Posted by: Tony | March 31, 2011

The Labyrinth

Nothing seems to dominate the culture wars these days like religion. Defining our spiritual beliefs or asserting our lack of them seems a national pastime. And we aren’t very understanding…or nice…about it.

Reading some internet comments recently it became obvious that those with firmly held beliefs often feel morally superior to those who don’t share those beliefs. And the “Non-Faithful” often feel intellectually superior to those who practice some religion.

Those feelings often translate into rudeness and out right hostility. If you take the words of the Bible as literal truth, you are an “Idiot” for rejecting science. If you question someone’s interpretation of the Bible with differing views you are spouting evil “mumbo jumbo”. If you cross the line of someone’s comfort zone or experience or knowledge…you are wrong. From the blindly faithful to the antagonistic agnostic and the proselytizing atheist, those who believe (in anything spiritual) and those who don’t believe (in anything spiritual) spend much time and emotion in belittling those who think differently than they.

While considering this sad state recently I was reminded of walking the Labyrinth at Grace Cathedral in San Francisco many years ago.

A Labyrinth is a large (often filling a whole room) outline of a maze cut into stone or woven into a rug, or simply painted on the floor. The Labyrinth has a single entry point and a single ending which is usually at the center of the maze. In between start and finish the trail or path winds and twists about as it is followed to the final destination.

I walked the Labyrinth late one night as the cathedral was lit by candles and the only sound was the echo of footsteps and the soft rustle of peoples clothing as they slowly walked.

One steps onto the path of the Labyrinth alone. The path is narrow and at first, in the silence and semi-darkness it can feel very isolating. Yet others who are also on the path are quickly encountered. Some who are faster than you may step around and pass you by. Or, you might come upon someone who is slower than you, or even stopped on the path unmoving. Then you go around them.

As you proceed on the path towards your end you will see other people. The maze’s path may place them directly alongside of you for a moment before carrying them away. Some walkers coming alongside may be moving directly opposite from your journey. Others will seem to be headed right at you or directly away from you. As the Labyrinth twists and turns it can seem to take you and your fellow pilgrims in a hundred different directions. How, you might wonder, can we ever reach the same end? But it happens.

Eventually the path reaches the center where a large space awaits. You can stand or kneel, pray, meditate, take a moment to think or just leave. Regardless of how you choose to end the Labyrinth experience it seems almost impossible not to take note of your fellow pilgrims…those already finished, those arriving behind you or those still on the path.

No longer isolated, the Labyrinth walker feels camaraderie with those about him. Whether faster, or slower; whether praying, or meditating; whether finding a spiritual strength or a the simple joy of a few minutes alone with one’s own thoughts; all of those who started out on this journey of life…that must end the same for all living things…come to realize that amidst the seeming chaos of all the different directions we all travel together.

In the end the journey round the Labyrinth makes our simple differences seem small and unimportant. What does become important is the fact we walked together. It is an experience I would wish for all those who question the purpose and direction of their fellow pilgrims.

“Leo! Leo! You are Leo, aren’t you? Do you not know me any more? We were League brothers together and should still be so. We were both travelers on the Journey to the East.” ~ Hermann Hesse

In a few weeks it will be Christmas again, my 60th celebration of the holiday.

Of course I don’t actually remember the first few years, and memories of the next couple are more supported by old photos and family stories than personal recollections. But the vast majority of Christmases in my lifetime are well remembered. Not all the memories are good ones; there have been family tragedies and difficulties accompanying the holiday season at various times…but for the most part thoughts of Christmas bring a smile.

Yet while a love for the Christmas season has been a constant through my life, I have often wondered, as Charlie Brown does each year in the Peanuts TV Special, if I really know “what Christmas is all about?” My own view of the holiday has gone through a number of changes over the years.

I have looked at Christmas many ways: as a child waiting for Santa, as an Alter Boy in a Roman Catholic midnight mass, and as an adult reveling in secular celebrations and consumer excesses. But interestingly enough, since becoming a Buddhist I have begun to think of the whole of the Christmas season in more spiritual terms. It occurs to me lately that Jesus, as is often said by my more devout Christian friends, is indeed the “reason for the season.” After all, what is Jesus about other than love? And what is Christmas if not an expression of love?

No, I am not a believer in the divinity of Jesus. Neither am I bothered nor threatened by that belief in others. Who am I to judge the beliefs of another? As John Lennon Roshi put it, “Whatever gets you through the night is all right.” But I do find in the teachings of Jesus many of the same beautiful commitments to compassion, forgiveness and love that I find in the teachings of the Buddha. And the fact that we have a holiday season to remind ourselves of these teachings seems like a pretty great idea.

The more I look at the holiday season the more I find Jesus’ teachings reflected there: life everlasting through renewal, giving gifts as an expression of love, charity as an expression of compassion. Understanding, forgiveness, universal love, acceptance of the darkness and the light…it’s all there in every one of those wonderful Christmas traditions from the nativity story to the tree to Santa to the Yule log. And it is especially there in the spirit of love for others that prevails at Christmastime
.

Yes, we all know the spirit of helping, of giving, of being compassionate does not hold full sway at Christmastime. We all still revert to our petty thoughts, and our selfishness, our angers and jealousies. But sometimes during the holiday time…just for a moment… perhaps only in the moment of hearing a Salvation Army volunteer’s bell… we sometimes do remember to be better….or maybe we just remember that we want to be better. And in that moment we realize the possibilities of the love for all beings spoken of by an impoverished wandering preacher in Galilee so long ago. So to me Jesus is the true reason for the season…as is the Shakyamuni Buddha…as is Ghandi…as is Mother Theresa…as is Cantor Michael Weisser…as are you when you take a moment to toss that coin into the Salvation Army collection bucket.

Of course people being people, some of us can be a bit possessive about the holiday season. We get so attached to our own Christmas experiences we begin to think of it as “our” holiday. And if the holiday belongs to us, then sometimes we start to think it can’t also belong to “them” (the ones who think differently than us). As a result we sometimes replace the universal love of Jesus with an attempt to control how the holiday is celebrated.

I have been saddened of late to read and hear so much about the “battle” to own Christmas by so many people.
For example I see agnostic/atheistic/non-believers who cringe at the sound of “Merry Christmas.” They seem to see every Christmas card and nativity crèche as an assault on their liberty to not worship and as a imperialistic attack on the beliefs of other cultures. For them the greeting of “Happy Holidays” is a blow against tyranny.

And I see devout Christians believing Christmas religious celebrations are a last stand to protect the Lord Jesus from the infidels. They believe their faith is under attack and only by enforcing officially sanctioned traditions of their own particular form of worship against the non-believers can the Lord be protected. For them “Merry Christmas” is the only holiday salutation which is acceptable to God.

Personally I find both views confusing. If the beauty of the season is that it creates a sense of universal compassion, why worry that some people might think the man who taught that lesson is divine? Does a belief in his divinity by other people in any way diminish the message that you hear? You can’t control other people’s reasons for compassion, but you can focus on your own. And how can you be focusing on your own compassion when you devote your energy to “disproving” the basis for the faith of others?

And if someone follows the teachings of Jesus for reasons other than his divinity, how does that injure your faith? If we are celebrating the birth of Jesus should we not also be celebrating his beliefs, including that we should love our enemies. Not like them…not tolerate them…not change them or send them packing…but love them. If Jesus is God then he alone can take the measure of your fellow men. And if he is God, it would seem very arrogant to imagine he needs our protection from unbelievers.

For myself, I have vowed to try to find Jesus’ love throughout the season. I am not very good at it, but I still try. And as part of that search for compassion I try to understand when others feel that Christmas is a cultural battlefield…but as a Buddhist I also offer my own simple belief that there is no right or wrong way to celebrate the birth of Jesus and to honor his teachings.

So to my devout Christian friends who insist that Christmas should not be diluted by inclusions of other non-Christian celebrations in the season, I say “Happy Holidays” with all the love in my heart.

And to my non-believing friends who rally against the primacy of a Christian holiday over other end of year celebrations of so many religions and cultures, I say “Merry Christmas” with all the love in my heart.

And to everyone, I bow and say “Namaste”…which means I see in you the same love that is in me and which is the true reason not only for the season but for our very existence. And I say it with all the love in my heart.

I like to think that Jesus would not have had a problem with my celebrating his birth in this way.

(BTW, if you would like to read more about the common themes of love and compassion found in Christianity and Buddhism, I recommend “Living Buddha, Living Christ” by Thich Nhat Hanh).

Posted by: Tony | April 5, 2010

To Tell the Truth

“What is truth?” ~ Pontius Pilate

I watched a couple of friends go after each other on the internet last week…all about politics and religion. Of course it got heated and some harsh words were exchanged. Afterwards one of them, knowing of my practice as a Buddhist, asked me for my opinion on some pretty pointed…and basic…questions. “Is it ever all right to lie?”…”Isn’t it always better to tell the truth?”, and “Don’t we have a duty to speak out when we think someone or something is wrong?”

I promised him I would give it some thought…and so here is what I came up with.

Among the Buddhist precepts or guidelines for a moral life is a prohibition against false speech. It is sometimes simply translated as “A disciple of Buddha does not lie”. That would seem clear enough. Don’t ever tell a lie, and always tell the truth. After all, “The truth shall set you free”.

But in reality…that doesn’t work. And it is not what we should demand of ourselves or expect from others.

We all lie almost every day. We call them ‘little white lies’ making a distinction of degree and intent…but it’s still lying. When a wife asks her husband “Does this dress make me look fat” it is unlikely she is looking for a truthful answer. She wants reassurance. When a man explains to his wife the importance he holds in his job, there is sure to be a little puffing of the ego going on. Whenever we reassure ourselves or others, or attempt to spare feelings or sooth concerns we stretch, bend or even avoid the “truth”. Yet, I don’t think that such “lies” violate the precept against “false speech.” I don’t think that the sort of thing Buddha was worried about.

If there is a single point to Buddhist ethics or morality it would seem to me to be this: be compassionate. Since Buddhists see all sentient beings, all life, as sharing the Buddha nature (or the Tao, or God, or the Cosmic giggle…whatever you might call it) we believe we all have a universality, a commonality of being. And while we may not always remember or recognize our common existence, we can try and stay connected to it by a little compassion. Trying to understand, empathize, and even forgive those around us helps us return to that point of remembering that we are all reflective of each other on a deeper level than our seeming differences.

And so I think the false speech prohibited by Buddha isn’t necessarily speech which is factually incorrect. The false speech or lie that Buddha was concerned with happens when we say something that injures another or denies our common nature. The lie prohibited by the Buddhist Precepts is speech which is false to the ideal of compassion. It is speech which harms us by separating us.

This doesn’t mean we can’t have an opinion which differs from those we see around us. Compassion doesn’t require blind complicity. Compassion sometimes means telling someone that you think they are wrong, or that their actions are incorrect. Every child on occasion needs a parent to point out when things are going wrong. Every child needs some direction. And while it would be nice to think that as adults we outgrow that need the reality is that at various points in our life we all need some parental guidance…regardless of our age or experience.

In the same vein, all Buddhist precepts of prohibition also inherently contain affirmative duties. A prohibition against false statements requires as, Roshi Reb Anderson says, an affirmative duty to speak out when others speak or act wrongfully. But we must tread carefully and ask what our purpose in speaking out is.

When we say (as I myself have) things like “the Catholic Church does more harm than good by prohibiting birth control in third world countries” or “the Republican party policies promote poverty and racism” or “Giant corporations don’t care about the environment” it may reflect an opinion so strong that we firmly believe it to be the “truth”.

But is the utterance of this “truth” really meant as a tool to stop or influence wrongful action? Are we saying it because we hope it will have a positive effect in causing those actions to stop? If so then I think we do have an obligation to speak out. And if we truly believe what we say, maybe we have more than a duty to voice an opinion…maybe we have a duty to affirmatively help change things. We can do as little as send donations to Greenpeace or as much as volunteer to work distributing birth control with an international health organization in Africa.

But if we are simply stating some “truth” to distinguish ourselves from the so called “bad guys” or to reassure ourselves of our own good nature or to play to the approval of an audience (which may just be ourselves) then we aren’t obeying a higher duty to the truth. Just the opposite, we are speaking to separate “us” from “them”…and the belief in that separation is a lie.

We can express our concern, even our righteous anger over what we see as social or personal failings of others, but we need to do it in a manner that recognizes that we all bear some of the responsibility for whatever failings there are in the world. And we need to do it in a manner which does not hand off responsibility or blame to someone else.

It’s not just the good of the world we reflect in our eyes and hearts. It is the failures and pain as well. As Buddhist teacher and poet Thich Nhat Hanh says, we are at once the frog singing in the pond and the snake coming to eat the frog. Or as the cartoonist Walt Kelly put it in in his classic comic strip Pogo many years ago: “We have met the enemy…and he is us”. Once we realize that concept we may be less likely to judge… and less likely to tell a lie.

I hope this answers my friend’s questions.

“The truth is not realized just by me saying what I think is the truth. The truth arises when my truth is offered but not placed above the truth of others.” ~Roshi Reb Anderson

Posted by: Tony | February 3, 2010

The Perfect Day

I wake-up in my bedroom in Playa del Carmen, Mexico. The birds are singing right outside the window next to my head and I get up, stepping out onto the sundeck and see the sunlight streaming through the trees.

Cheri is still sleeping so I get dressed and walk through the quiet streets of Key West’s Old Town to the Five Brothers Grocery Store where I stand in line with the early crowd for thick Cuban coffee loaded with sugar and cream. I take it to a nearby public flower garden and sit on an old wooden bench while I sip and watch the hummingbirds.

By the time I get home Cheri is awake so we take the Tube out to the meat packing district of London and walk into the Fox and Anchor. The pretty Irish barmaid calls out to us, “Will you be havin’ some breakfast, loves?” Indeed we will. Giant plates of eggs, sausage, bacon, beans, blood pudding, potatoes and bread follow. We eat while reading the London Times as the men getting off their shifts at the slaughterhouses fill the place.

After breakfast we figure the sun is hot enough for a beach day so we walk down to El Paraiso in Tulum. Since it’s low season we have our pick of sun beds spread out along that white sand beach. We choose one near the shoreline, farthest from the noise of the bar. I wait to see if this is a bikini or a “who needs a bikini” day for Cheri. I approve of her choice.

We order drinks–a margarita for Cheri and a limonada for me. We wade into the water to splash around in the Caribbean. After a while we head back to the sun bed and are dried off by the ocean breeze. We nap and read in the sun. I am re-reading a John MacDonald Travis McGee mystery, or maybe one of the early Spencer novels by Robert Parker. Occasionally we wander down to the water to cool off. We throw a Frisbee…badly. After a while one of us says “I’m hungry” and the other agrees. We can’t believe we want food after that giant breakfast, but we do.

We walk down the empty beach to Ray’s little thatched hut on the edge of the Sea of Cortez in the Baja. Ray waves us to a table and then goes around back to fire up the gas generator. With the power from the generator he can play classical music on his stereo. He turns the music up so that we can hear it over the thumping of the gas engine. He then begins to sauté butter clams that he collected while diving that morning. We watch kids playing in the surf.

When lunch is finished we head out. The weather seems a little cooler now so we figure it is a good time to walk off all that food with a hike. We stop at the Muir Woods Visitors Center at the foot of Mount Tamalpais to get a trail map and the head into the forest.

We take the central loop to walk through the park and then head up Bootjack Trail. The elevation increases fast and we need to take regular water breaks. It’s almost chilly when the trail winds beneath the redwood canopy, but things warm up when we come upon an open meadow with unobstructed views over the foothills.

By late afternoon the path is sinking into shadow. The wind coming in from the Pacific and heading down off of Mount Tam is getting cold. Time to warm up. We get out of our clothes and step naked out onto the deck of the cabin at Lake Tahoe. We immediately are hit with the force of the winter evening wind.

We thought we were chilled before but this is freezing. The packed snow on the deck stings our feet, but it is too slippery with ice to move very fast. We slowly walk to the edge of the hot tub and ease over the side. At first the water seems so hot that we dip down in and immediately jump back out. But in a few minutes we gradually sink chin deep into the water. The afternoon twilight turns to the darkness of evening in the mountains.

The candlelight gleams off the three foot long icicles that hang from the wooden shingled roof, throwing strange shadows across the snow. We lean back and float, looking at the millions of stars above us. We both shout out at once, “Shooting Star” as a meteor streaks across the sky.

Now, of course we are hungry again. We get out and dry off. After getting dressed we knock on the door of Jan and Eric’s apartment on Nob Hill in San Francisco. Even before Jani opens up we smell dinner cooking. The four of us crowd into the tiny kitchen.

We have all been together long enough that we have our body language down perfect. We manage to move easily around each other as Cheri helps with dishes, I open the wine, E handles the stove and Jan preps desserts and special treats. We stop occasionally to hug and kiss each other. It’s that kind of crowd. The two of them spent the day shopping for gourmet meats and veggies down at the Ferry Building stores, and we end up with a feast the finest restaurant in town would be proud of.

After dinner E and I climb out on the roof and smoke Cuban Cigars while we watch a full moon rise over the San Francisco skyline. Then it’s time to go.

The Neville Brothers are playing a midnight show at Tipitinas in Uptown New Orleans. We take a cab and get there early enough to grab a spot upstairs just above the stage. The house lights go dim and the announcer says “Here are the Mighty…Mighty…NEVILLE BROTHERS.” The place goes wild. They play until 3 in the morning. After the last encore we head over to the Café DuMonde and order coffee and beignets. We laugh as we are enveloped in clouds of powdery white sugar every time one of us takes a bite.

Just before dawn Cheri and I climb the stairs to the bedroom of our casita in Playa. I make some tea and we sit in the rattan chairs on the sundeck. We pet the cats (the dogs are asleep in our bed). After a while Cheri goes in and I say I will follow in a minute. In the early morning stillness I place my lotus embroidered cushion in front of the statue of Buddha. I sit and bow, thankful for this moment, which is actually all moments that have ever been or ever will be. Then I go into bed.

Posted by: Tony | December 13, 2009

Stillness and Silence: a Zen Buddhist Retreat

I recently attended a three day meditation retreat with Tenshin Roshi, Reb Anderson who is a senior Dharma teacher for the San Francisco Zen Centers. Here are some thoughts and memories from the retreat.

I

It is 5:30 am when the alarm rings. I roll out of the bed in my small room and throw back the curtains on the window. It is still dark out. I know that in the distance are a series of mountaintops descending into the Pacific Ocean, each one decorated with mists and fog. But right now they are hidden in the darkness.

I grab my toiletries bag and head down the hall to the community wash room. When I get back to my room I try to warm up with exercises and some stretching of uncooperative and complaining joints. Then I dress in layers, ending with a thick sweater over a couple of shirts and wool socks on my feet. It is winter in the mountains and I know the meditation hall is not well heated. Finally ready, I head out the door.

The Mount Madonna Center (a facility for rent to various religious and holistic organizations) is hosting the retreat and a room in the central community building is being used as a zendo, or meditation hall. The walk from the dorm to the hall is a short one, but I am chilled by the time I step inside. I leave my shoes by the door and head over to the table of hot water and herbal teas that have been set out. Tenshin Roshi is already there brewing his own cup of tea. He is dressed all in white linen, but has a turtle neck sweater on beneath his traditional Rakusu robe. We exchange greetings and deep bows. As always he is smiling. His presence warms the room.

I take my tea to one of the short benches that line the wall and observe the sangha, the community, that has gathered for this meditation retreat. The theme of the retreat, “Using Buddhist Practice to Benefit all Others” has brought some non-Buddhists, especially healthcare and hospice workers who have heard of Roshi’s teachings of compassion. And there are the first time curious ones. But mostly it is people who have chosen to follow the Buddha’s teaching in making their way through the world. Some are old friends as evidenced by hugs and kisses exchanged. More are strangers, but not estranged. People make eye contact with each other. Acknowledgements are made with smiles, nods of the head and full bows. We are all in this together. If we don’t know each other, we still know each other.

After I finish the tea I walk into the room which will be our zendo for the next few days. It is lit by only a few low lights. The mediation pads are set up in a semi circle around a central sitting area for Roshi. Behind that is a small make-shift altar with a statute of Shakyumani Buddha along with flowers, incense and candles.

I choose a sitting pad and set my zafu, the round meditation sitting pillow on it. I bow to the room and my fellow sangha members in it. Those who see return the bow. I bow to my pillow, remembering and honoring all those who have walked the way in a similar fashion. Then I turn my back on the Buddha statue and prepare to sit.

Meditation is not a worship of the Buddha. He was not divine…or at least no more divine than me…or you. He was a man who lived and taught around 400 BCE. Buddha is honored and revered as someone who awakened to the awareness of the universal nature of existence and shared that knowledge with the world. The title Buddha means “he who has awakened.” The Shakyumani Buddha wasn’t the first to awaken, and he was not the last. But he was the first in our recorded history to teach a comprehensive way of finding the Dharma, the truth.

I kneel down next to the zafu and sit upon it. I cross my legs, and place support cushions around me. I move around a little until I feel well settled. I straighten my back, lift my head and place my hands in my lap, the palms open , the thumbs touching. With my eyes half closed I silently say my own mantra to begin the meditation session. “Just let it all go. But what are you letting go of? And who is letting go? Form is emptiness and emptiness is form.” Then I begin to steady my breath and clear my mind.

Somewhere behind me Roshi strikes the bell which begins the formal session. We will be in this hall, with a few breaks until 9:00 pm that night,. Ten hours of mediation, talks by Roshi and discussions. Roshi slowly strikes the bell three times. Each reverberation carries me a little farther into myself. The day has begun.

II

The idea behind Zen meditation is actually pretty simple.

Buddha teaches that there is a single universal existence of which all beings (including us) are a part and that we can experience this common oneness of all life by clearing our minds and letting it in. To clear the mind Buddha taught meditation. A clear mind he said will lead to enlightenment and will end suffering.

However while Zen may be simple to describe, it is very difficult to do.

Our world is one of constant noise within and without. We wire ourselves up for continual input and non stop conversation. Beginning early in our lives we learn to think in terms of language, a series of symbols. Trying to shut down that “live feed” in our brain is very, very difficult. But it’s not impossible. I can make no claims to enlightenment myself, but I do find that sitting in meditation each day helps take away the small, the petty, the sadness and the anger. It leaves a world which is easier to accept and understand.

Zen Buddhists are encouraged to sit (meditate) everyday. However they are also encouraged to join gatherings with others for marathon sessions (called sesshins) which can be two to seven days…or even more… in length. It is believed that the support of other people, along with the wearing down of the physical and mental resistance to “non-thought” can help us reach through to some levels of awareness.

In addition, a sesshin allows students extended time with their Roshi, or wise teacher. It is said that the essence of Buddhism must be learned by the direct transmission of the dharma between a student and teacher who have chosen each other. In meetings with the student (called dokusan) the Roshi may ask questions, make comments, answer questions, offer a non-solvable riddle called a koan, or simply sit quietly. I had come to this retreat not only for meditation, but to have a conversation with Roshi about my future as a Zen Buddhist.

Several weeks earlier I had written to Roshi to ask if I might formalize my commitment to Buddhism and my status as his student through the ceremony for lay practitioners known as Jukai. Roshi had, in the tradition of Zen masters responded with a noncommittal “we will talk”. I arrived at the retreat knowing at some point we would have that conversation. As it turned out I didn’t have to wait long.

After what seemed like only a few minutes of the first mornings sitting, I suddenly felt Roshi standing next to me. He touched my shoulder and indicated for me to follow him. Our dokusan was about to begin and I would have my answer.

Shakyumani Buddha

III.

The Jukai is a ceremony wherein the student receives the “Precepts” of Buddhism from the teacher. These are the Buddhist rules (although guidelines or directions is probably closer in true description) setting forth the type of life you should live if you accept that the Buddha nature makes us all part of one existence. They both reflect and inspire a life of compassion for all other beings. The teacher gives the precepts while asking the student to acknowledge his past failings and vowing to follow the teachings of the Buddha.

If Reb says yes to my request, I will have to start the process of preparing for my public vows of commitment to Buddhism by readings to be assigned, more meditations and discussions with Reb, and lessons at the Green Gulch Temple in sewing (the disciple of Buddha is expected to ceremoniously sew his or her own Rakusu or prayer shawl). It is a ceremony not only of the student’s commitment, but of the teachers as well.

There is a saying in Buddhism, “When the student is ready, the teacher will appear.” It took me a while to get ready. I didn’t seriously explore an interest in Buddhism until my late fifties. When I did it was natural to look at the Zen Centers of Northern California where I had lived so long. The more I read about Zen in the Bay Area, the more Reb Anderson’s name turned up.

Forty years ago Reb had been made a Zen Buddhist priest by the Zen Center founder Shunryu Suzuki and eventually became Assistant to Suzuki Roshi’s successor, Richard Baker Roshi. His actions when Baker Roshi failed as Abbot and abandoned both Zen Center and Reb himself made me admire Reb’s courage and compassion. And when Reb became the new Abbot the way he handled his own public mistakes made me respect his humanity. I thought he might be the teacher for me. And so I sought him out. Now here I was asking to be formally accepted as a Buddhist and as his student.

After leaving the meditation hall at Mount Madonna I followed Reb into the small room he was using for his interviews. Normally my meetings with Reb were formal, meaning they took place while sitting on the floor with much bowing upon entering, sitting, standing and leaving. However as we were not at Zen Center, or in a Buddhist temple, it was to be informal. Reb had two comfortable overstuffed chairs facing each other near a small table with a lamp. We bowed to each other and sat. We might have simply been friends chatting on a Saturday morning. Which in fact we were.

After exchanging hellos and each of us expressing our pleasure at seeing the other, I got to the point. I told him I was ready to make a commitment to the Middle Way as Buddhism is called. I wanted to formally be his student and to receive the precepts from him directly. I sat back when I finished and waited.

Reb continued to sit upright, his eyes bright, staring at me intensely. At last he spoke. “The first step in receiving the precepts from a teacher is to ask for them.” He saw my puzzled look and continued. “You didn’t ask. You made a declarative statement.” He explained that I had talked about me, about my desires and plans but I had failed to acknowledge a need for the precepts or to simply ask for his help. “The first step towards a life of awareness is asking for help”.

I knew my training had already begun. “Roshi the precepts are very important to me. I need them to help me live my life in a manner which helps others. I ask now, will you please help me receive them? Reb sat back in his chair and smiled. “Yes” he said.

IV
The Buddha is said to have sat in meditation non-stop for seven weeks. Bodhidharma is said to have sat in meditation for seven years. Most people can make about 30-40 minutes before their legs ache and their minds wander. Because of this, sitting meditation sessions last about that long, and are interspersed with breaks, walking meditation and lectures.

Throughout the weekend, Reb would lead us through meditation and then talk with us in his soft voice about the Buddhist philosophy of dedicating one’s life to helping other beings. He talked with conviction about compassion and love. He spoke with clarity about the Buddhist concept that we share a single universal existence and that injury to one is injury to all.

He explained in simple terms that no one is a solitary individual sprung separately and alone into the world, but that we all are the result of all beings interacting and intermingling with all other beings without restrictions of time or space. And he tied everything into his instruction to live in silence and stillness…even when we were at our noisiest, most frantic or confused. The silence and stillness was not in our words or actions he said, but was part of the great Buddha Nature which we could find within ourselves.

He filled his lectures with personal revelations about his own failings and difficult times, and invited us all to do the same. He talked at length about the dance of our beings with the rest of the world (at one point even teaching a student how to tango to make his point). He asked us to make comments about how we understood his teachings and how they were, or could be reflected in our own lives. As people shared their own stories, Roshi laughed and cried with us.

I shared with the sangha a conversation I had with the great master of Jiu-jitsu, the late Helio Gracie. Grandmaster Gracie had once stopped his lesson with me to tell me that I was trying to create the jiu-jitsu through my strength. “If you are calm and relaxed”, he said, “the jiu-jitsu that is already in you will come out. If you stay relaxed, the ju-jitsu will know what to do”. I told the group that Reb’s talk of being still and silent had reminded me not only of Helio’s words, but made me realize Grandmaster Gracie had been teaching me more than jiu-jitsu. I offered thanks to Reb for the gift of that memory and realization, which he accepted with a bow and a smile.

And of course, Reb being Reb, the retreat could not end without a song. Reb always sings. Not chants or sutras but great acapella standards. He always sings something he feels sums up what he has been talking about. This time he closed the seminar with “When the Red Red Robin comes bob,-bob-bobin’ along”. It was quite something to see: a robed Buddhist monk with smooth shaved head sitting lotus position on the floor in front of a statue of Buddha beside which candles flicker and incense burns, singing…

“Wake up, wake up, you sleepy head,
Get up, get up, get out of bed,
Cheer up, cheer up the sun is red,
Live, love, laugh and be happy.
What if I’ve been blue,
Now I’m walking through fields of flowers,
Rain may glisten,
but I still listen for hours and hours.
I’m just a kid again, doing what I did again, singing a song,
When the red, red robin comes bob, bob bobbin’ along.”

It was a delight to behold.

And so the retreat came to an end. The candles were extinguished and the pillows put away. There were bows and hugs, and e-mail exchanges and plans for future sesshins. Then we all started down the mountain towards home, trying to “wake up” and hear the Robin’s song.

Posted by: Tony | November 13, 2009

Giving Peace a Chance

(I started this blog to be about the spiritual journey of my later years. But can we really separate who we are from who we were? I think not and so have written this piece about an important event in my life. Is it spiritual? I don’t know for sure but I would hazard the guess that the Buddha’s call for compassion can be found in a peace movement whenever it happened. I wrote this mostly for myself, for the pleasure of remembering. Maybe it’s also a little for my son. If it sparks anyone else’s memories, or shows them something they didn’t know …then that’s good too.)

1969. What a year of once in a lifetime events. No wonder we are now (in 2009) celebrating and taking note of so many media hyped “40th anniversaries.” There was Woodstock…Man on the Moon…Nixon becomes President…the first Led Zeppelin album…lots of memories. Yet I notice in all the various calls of “let’s remember when,” one of my own most important personal memories–indeed one of the pivotal moments in my life–has been forgotten…or ignored.

We are now approaching the 40th anniversary of a three day period in November of 1969 when one of the largest public demonstrations in the county’s history took place in Washington D.C. More than half a million people marched in the streets to protest the continuation of the war in Vietnam. I was one of them and this is what I remember of that time…

PART I

In the fall of 1969 the Vietnam War raged on into its sixth year. The Congress had approved the reinstitution of the draft to commence that coming December. Nixon had been elected on a promise of a “secret plan” to end the war. That plan, peace conferences brokered by the French, fell apart and the President went to plan number two…an escalation of the war with an aim to force the North Vietnamese back to the bargaining table. As the war continued with no end in sight, the anti-war movement began to change.

In the early years of the war, those who opposed the war were labeled as hippies, revolutionaries and the “new” left. It was the time of “America, Love it or Leave it” bumper stickers. The media had been dismissive of protestors. Radio stations played “Okie from Muskogee” which promised that in the real America no one burned their draft cards or wore their hair long. And the FBI, still under J. Edgar Hoover’s rule, operated its then secret Cointelpro program to discredit, disrupt and destroy the anti-war movement (along with the civil rights movement).

But by late 1969 the public perception of the war and the anti-war movement was evolving. Although the country remained divided on the issue, more and more opposition to the war reached outside of college dorm rooms to union halls, churches, middle class families and even veteran groups. Walter Cronkite’s declaration that the war could not be won the year before was now being accepted over a broader base. As colleges around the country reopened for the fall semester in 1969 there was a real feeling in the air that just maybe concerned citizens could force Washington’s hand and actually end the war. After all, in the end, the government had to listen to the people when they spoke. Right?

In September a nationwide coalition of various anti-war groups came together under the umbrella name of the New Mobilization Against the War, or New Mobe for short. A number of peaceful marches and demonstrations were planned over the next ninety days with a call for a general mobilization of those opposed to the war to meet in Washington DC and San Francisco on the same day in November. The Washington march would be comprised of two separate demonstrations: a single file March Against Death over the two days of November 13 and 14, and a general mass demonstration and march on November 15th.

In the fall of 1969 my own focus was less on politics than on my personal life. That summer while working the line at a Detroit factory, my fellow workers had introduced me to the joys of drugs. Marijuana, hashish and opium had opened up a whole new world for me (one which would end in rehab eventually). And a hard fought battle for the affections of my first real love had proven successful. Those events combined with the emerging new FM radio music scene to provide the three basic elements of life in the sixties…drugs, sex and rock ‘n roll. I grew a beard, let my hair grow long and let my bell bottom jeans drag the ground. To the horror of my parents I had fully embraced the new counter culture.

However back on campus in the fall I began to see things in a larger scale. A friendship with the head of the local chapter of Vietnam Vets against the War, along with my already left wing political leanings (I had been a Bob Kennedy for President supporter) convinced me that it was time to get involved in the anti-war movement. I became part of the New Mobe organizing committee on my own campus. And as my girl went to a university only a few miles a way, she and I joined the New Mobe group on her campus. I also did some work with other schools in Detroit and some local Unions.

Organizing for a large scale demonstration was actually pretty boring. It was mimeographing leaflets (no PC printers in those days). It was sitting in a phone booth with pockets full of dimes and calling other schools and newspapers (no cell phones either). It was hauling a table to the center of some well walked spot on campus to offer literature. It was going door to door asking for more volunteers. And it was endless meetings after classes where some junior grade Trotsky tried to bore everyone with a talk about Marxist theory or some Black Panther Wannabe wanted to preach about stopping the “man.” But mostly it was middle class kids with plans on being teachers or lawyers or just getting a better job who thought…well… they thought this was the right thing to do. It was that simple.

We got a lot of support from mothers and priests, teachers and vets, factory workers and bus drivers. But we also got a fair amount of opposition. Fraternity goon squads would overturn tables, push and sometimes hit. People with American flag pins would call names. And sometimes the opposition was closer to home.

A high school buddy who joined the Navy right after high school told me I deserved to get punched out if I was in a peace march. When my older brother who was in law school heard I was planning on attending the now much publicized Washington demonstration he angrily said that my arrest as a radical troublemaker would adversely affect his future career.

My mother would call and cry in the phone. She recalled the bonus Army after WWI. Army vets marched on Washington during the depression to demand the bonuses they had been promised. The active Army was called out and opened fire. I tried to reassure her that nothing like that could happen now. I told her America would never fire on her own children.

The most difficult was my father. He was a smart, good man who saw much of the world he knew changing in ways he couldn’t understand. Like all of us, when frightened or confused he fell back on basic beliefs. Who was I to question authority of our leaders? I was joining with traitors who were supporting our enemy and that made me no better than them. I was a coward. He hoped I would be drafted so the Army could teach me how to be an adult. My words back to him were no less harsh. We became enemies for the first time in our lives.

The disapproval of my family weighed heavily on me. In my heart I knew that what I was doing…what all of us were doing…really mattered. It was one of the greatest issues of the time and I could not walk away from it. Still the feeling that I had disappointed my parents and might even be threatening my own future made me constantly question my actions. I seriously thought that to keep peace perhaps I should stay behind when the local New Mobe groups headed for Washington. Would my one voice, my small insignificant presence really make that big a difference? Eventually I decided it would make a difference… to me. The people I loved had raised me to do what was right. I was convinced this was right. So in the dark early morning hours of November 13, 1969 my girl and I joined thousands of others heading for Washington DC to confront our own government.

PART II

It took about 10 hours to get to Washington DC. We arrived mid morning on Thursday the 13th of November, under grey and cloudy skies. We picked up our New Mobe packet with a map showing where our group would be housed (the basement of a local church), and containing an instruction sheet for the coming marches. The sheet reminded everyone that this was a peaceful march and that we should stop anyone who tried to incite violence.

The instructions also suggested carrying a dime for phone calls in case of arrest. While the march had the appropriate permits, arrests of marchers for “loitering” or “causing a disturbance” were common police tactics at the time. Armed with this unpleasant possibility we went off to find some food. I still have that instruction sheet with my girlfriend’s dainty handwriting across the side (“four cheeseburgers, two fries, two cokes”…a lunch order to bring back for friends at the church).

In the afternoon we headed out to the Arlington National Cemetery to join the March Against Death. The idea for the march was to point out the number of young men who had been killed in the war, as well as to honor and remember them. At that time over 45,000 soldiers had died in the war.

Marchers were to take the name of a fallen soldier written on a large card and carry it single file to the capital building. There the names would be placed in a coffin and the coffins delivered to the White House. The names of the dead filled ten caskets, and it took forty hours for marchers to carry all the names to the capital.

I would like to digress for a moment and talk about the relationship of the anti-war protestors and the Vietnam era soldiers. A myth has been created and accepted by the general population that soldiers were the target of derision and abuse by protestors. Soldiers it is said were spit on, called names and generally suffered at the hands of protestors when they returned home. The Peace Movement hated soldiers, it is now claimed by some.

This is not true.

First, many journalistic and academic studies have shown there was no widespread abuse of soldiers by protestors. Did it ever happen? Almost certainly some longhairs at some point called a uniformed man a baby killer or spit at him. Just as there were times (I personally know of one) where a couple of drunken soldiers beat up a “hippie” for having long hair. And some soldiers committed horrible crimes while wearing the uniform. But regardless of whether we are talking soldiers or peace protestors, the incidents are isolated and never reflected anything other than the twisted behavior of a few.

The military brass was certainly disrespected by the peace movement, even hated by some, for what we saw as a needless perpetuation of an unnecessary and costly war. But the members of the peace movement never saw soldiers (or sailors or airmen) as our enemies. Just the opposite. We saw them as the victims of an uncaring government pursuing a bad war. We saw soldiers as young men, just like us, forced to be in harm’s way without good reason. We saw them as our brothers, friends, family members, high school buddies…as ourselves. When we marched we marched for them as much as anybody. No one was more respected in the peace movement than the Vietnam Vets Against the War.

The story of the peace movement has been consigned to the dust heap of history mostly by those who neither fought in the war nor marched against it. But the truth remains the truth…we saw the man in uniform as our brother.

At the cemetery each marcher was given the name of a soldier who had died in Vietnam. I requested the name of someone I had known. Then we waited for our turn to pass out of the cemetery and start our journey. We were there a couple of hours during which the rain poured down on us. But we were young, in love and on a mission so it didn’t dampen our spirits. While waiting I bought a button from a volunteer that showed a field of crosses with the words “How Many More?” I still have it.

At some point someone started to sing “We shall overcome,” and we all took up the song. It was pretty moving to be standing in the rain and hearing our voices echoing through the graves of so many fallen soldiers promising in song that we would not fail.

Eventually the line moved us up to the departure point at the edge of the cemetery. Since it was getting dark volunteers passed out candles sheltered from the wind by paper cups. They also pinned a bright paper badge showing a dove of peace on the front of every marcher’s coat. As we moved out of the cemetery a large bell was rung for the soldier whose name we carried.

The line moved very slowly and we silently shuffled along through the streets of Washington DC in single file. It grew later as each hour of slow walking passed. Each moment gave time for reflection of the name being carried, on why were they there.

As we walked people would pass. Occasionally we would get a smile or the flash of the peace sign, but mostly people would turn away and try to pretend we weren’t there. Occasionally someone would call us names or spit in our direction. I remember one man who sat in his parked Volkswagen, screaming “fuck you” and lifting his middle finger again and again to every marcher that passed. But mostly people seemed like they just wished we would go away.

Our path took us to the front of the White House where a microphone was set up. Each marcher stopped, faced that magnificent icon of the American Presidency and spoke into the microphone, broadcasting the name of a fallen soldier so that it reverberated off the stone and marble of the building.

Our path then took us on to the Capitol steps where we slowly walked up and laid the names we carried in one of the caskets lined up there. Later when the marchers had finished and the caskets were filled with the names of the war dead they would be solemnly carried to the White House.

A year later in 1970 the popular folksinger Melanie released a song which she said was about the March Against Death. It was called Lay Down (Candles in the Rain). The record company, perhaps fearing a backlash, later said the song was about Woodstock. The story could change …but the words remained the same.

Lay down lay down, let it all down
Let your white birds smile up at the
Ones who stand and frown

We were so close, there was no room
We bled inside each others wounds

We all had caught the same disease
And we all sang the songs of peace

Some came to sing, some came to pray
Some came to keep the dark away

So raise the candles high
Cause if you don’t we could stay
Black against the sky

Oh oh raise them higher again
And if you do we could stay dry against the rain

My girl and I finished the march late in the evening (actually early in the morning) and walked back to the church in the rain. We crawled, tired and wet, into our sleeping bag where we stayed until the afternoon. Then there were meetings about the mass march to take place the next day, scrounging for food (more burgers) and some time to think. We fell asleep wondering what the next day would bring. Would all the predictions of a massive turnout from across the country come true…or would it just be a small group of college kids once more protesting the war?

PART III

November 15, 1969 was a cold but brightly sunny day in Washington DC. Those of us in the basement of the church were up early. We breakfasted on donated instant coffee and trail mix we had put in our back packs. We headed out into the streets that were already filled with people heading as we were to march to the Washington Monument. As we filled the March route the street sides were line with volunteers all holding hands to keep the march contained and peaceful.

It was a day of smiles and peace signs. Everyone was there. Old people and babies in strollers. White, black, and brown. College kids in blue jeans and vets in worn khaki. It was a glorious day. The crowd swelled as we moved through the city. Later reports said somewhere between 250,000 and 500,000 people turned out that day. It was the largest gathering the country had ever seen. And with another 250,000 people marching in San Francisco, and thousands more around the country the BBC reported that over 2,000,000 Americans turned out that day to protest the war.

When we reached the elliptical park around the Monument there were speeches and songs. Mostly there was celebration. We had done it…we had shown the government and the world that the peace movement wasn’t a small group of radicals but was reflective of a great cross section of America. America wanted the war stopped. No More War! We threw our hands into the air in peace signs and cheered and cheered. We could not be ignored now.

At the end of the day my girl and I walked slowly back to the church to catch the bus that would take us back to Michigan. We were exhausted, but happy. At the church we laid on the floor holding each other, nearly asleep as we waited for our bus to be called. Then the gas hit us.

It seems the DC police had been in an exchange with a small group of violent protestors earlier in the day. After the arrests of those people the cops wanted a little more payback…on somebody. So they visited the church where peaceful protestors were staying and lobbed tear gas into the closed space. If you have never been tear gassed…it sucks. And stings. And hurts. Your eyes burn and swell and fill with tears. You can’t breathe and you cough violently to try and clear the burning gas from your throat and lungs.

We crawled along the floor and made our way out of the building. The church yard was filled with people suffering from the gas. The cops across the street leaned against their cars and smiled. Luckily no one was seriously hurt and the fresh air began to ease the effects of the gas. Not long after the bus came and we headed home.

We arrived in Ann Arbor around 3 in the morning. I slept at my girl’s place for a few hours and then hitchhiked back to my own school. I got to the campus early Sunday morning. As I walked to my dorm I was alone. The streets were deserted and everyone was still asleep. I stood in the middle of the little valley where the dormitories were and looked around at the peaceful scene. I wanted to shout “Wake-up! We did it. The war is going to stop! The war will be over soon!” But I didn’t. I just enjoyed the silence and the satisfaction of knowing that we…all of us …had done something special. There was no way the President could ignore this. He would have to end the war.

Six months later I would stand in the same spot. Only this time it would not be so peaceful. By then the President would have made his statement that he was not going to be influenced by protests as he expanded the war into Cambodia. In the ensuing demonstrations my mother’s nightmare would come true as troops would fire on unarmed students. The night after four students were slain at Kent State I would stand shoulder to shoulder with other students as we waited by a burning University bus to confront the lethally armed SWAT teams that were sweeping through campus towards us. But that was all in the future.

On that sunny Sunday morning in November of 1969 I really thought for one beautiful moment that we were going to give peace a chance.

POST SCRIPT

The war didn’t end in 1969. It would continue for another six years until the government finally gave up and pulled the troops out. But not before another 10,000 young Americans would die.

The March on Washington in November of 1969 was not my last protest march. It was the beginning of a commitment to a peace movement which I still today consider one of the better parts of my life. I am proud to have been among those who said “Stop the War.”

Today the Vietnam era peace movement is pretty much ignored or forgotten. Like the young soldiers who fought and died in Vietnam, those who spoke out against the war are an uncomfortable reminder of a past many prefer to forget. But in my opinion such denial of our past makes for a blind and dangerous future.

I’d like to finish this personal history by recalling one special moment that happened to me later in my life. Years after the war had ended and the US had left Vietnam, there was a much talked about television news show that examined the war both from the standpoint of the military and from the side of the peace protestors.

By the time it was broadcast in the late seventies I was already living in San Francisco. The evening this show aired I received a phone call from my mother. Mom made a few comments about watching the show and then strangely said “Would you like to talk to your Father?” Of course I said yes although I was a little puzzled. Dad was never much of conversationalist on the phone, preferring to let my mother speak for both of them.

Dad took the phone and said that he had just watched the show about Vietnam. I waited wondering what this was about. Then the old warrior, the former Paris Island drill instructor, the Purple Heart decorated Marine vet said, “You kids were right. About the war I mean. I wanted to tell you that.” And so for me, the war came to an end.

Posted by: Tony | July 20, 2009

Searching for Alan Watts

I remember reading once that some guru or monk or hustler of the ancient past set forth a plan for living the perfect life. He said the first third of one’s life should be for learning and studying; the second third should be for establishing one’s life with career, marriage and family; the final third should be dedicated to spiritual exploration. I didn’t set out to follow that plan, but looking back it now seems that timeline wasn’t far off for me.
Right on schedule, as I stumbled into middle age I found myself thinking less about the “things” in my life and more about larger matters…like, “what does it all mean?” …what’s life all about?… and “who’s in charge here?” Not having any answers, I figured it was a good time in my life to look for some. I decided to re-visit the interest in Zen Buddhism I first had as a college student. I figured I would start where I had left off then; with Alan Watts.

Green Gulch Valley, Alan Watts' final resting place

“He’s a pilgrim and a preacher and a problem when he’s stoned.” Kris Kristofferson said he wrote that line in the song “Pilgrim 33” about Johnny Cash. He could have as easily been talking about Alan Watts. Watts was indeed a pilgrim, a seeker of the big answers, of the truth. But his pilgrimage was a mixture of the serious and the humorous, the sacred and the frivolous. He embraced philosophies of east and west while living a life that was at once deeply spiritual and outrageously hedonistic. He was an Anglican Priest who found truth in Buddhism and Taoism. He lectured and wrote on the impermanence of “reality” while enjoying good food, great art, the companionship of attractive women and the taste of fine wine (the latter often to excess). He was a religious scholar who disdained academia and religion. He was a contradiction. He was a riddle. He was fun.

I first heard of him as a teenager during the 1960’s from a self taught Buddhist/Merchant Seaman/Heroin Addict known as “Big Mike”. Big Mike would alternate being stoned with episodes of trying to live out his belief that all life is reflected in all other lives. He would do things like leave his keys in the ignition when he parked his beat up old car. “Someone might need that car more than I do”, he would say. When I asked Mike where these ideas came from he answered “Alan Watts.” I went out and bought my first book by Watts. Truthfully, I didn’t understand then much of what he wrote, but I knew there was something there that spoke to me. I was just too young to grasp it, I guess.

I ran into Watts again one winter in the mid-seventies. While a student in Law School I delivered Sunday Morning Newspapers in a farming community to earn a little extra money. Each Sunday when few were awake a local University’s student run radio station played tapes of Watts’ lectures. It was their way of meeting the State’s requirement for religious broadcasting. I think Watts would have been delighted and amused at that. All that winter as I drove through beautiful snow covered lanes at sunrise, scattering the occasional herd of deer, Watts’ melodious English accent would fill the car with admonitions to simply “let go.”

I was fascinated by this strange man’s views and wanted to know more of whatever it was he was talking about. However, life got in the way and the great mysteries had to wait, at least until I grew a little older. So it was that in my late fifties, after thirty years of being a trial lawyer, after marriage, raising a son, divorce, marriage anew, losing parents and all the trappings, joys and sorrows of life, I once again picked up a book by Alan Watts and discovered his wonderful laughter at the hilarity of the cosmic game. Watts’ books started me down the path, or up the mountain if you will. His writings lead me to the poetry of his student and friend, Gary Snyder which in turn enriched my life and changed my vision. Together their writings took me to the lectures of Roshi Shunryu Suzuki, the founder of the San Francisco Zen Center.

Eventually Watts and company lead me right up to the front gate of the Green Gulch Zen Center in Northern California where I asked to meet with the Senior Dharma teacher, Reb Anderson. Here I was, almost sixty years old, and ready to be a student again. Tenshin Roshi, to use his Buddhist name and title, welcomed me in. Upon meeting him I told Roshi how I had arrived there. He smiled and noted I was not alone. Alan Watts, he said, had been a Dharma gate, a pathway, for many people. He said I was not the first and would not be the last to be inspired by Alan Watts.

As I started zen practice under Tenshin Roshi’s gentle guidance I continued to read books by and about Watts. It was then I discovered that after Watts died in his sleep at the incredibly young age of 58 his ashes were ceremoniously interred beneath a stone in the hills above Green Gulch. I decided then that I would find that grave to pay my respects, to honor a teacher I had never met, and to close the circle. However when I asked at the Zen Center no one remembered exactly where the ashes had been buried some 36 years before

I wrote to Mark Watts, Alan’s son who graciously gave me directions to find the path to his fathers’ resting place. Mark warned me that the trail was long unused and overgrown. He also invited me to visit the Alan Watts Center in Marin where some of his father’s ashes were also placed by the library. However I decided that I would first look for Alan Watts in the hills above the Zen Center where his writings had taken me.

The hills above Green Gulch valley

Sundays mornings are usually pretty busy at Green Gulch. It’s visitors’ day. A special meditation hour is scheduled at the more socially acceptable time of 9:00 a.m. as opposed to the regularly scheduled one at 5:30 a.m. for the residents. Afterwards a lecture is offered along with tea and a makeshift Farmer’s market where guests can buy organic veggies grown on the Center’s farm. On this particular day the Center’s parking lot was full as Tenshin Roshi was giving the lecture. The much beloved Reb draws quite a crowd as many folks, whether they are Buddhists or not, come to hear him speak of universal love and compassion.

Or maybe they just come to hear his a cappella singing. Roshi began singing at his lectures in response to a student’s comment that Zen ceremonies didn’t have music like other religions. However instead of Buddhist chants, visitors are treated to the sight of a priest with shaved head and flowing robes seated lotus style and singing 40’s and 50’s standards which he thinks match the points of his lecture. The chosen tune that day was “Let’s face the Music and Dance” by Irving Berlin. Roshi’s songs never fail to bring a smile.

By early afternoon, things had quieted down in the valley. The guests were mostly gone, the parking lot empty. The great bronze Green Dragon Temple Bell used to call people to meditation in the morning swung silently in the breeze. On this particular Sunday even the fog, which blanketed the valley in early morning had retreated out to sea. It was on this tranquil summer day that I went searching for Alan Watts.

The Green Dragon Temple Bell at the Green Gulch Zen Center

The path leading up into the hills surrounding the Green Gulch Valley didn’t look too imposing when standing in the Zen Center parking lot. (They never do at the beginning). But as I walked a few feet up the worn dirt trail and into the surrounding brush I quickly realized this would not be as easy as I thought. Stems of poison oak plants, weighted by heavy clusters of leaves crisscrossed over the trail. Low hanging branches of small trees whipped at my face as large bushes of thorn covered weeds poked through my clothes. The growth was so thick in places it created a green wall that I had to push through. If this was indeed the way to Alan Watt’s final resting place, he had not had any visitors in quite a while.

I kept climbing and when I encountered brief openings in the brush I could catch glimpses of a panoramic view around me. There were no houses or roads to be seen; only the golden grass of the hills mixed with the green shadows of the bushes and trees which grew around them. As the trail’s incline sharpened, the dirt beneath my feet became less solid and occasionally would crumble and move, carrying me back a foot or two, or even sending me falling to the ground in some undignified pile. Finally when it seemed I could get no sweatier or dirtier, the trail leveled off and came to a small clearing where the shadow of a giant and ancient tree had kept the grasses and weeds from growing very tall.

As I surveyed the area from beneath the tree I saw up the hill a cluster of boulders and rocks that I thought might be the place described to me as where Watts’ ashes had been buried. I tried to get closer but the ground kept giving way and I would slide on the accumulated dead vegetation and loose soil, grabbing at branches and roots to keep from rolling down hill. I circled around looking for some marker or sign that this was indeed Watt’s grave, but I could see nothing. The rocks were overgrown with vegetation, buried beneath fallen leaves and covered with thick furry green blankets of moss. I felt great disappointment. I had come looking for Alan Watts and now was left wondering if he was even here. It seemed my journey was in vain.

The Alan Watts Tree

Tired from the hike I decided to stay awhile in the shadow of the nearby tree that dominated the small clearing. Many years before this giant had divided near its base, perhaps splitting under its own weight. Now it seemed to grow in every direction. Buddhists refer to the “ten directions” of all existence, being the four major directions of the compass along with four intermediate compass directions, as well as up and down. This tree seemed to encompass that idea. I climbed into the crotch of the trunk where it separated into many branches and settled myself comfortably. On one side was the little clearing and on the other the tree stretched out over a gulley far below which had been carved out of the hill by a stream which even in mid-summer trickled over the rocks.

I had brought some books with me and took them out of my pack. I had intended to read them at Watts’ graveside, and thought now “Why not?” I began to read aloud to the silent forest.

First was “For Alan Watts on his Death” by Gary Snyder:

He blazed out a new path for all of us
And came back and made it clear.
Explored the side canyons and deer trails
And investigated cliffs and thickets.
Many guides would have us travel
Single file, like mules in a pack-train;
And never leave the trail.
Alan taught us to move forward like the breeze;
Tasting the berries-greeting the bluejays-
Learning and loving the whole terrain.

I then read the hauntingly beautiful words of Buddhism’s “Diamond Sutra” which ends with:

“Thus shall you think of all this fleeting world:
A star at dawn, a bubble in a stream,
A flash of lightning in a summer cloud,
A flickering lamp, a phantom, and a dream.”

Finally I read some of Watts’ own words:

The point is to know, beyond any shadow of a doubt, that “I” and all other “things” now present will vanish, until this knowledge compels you to release them — to know it now as surely as if you had just fallen off the rim of the Grand Canyon. Indeed, you were kicked off the edge of a precipice when you were born, and it’s no help clinging to the rocks falling with you. And then comes the hitherto unbelievable surprise: you don’t die because you were never born. You had just forgotten who you are.

When I finished the readings I sat thinking. At first I wondered again where Watts might be. Was he hidden beneath those rocks? Then I wondered about how late it was getting and whether or not the scratches on my hands and face might be poison oak. I thought about how hungry I was. How my back hurt from the climb. But after a while, the afternoon seemed to take control. The silence of no people and no traffic, which was a bit unnerving at first, gave way to a warm hum that mixed the buzz of insects, the rustle of leaves, the scraping of branches and the drip drop of the creek’s water on stones. I watched the flickering shadows as sunlight tried to pierce the constantly moving canopy overhead. When I looked up the sun seemed to be divided like a night sky of stars as the dark shuttering leaves offered pinprick moments of light between them.

I felt the heat of the summer afternoon and the brush of breezes which blew up the hillside from the valley below. Flies, gnats, and mosquitoes buzzed around me and a trail of black ants, determined in their path, walked the tree trunk next to me. Below me, on the mud of the shrinking creek bed, wasps touched down to drink and carry away building material. Birds called and flew among the swaying limbs of the trees.. Even the darkness of the deeper brush seemed alive. As I sat quietly a doe stepped out of a shadow to stop briefly in the sunlight before fixing me with a dark eye and leaping into a new hiding place. After a while it became impossible to see where one creature’s movement ended and another’s began. Everything moved together. I stayed there for a long time.

Eventually as the afternoon grew to a close I climbed down from my perch. I had brought a small bouquet of white flowers with me which I then placed on an old fence post wrapped in rusting barbed wire. Placing my hands in gassho position as I had learned at the Zen Center I bowed low, to the tree, the hill, the valley, the sky, Watts, me and you.

Then I headed back down the hill content that I had found Alan Watts after all.

Searching For the Hermit In Vain
~Chia Tao (777-841)


I asked the boy beneath the pines
He said, “The master’s gone alone
Herb-picking somewhere on the mount,
Cloud-hidden, whereabouts unknown.”

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