuroscientists are now confirming). This means that mental habits are not set in stone. The mind can be, in effect, reconditioned.

The most effective way to begin loosening the grip of conditioning is to cultivate compassion for your unease and apprehension. I recommend crafting phrases that speak directly to your suffering, then repeating them silently or softly to yourself. You might say, “It’s painful to feel uncomfortable about visiting a friend I care about so deeply” or “Sickness scares me but it’s not my fault.”

With self-compassion at your side, now set your intention to be kind, compassionate, and generous and contact your friend. You might settle ahead of time on a sentence with which to open the conversation. This can ease any suffering that might arise from stressful thoughts such as “I have no idea what to say.” Pogrebin’s book can help you decide on a good first sentence: “It’s nice to see you,” or “I’m so sorry this has happened to you,” or “Tell me how I can help.” Having broken the ice with your rehearsed greeting, simply be present for your friend and let the interaction unfold.

The Buddha suggested that the more you practice something, the easier it becomes. He said, “Whatever a person frequently thinks and ponders upon, that becomes the inclination of his mind.” I understand this to mean that every time your speech or action is motivated by a kind, compassionate, or generous intention, your inclination to behave that way is strengthened. You’re planting a behavioral seed of kindness that with mindful attention to your intentions and diligent practice can grow into a habit.

Yet keep in mind that in the fifth remembrance, the Buddha said that the only thing you control is your actions; he didn’t say you control the results of those actions. You may speak or act with the best of intentions and still not be well received. What should you do then? I recommend cultivating the evenness of temper and calmness of mind that characterize equanimity.

To do this, recognize that you can’t control how a friend might react no matter how well intentioned you are. Life is a mixed bag; sometimes you’ll succeed in your efforts and sometimes you won’t. It’s that way for everyone. Then, with forgiveness and compassion in your heart for both you and your friend, try again.

Shunryu Suzuki said that we can find perfect existence through imperfect existence. Look upon yourself as a perfectly imperfect “friend to a friend who is sick” and dive on in with a kind, compassionate, and generous intention — and with Pogrebin’s book as a guide. Then you can rest in the peace of knowing you’ve done the best you can.

From the November 2013 Shambhala Sun magazine. To see what else is in this issue, click here.

Stillness in Action: Reflections on Dag Hammarskjöld (November 2013) Print

Shambhala Sun

Stillness in Action:
Reflections on Dag Hammarskjold

The late Dag Hammarskjöld, Secretary-General of the United Nations, was both a deeply spiritual person and a highly effective diplomat. His biographer ROGER LIPSEY tells us why we need more leaders like him.

Dag Hammarskjöld, secretary-general of the United Nations from 1953 to 1961, had a keen sense of above and below. For example, in the fall of 1958 the Swedish diplomat wrote in his private journal:

Lord, Thine the day,

And I the day’s.

Despite its few words, it is a provocative and memorable poem. In our troubled era, don’t we need political leaders who would understand this poem: its implicit promise of selfless service, its uneasiness and willingness, its scope? Don’t we need inspiring examples of men and women who have led public lives by the light of deep spirituality?

Hammarskjöld united two lives in one. He was both a spiritual seeker and the leading diplomat of his era. Somewhat forgotten today but admired nearly worldwide in his time, Hammarskjöld created important peacemaking methods such as shuttle diplomacy and UN peacekeeping forces. More than that, he endowed the United Nations with a heightened sense of its mission through his clarity of mind, breadth of vision, unshakeable integrity, and quiet eloquence.

When Hammarskjöld died in central Africa in 1961 in a still-troubling plane crash, he was mourned by millions. Two years later his private journal, Markings, was published. It revealed that he had been a spiritual seeker throughout his life, never more intently and wisely than during the UN years. The book remains a classic in the literature of the spirit. Hammarskjöld was Christian by faith; his teachers were Meister Eckhart and other medieval mystics. But much that he set down in Markings could have been written from within Asian traditions — Buddhist, Taoist, or Vedantist. “The ultimate experience is the same for all,” he once wrote.

Hammarskjöld’s friends, responsible for publishing his journal after his untimely death, were upset with the Anglo-American poet W. H. Auden, who had taken on the English translation of Markings. His draft introduction, circulated for comment before publication, struck them in part as offensive. To no avail, they did what they could to persuade Auden to revise it. Auden had made the smug posthumous suggestion that Hammarskjöld would have been better off if he had attended church more regularly—like Auden. “Our views on DH’s religion differ from yours,” they wrote to him. “While keeping his roots in the Christian faith, we think that DH may have ‘out-winged’ what is usually described as religion, reaching a point where it does not matter anymore what label you give it. That needs, we think, just as much, and perhaps even more, discipline than any ecclesiastical routine may be able to give.”

What his friends said was true: Hammarskjöld was a lifelong disciple of Jesus of Nazareth. The remarkable prayers he recorded in Markings address God directly, as Thou, in a mode that owes something to the Book of Psalms and something to the modern poetry he read with passionate interest as a rest from his obligations. But Hammarskjöld was a practitioner, and practice has a blessed way of leading past boundaries. He followed what he called — without pride or show — “a spiritual discipline,” and his reports on inner experience varied in character from brief memos to himself to jewel-like renderings of authentic mystical perceptions.

His brief memos were often self-critical: he had independently discovered mindfulness, which he called “conscious self-scrutiny,” and its reports back to him were rarely flattering. “You listen badly,” he told himself, “and you read even worse. Except when the talk or the book is about yourself. Then you pay careful attention. Are you so observant of yourself?” It was through such collisions with himself that he constructed and preserved his integrity, and the rigorous attention with which he scanned his own person penetrated deeply. “To be governed by that which comes alive when ‘we’ have ceased to live — as interested parties or know-it-alls,” he wrote. “To be able to see, hear, and attend to that within us which is there in the darkness. And the silence.”

You see now what was in motion in this great life. As he went from crisis to crisis at the height of the Cold War, he became emptier inside in precisely the Buddhist sense — but also Eckhart’s sense. “Each day the first day. Each day a life. Each morning we must hold out the chalice of our being to receive, to carry, and give back. It must be held out empty — for the past must only be reflected in its polish, its shape, its capacity.” This he recorded at a time when he was engaged in winding down the Suez Crisis of 1956, a grave threat to world peace.

Hammarskjöld’s critique of the selfish self mirrors his intense longing for selfless service — for the bodhisattva way. The critique can easily be understood as Buddhist in flavor. For several years he wrote haiku, among them this one:

This accidental
Meeting of possibilities
Calls itself I.

Buddhist also in flavor — and Eckhart-like as well — are his powerfully stated insights into the nature, cost, and unique joy of freedom in the midst of action. He wrote:

The “mystical experience.” Always here and now—in that freedom which is one with distance, in that stillness which is born of silence. But—this is a freedom in the midst of action, a stillness in the midst of other human beings. The mystery is a constant reality to him who, in this world, is free from self-concern, a reality that grows peaceful and mature before the receptive attention of assent. In our era the road to holiness often passes through the world of action.

Visitors to United Nations headquarters today are shown the Room of Quiet on the ground floor. It is a meditation space inaugurated by and designed by Hammarskjöld in cooperation with an architect and a fresco painter. Visitors are welcome to take home a printed copy of the message he wrote for its inauguration:

We all have within us a center of stillness surrounded by silence. This house, dedicated to work and debate in the service of peace, should have one room dedicated to silence in the outward sense and stillness in the inner sense. It has been the aim to create in this small room a place where the doors may be open to the infinite lands of thought and prayer.

At the end of this brief statement — unmistakably his own credo — he wrote: “There is an ancient saying that the sense of a vessel is not in its shell but in the void. So it is with this room. It is for those who come here to fill the void with what they find in their center of stillness.”

What did Hammarskjöld know of love, of that part of the bodhisattva way? He was famously reticent when the occasion called for reticence, a diplomat through and through, but in a late entry in Markings he wrote: “You wake from dreams of doom and — for a moment — you know : beyond all the noise and gestures, the only real thing, love’s calm unwavering flame in the half light of an early dawn.” In his worldly role, he had grasped how to embody compassionate concern without being thrown off balance by it. He said, “You can only hope to find a lasting solution to a conflict if you have learned to see the other objectively, but, at the same time, to experience his difficulties subjectively.”

Such wisdom is the fruit of worldly experience grounded in religious tradition. But for those drawn by Hammarskjöld’s example, there won’t be any easy wins. The relations between spirituality and political life are intrinsically difficult. Each domain, fully lived, requires long apprenticeship and dedication, and they tend to expel each other. Men and women on rigorous spiritual paths have their own work and challenges. Participants in political life know that it is a hard-knocks world of competition, compromise, periodic humiliation, and frequent disappointment.

“I don’t think it will surprise you,” Hammarskjöld once wrote to a fellow diplomat, “to hear that we all manage to remain in good health and in good heart, catching as they pass those bricks which can be built into the structure and dodging, if we can, those we fail to catch.” Realistically, how can spiritual practice — whatever that is — help? One tries to do a little good between elections. Isn’t that enough?

All the more reason to care about Hammarskjöld’s example and thought. For him it wasn’t enough. For him politics was an exercise in awareness, empathy, and objectivity. It was grounded in a life of prayer and aerated by what he discovered in stillness and silence. Mind for him was a work in progress, an incredible instrument for discerning the way to the secret ground of experience no less than the way forward in international life. Engagement in political life at the highest level of responsibility and risk became, perhaps to his surprise, an integral element of the way he followed.

“Blood, grime, sweat, earth,” he once asked, “where are these in your world of will?”

“Everywhere,” he answered. “The ground from which the flame ascends straight upward.”

Bodhisattvas wear disguises. They must. Hammarskjöld had, in effect, thought this through. “While performing the part which is truly ours,” he wrote, “how exhausting it is to be obliged to play a role which is not ours: the person you must really be in order to fulfill your task, you must not appear to others to be, in order to be allowed by them to fulfill it. How exhausting — but unavoidable, since mankind has laid down once and for all the organized rules for social behavior.” The best will look like everyone else. There will be no obvious wings, no crowns of light. But look in their eyes.

There is no settled path toward spiritual grandeur and effectiveness set against the immense difficulties and conflicts of our time. Hammarskjöld lived it in his way, unique in background, character, and opportunity for service. Others will live it in their own ways, entirely different yet under the surface the same. It isn’t something one explicitly prepares for. One trains as much as possible to be real and awake. One digs out one’s talents, some familiar, some unexpected. How all that fits with the world remains to be seen.

“Forward!” Hammarskjöld wrote in Markings. “Thy orders are given in secret. May I always hear them — and obey.” This also is a hierarchy. The high orders secretly spoken, the uncertainty of one’s listening, the uncertainty of one’s willingness to obey. And the immense promise that, after all, we can know what to do and have courage.

Photo courtesy of UN Photo / AF

From the November 2013 Shambhala Sun magazine. To see what else is in this issue, click here.

Wise Fools (November 2013) Print

Wise Fools

Unflinching honesty. Insightful observation. Outside-the-box thinking. Today’s great comedians may not know much about Buddhism but they practice some of its most important principles. ROD MEADE SPERRY takes a look at today’s comics of merit, including Louis C.K. (left), Sarah Silverman, Mike DeStefano, Garry Shandling, Tig Notaro, and more.

What is it about comedians and Buddhism? They sure love to joke about it. Last week alone, between late-night spots and satellite radio, I heard six different comics make jokes with Buddha references — and not one of them about smoking weed. Keep listening, and it becomes clear: there are tons of these jokes, and some are best left untold. (If fat jokes are lazy, then ones that feature the Buddha, who wasn’t fat, are just plain lame.) And even when these jokes are sort of clever, they don’t kill. Which, of course, sounds very Buddhist, but means something quite different in comedian-speak.

So why do these jokes fall flat? There are a few comedians who actually are Buddhists. But Buddhists often heed counsel to not talk too much about their practice, so this means Buddhist comics rarely make explicitly Buddhist jokes. On the other hand, your average non-Buddhist comedian doesn’t know shit from Shinola when it comes to Buddhism, and a joke without a proper setup will suffer out there. To wit: two comedians’ lines I heard last week — via Myq Kaplan’s Conan set and Sarah Silverman’s Twitter feed—were about the kooky notion of Buddhist militants, as if such a thing could never exist. Unfortunately, at exactly the same time, a group of self-identifying but horribly misguided Buddhists in Burma were aggressively tormenting local Muslims. This was full-on international news, and still is. Oops.

Fearless and Inquisitive:

Sarah Silverman

Silverman doesn’t need to feel sheepish about not knowing much about Buddhism. After all, she has said, “I have no religion” and has described herself as “very Jewish” culturally. What’s interesting, though, is that her work and life nonetheless point to a raft of qualities that Buddhist practitioners try to cultivate. In fact, a surprising number of comics express values that are consistent with the essence of the Buddhist teachings.

On stage and in her writing, Silverman is fearless and inquisitive, taking on religion and sexuality and injustice and identity with abandon. She doesn’t hide from the suffering in her own life, either. The very title of her 2010 autobiography immediately telegraphs its author’s willingness to put it all out there when it comes to the truth about herself: It’s called The Bedwetter.

She seems to have developed a nice relationship with reality, too, and a sense of compassion. (A Silverman tweet from June reads, “My religion is science, nature & love love love.”) She believes in and works for social justice and political fair play.

And then there’s that sense of humor, that ability to laugh at all of it, which many a dharma teacher will tell you is fundamental to Buddhist practice.

The Buddha talked about spiritual friendship, of the value of having “admirable people as friends, companions, and comrades.” Spiritual or not, someone like Sarah Silverman sure comes across as being genuine, being boundless, being herself. That is, she comes across as a dharma practitioner’s comrade.

What’s the deal with that?

It Hurts to Laugh:

Jerry Seinfeld & Larry David

As blowhard TV producer Lester (Alan Alda) opines in Woody Allen’s Crimes and Misdemeanors: “Tension, pain, and craziness...that’s the first part of comedy.” Yes, and it’s the first part of the capital-T Truth of the dharma, too: Existence, by its very nature, is pervaded with suffering and unsatisfactoriness.

But where Lester went on to say that “comedy is tragedy plus time” (nicking the line from Carol Burnett), the dharma doesn’t wait around for time to catch up. Neither does a good, brave comedian. That’s why “Too soon?” is a favorite, effective rejoinder to overly sensitive audience members. It’s like saying, “Really, you ninnies? If you’re going to groan at this true thing I’m saying, how are you going to deal with life?” (And dealing with life is what the next three truths of the dharma are about.) Great comedians are often great, at least in part, because they’re willing to speak to us in this way. Genuinely. About what matters.

But what really matters? In the great scheme of things, can Jerry Seinfeld’s well-chewed airplane peanuts really be worth commenting on? Maybe not. Sometimes, what matters to us doesn’t really matter at all. But then, it’s been said that the enlightened view of the Buddha is one in which everything is holy. Which is to say, what doesn’t matter at all can matter very much. The trivial, the miniscule, the fleeting, the impulsive — the roles these play in our lives can tell us as much about ourselves as our reactions to even the biggest Big Life Events.

It’s easy to boil the observational approach of Jerry and his Seinfeld partner, Larry David, down to “Didja ever notice?” But it’s what they notice, the scope of it, that takes it from trivial to timeless. Yes, the Seinfeld/David-style mind knows, intimately, how strongly we might rebel against the perceived injustice of a too-teensy bag of airplane peanuts, the lengths we’ll go to to avoid even the smallest discomfort, and how we’ll kvetch about it endlessly when avoidance isn’t an option.

And when the discomfort isn’t small? Forget about it. On Seinfeld and on David’s current show, Curb Your Enthusiasm, characters will choose to gripe out loud — about nothing — instead of being actually present when acquaintances’ lives fall apart. In a 1995 episode of Seinfeld, Jerry listens only too willingly as ex-turned-bestie Elaine goes on and on about the difficulties of keeping up a decent wardrobe. It’s familiar, typical human blather—except that the scene takes place at the funeral of a friend who just died of cancer. “I really hate my clothes,” Elaine says between mourners’ wails. “It’s getting to be a terrible problem for me.”

Dark? Yes. Funny? Yes, that too. Funny because, as they say, it’s true: we’re all capable of abiding in this kind of disconnected darkness. Whether you’re a comedy writer or a dharma practitioner, suffering — big and small — and how we deal with it, or don’t, can be your bread and butter.

Gleefully Digging Deeper:

Louis C.K.

People these days like to talk about “culture wars,” and sure enough, the comedy world is as divided as any other. Just look at the industry’s biggest earners. On the one hand, you’ve got the lowest common denominator approach: the gratuitous and the mean-spirited. There’s even a racist ventriloquist who lets his dummies do the bashing. (Ventriloquists, plural, are among comedy’s royalty these days, believe it or not.)

On the other hand, you’ve got the megastar Louis C.K. and a whole breed of comics for whom “the other” is only rarely as juicy a target as one’s self. C.K. (the letters serve as shorthand for his birth name, Szekely) is like a comedy shotgun fired in a tight room: no one’s safe, least of all himself. Taking a cue from the late George Carlin, C.K. creates a whole new act nearly every year. But aside from his endlessly inventive mind, his relentless honesty about himself is his greatest strength.

“When you’re done telling jokes about airplanes and dogs,” he told a crowd while honoring Carlin, “what do you have left? You can only dig deeper. You start talking about your feelings… and then your fears and your nightmares... Eventually, you get to your balls.”

Crudity aside, his point’s a real one, and he lives it. In his work, C.K. is only too happy to dissect what he sees in the mirror: his aging body, his drooping balls, his pettiness, and his capacity for hatred, which mostly comes back on himself. Yet, he exudes glee all the while—the glee of someone who’s been digging and digging and is inching ever closer to the truth. He’s confronting the reality of the body and the mind.

That must be why he fell in love with Tig Notaro’s now-famous performance from August 3 of last year, which he called one of the few “truly great, masterful stand-up sets” he’d seen in his life.

The Great Matter:

Tig Notaro

When thinking about Buddhism and comedy, it’s easy to think “Zen.” The diamond-like one-liners of Steven Wright, for example, have often been noted for their koan-like concision. And, like the Zen view itself, Wright’s world is boundless. Anything can happen. “I went into a place to eat,” he has quipped. “It said ‘breakfast anytime.’ So I ordered French toast during the Renaissance.”

Also emphasized in Zen is what’s known as The Great Matter. This matter of life and death. She may not be a Zennie, but when it comes to life and death, Tig Notaro seems to be a stone-cold master. Her album, Live (not “Live” as in Live at the Apollo but as in the opposite of die), is the proof.

I first really noticed Tig on Conan. She was doing a seemingly never-ending bit that mostly consisted of her dragging her standard-issue stand-up’s stool across the stage, its wooden legs scraping on the floor and emitting beagle-like howls. That was the whole bit: just producing and enjoying, reveling in, this odd sound. But Tig had the studio audience rapt with laughter. And me, too. Now fully a fan, I felt actual disappointment when Tig cancelled a subsequent appearance. But she had good reason; life was becoming complicated. As she explained to O’Brien in a later return slot:

“I got pneumonia, and then I contracted this life-threatening, deadly illness called C. diff., and it’s this bacteria that just eats your intestines. I was in the hospital for a week, lost twenty pounds... Then it was my birthday... After that, my mother passed away unexpectedly, a freak accident. I got off of a relationship shortly after that, and then I was diagnosed with cancer... This was all in four months.”

Notaro was being incredibly forthcoming about all she’d been through, but it wasn’t the first time. The first time was a month earlier, in the stand-up performance that Louis C.K. admired so much, the one released as Live. She pulled no punches in the performance, which begins “Hello! Good evening. Hello. I have cancer,” and spills forth from there. Furthering the sense of full disclosure, Live’s cover featured a photo of Notaro topless, her hands covering breasts that were no longer there. A double mastectomy had been called for. It worked. She remains cancer free.

She also remains fearless, willing to address her experiences with illness and loss in her stand-up and as a writer for the hit sketch show Inside Amy Schumer. Professor Blastoff, the podcast she produces with fellow comic Kyle Dunnigan, provides a further glimpse into her thoughtful mind, looking at subjects ranging from her unusual connection to the late-eighties’ pop star Taylor Dayne to her thoughts about emotional intelligence, quantum physics, and enlightenment.

Enlightenment, as defined by Professor Blastoff guest Kevin Berntson, a comic performer who meditates at Against the Stream in L.A., is “being okay with the push and pull of emotions

or events.” Sounds a little like Tig, who told Salon earlier this year that her own worldview, post-illness and in the absence of her mother, is “about being in that moment and trying to realize what is happening, what is really happening.”

Who Am I?

Garry Shandling

He’s a comic’s comic if ever there was one, but Garry Shandling is also a searcher — “a serious student of dharma,” as he’s put it — looking to find The Real Thing, and The Real Garry Shandling.

Maybe that’s not a surprise, given how much of his work has played with ideas of self and ego: for example, the odd, long-running It’s Garry Shandling’s Show, which applied a meta spin to the classic sitcom format, with Shandling, as himself, frequently breaking the fourth wall. And then there’s The Larry Sanders Show.

Larry, which ran through most of the nineties, was a send-up of late-night TV, tracking the life and death of a Tonight-style show and its neurotic but lovable host. Careful not to put forth a too-simple, too-cynical view of show business, Shandling made sure that authenticity reigned: Larry and his staff of producers, handlers, and lackeys thought, acted, and treated each other like real people do.

“It’s like taking a Buddhist temple bell,” Shandling has said, “an authentic, two-thousand-year-old Buddhist temple bell, and ringing it and going, ‘Can you tell me why that rings so purely?’ [It’s] because it’s the real thing. All these people in show business are human beings.”

A longtime mindfulness practitioner in Thich Nhat Hanh’s tradition, Shandling revealed his lesser-seen meditative side in bonus features shot for 2007’s Not Just the Best of The Larry Sanders Show DVD set. Having started the show to, in his words, “discover more, Who am I?” we see him visiting with a Zen monk and with friends from the Larry era who help him weigh the Garry of those days against the Garry of the present. When Jeffrey Tambor (who stole scenes as Sanders’ sidekick, Hank Kingsley) says, “The secret to everything [is,] don’t think,” it’s not a big leap to infer that he’s learned how to do this from his old boss and pal.

The otherwise-private Shandling does lament the camera’s presence once or twice at these meetings, but we can see he’s really trying to be open, to be willing to say and hear things about himself—no matter how intimate. He even allows us to see his previously secret dharma tattoo, an enso (Zen circle) meant to remind him of his work toward, as he says, “Ego-emptiness.”

As for finding The Real Garry Shandling, he seems to be getting warmer. Asked to contribute nuggets of experiential wisdom for Esquire’s What I’ve Learned section, he included this among a clutch of one-liners: “Impermanence. Impermanence. Impermanence.”

Is he a Buddhist? He resists the label.

There’s certainly nothing wrong with that. Yet, for some, formally embracing the idea of being a Buddhist can make all the difference.

Taking Refuge from the Darkness:

Mike DeStefano

It was a chance meeting on an airplane that set the late Mike DeStefano on the Buddhist path. Bronx-bred and raised Catholic, the famously foul-mouthed comedian known as Mikey D had struggled with drugs, darkness, and loss for much of his life and was already sure that he was no good. Now his father had died, and he was a mess.

But then the Tibetan Buddhist teacher who just happened to be seated next to him started to talk about buddhanature. As DeStefano’s friend, the Buddhist scholar John Dunne, recalls: “He told Mike, ‘You have a lot of crazy ideas about yourself. Your nature is not evil. You are a good person by nature.’ Mike said that saved his life.”

Suicide was suddenly off the table, and DeStefano became interested in the dharma. Still, he felt he needed permission to call himself a Buddhist: he didn’t feel worthy of it. Eventually, Dunne explained to DeStefano that he could just go ahead, drop the self-doubt, and take the refuge vows that mark one’s commitment to Buddhist practice.

“It’s not like anyone has to give you a little badge or sacrament,” Dunne told his friend. “Your nature may be perfect, but you don’t have to be a perfect person.”

So encouraged, DeStefano took the vows on his own and got a massive Buddha tattoo on his arm. His relief was noticeable, says Dunne. “It allowed him to create a different kind of identity. Buddhism’s roots were such that it was outside of the mainstream, as was he.” In 2010, DeStefano would go on to become a favorite on the TV stand-up competition Last Comic Standing, but one suspects that his tough-talking, no-bullshit persona was probably not “safe” enough for prime time.

DeStefano didn’t have the opportunity to connect more deeply with a Buddhist teacher but he studied and thought about the dharma devotedly. Wanting to bring what he was learning into the comedic realm, he was sketching out ideas for a graphic novel featuring a jokey but sincere Buddhist hero based on himself. Yet his graphic novel never materialized.

On March 6, 2011, a heart attack ended DeStefano’s life. He had by that time lost his wife, who had been suffering with AIDS, and had himself been diagnosed as HIV positive. But he’d also been clean for many years and was excited about his new one-man show, which was just days away from opening.

Noting that “hero” is one of the ways bodhisattva might be translated, Dunne suggests that DeStefano was onto something with his semiautobiographical graphic novel idea. “He was certainly imperfect, but he was a kind of fighter. He was fighting with himself but also all those parts of our society that he was embodying in his act: the judgmentalness, the lack of compassion, the stupidity, the mean-spirited aspects of our society. He had this tenacious, even pugnacious, urge to go out and help people.”

Of a Mikey D show at Greenwich Village’s famed Comedy Cellar, Dunne remembers: “He knew I was there, and he was trying out this Buddhist joke. It completely flopped.”

A couple of Buddhist oneliners would resurface now and then in his act, but they didn’t land with the oomph of so much of his other material. Talking about the institution of Buddhism was one thing. But suffering? That, Mike DeStefano knew, would always be good for a laugh.

Wise Fools: Select bits

As the late Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche once said, “If there were no humor, it wouldn’t be Buddhism.” Here are some of my favorite bits and video that reflect, explicitly or implicitly, a Buddhist take on comedy. Honest, insightful, poignant, or just plain funny, they all bring us some sort of deeper truth.

Mike DeStefano: “The Junkie and the Monk,” as told on The Moth podcast

I’m not gonna lie. My oldest friends would tell you that I’ve not only partaken in but also invented some of the most vivid and creative cursing in human history. And yet even I find a lot of Mikey D’s act, as captured on his live CD OK Karma, pretty nasty at times. Which isn’t to say I don’t enjoy a lot of it. But it doesn’t capture the depth and breadth of DeStefano’s heart and mind like “The Junkie and the Monk,” his heart-wrenching retelling of the loss of his wife. He also speaks about dipping his toe into Buddhist practice and tonglen meditation, his drug use, and suicidal ideation — and manages to wring laughs from it all. Note: A DeStefano documentary is in production now. Learn more and pitch in at

Louis C.K.: “Everything is Amazing, and Nobody’s Happy”

This 2009 bit, as told on Conan, went viral quickly — perhaps because it nails down that sense of unsatisfactoriness we know all too well but rarely put words to. Mocking how spoiled we’ve become, C.K rails: “People come back from flights, and they tell you their story: ‘They made us sit there, on the runway, for forty minutes!’ Oh, really? What happened next? Did you FLY, through THE AIR, incredibly, like a bird? Did you partake in the miracle of human flight? You’re sitting in a chair, IN THE SKY.”

Tig Notaro: Live

Not enough can be said about this incredibly frank and funny post-cancer-diagnosis performance. Seek it out. And to hear Tig and the rest of her Professor Blastoff crew discuss enlightenment, catty Buddhists, and more, visit

Arj Barker: “The Sickest Buddhist”

This parody music video, shot at Spirit Rock Meditation Center in California, replaces your typical, commercial hip-hop bling-and- party vibe with clever (though not always spot-on) jabs at

spiritual materialists. A sample couplet: “I look so serene when I bust a lotus, but I don’t have an ego so I wouldn’t even notice.”  

Portlandia: “Meditation Crush”

Fred Armisen and Carrie Brownstein have offered a seemingly endless parade of lovingly-rendered semi-stereotypes on their widely-enjoyed IFC show. So it was only a matter of time before they got to meditators. This look at how easily we can be carried away by our thoughts while on the cushion will ring true for many of us — whether we’ll admit it or not.

Pete Holmes: “Google and Not Knowing,” from his album, Impregnated with Wonder

In this brilliant bit, Holmes, whose work is at turns observational and absurd, gets right to the heart of the difficulties that our so-called conveniences bring us: “Having Google on your phone is like having a drunk know-it-all in your pocket. There’s no time for mystery, or wonder… The time between knowing and not-knowing is so brief that knowing feels exactly like not-knowing… So life is meaningless!”

Also recommended: Garry Shandling and crew’s Not Just the Best of the Larry Sanders Show DVD set and Sarah Silverman’s autobiography, The Bedwetter: Stories of Courage, Redemption, and Pee. Visit for more on the Buddhism/comedy connection.

Rod Meade Sperry is associate editor of the Shambhala Sun and the editor of A Beginner’s Guide to Meditation, to be published by Shambhala Publications in early 2014.

From the November 2013 Shambhala Sun magazine. To see what else is in this issue, click here.

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