The Inner Life

Over on Facebook (what some might call the absolute antithesis of cultivating an authentic or inner life) I am part of several groups discussing Buddhism, or, more precisely,  Jodo Shinshu (affectionately known as Shin) and other Pure Land sects. This is partly because I am a Shin priest, and in large part because I gravitated towards Buddhism as a 13 year old with an already keenly felt inner life of awe and wonder about the Cosmos and my place in it. I chose Shin, after more than 20 years in Zen and half a dozen in Tibetan Vajrayana because I was exhausted with striving and found a home of acceptance in a sect I´d first encountered as an enthusiastic Zen practitioner at his first major Zen event–a couple of 7 day sesshins and a month long course at Cornell University in 1982 under the aegis of Joshu Sasaki Roshi, now 107 years old and a major figure in the transmission of Rinzai Zen to the West.

The course was called the “Summer Seminar on the Sutras” and was a life-changing period for me, cementing me to the strict Zen practice, and mind-set, of Sasaki-Roshi´s Rinzai lineage. But there was one scholar whose gentle mien and deep faith left an odd impression on me, Prof. Taitetsu Unno, himself a Shin priest (and father of Shin priest and scholar, Mark Unno who roomed with me that month). I didn´t “get” it then but I kept my notes and his handouts and looking at them later saw why it was that I felt so oddly struck by the teachings. Still, I felt I needed to “reject” them outright as the other Power teachings seemed ostensibly too much like some Judeo-Christian God.

Behind it all that was an authenticity and a sincerity which irritated me. It felt more genuine than much of the Zennist directness and egoic spiritual ambition I saw around me. In these Shin teachings I saw a Buddhism so humanly genuine, so radically without pretense and yet so undeniably Buddhistic that it upended views which I felt I had to adopt in order to be a good Zen student.  I imagine that such sentiments also influenced my friends on FB in their choice of Shin but now that I have gotten older and have seen a bit more of Life (and Buddhism) I am finding a new dimension to spirituality which I wish to talk a bit about here.

The groups.

I have left some of these groups. Deliberately. Why? Because the hair-pin turns of the phrase and the frequent angels on the head of a pin-type discussions seem to mask several disturbing facets which go unrecognized (and even unacknowledged) among so many ostensibly “religious people”. That is, the very human urge to belong sometimes pushes us towards identifying with a group before we have fully developed as an individual. And perhaps nowhere is this more sharply seen than in the religious life.

I have watched as new converts jump into the fray with the enthusiasm of those Good News preachers they rejected before, substituting one form of maniacal certainty for another. Or others who were born into the faith and can see neither the universal application of the teachings nor can they envision a path without the cultural trappings which trap them into a locked box from which they feel no need to open. Many are sincere, but others lack … depth, a full-on connection not to the teachings or the vestments, the images or the trappings, but they lack an innerness which reveals the Light in their eyes as not something they find resonance with, but something they possess intrinsically and whose luminosity exudes from within and utilizes their faith as its vehicle.

But no life is a spiritual one without that “inner-ness”: the deeply felt and experienced depth of Being which we only then overlay with names and religious concepts. A deeply cultivated inner life need have no religious orientation nor identifiable or claimed spiritual preference. It need not belong to a congregation of like-minded believers nor does it require creeds or doctrines.

It is the poetic movement of the heart towards Meaning.

To paraphrase someone whose name escapes me now but whose observation is entirely within my own personal experience, I have met many priests and monks who have no inner life, at all. They went into their “profession” simply as jobs or to meet familial expectations, on a whim and then decided to stay, out of egoic need for love and respect, out of minor delusions of grandeur, or of not-so-minor delusions of that kind, out of boredom, and out of a desire to help others and seeing the religious life as the best way to do that. But they lack that inner life I refer to and when pressed, some will acknowledge their doubts and fears or basically proclaim their own thin life, devoid of spiritual depth or feeling, displaying it with their empty gestures of grandiose magnanimity. Some just stare blankly when asked about such “inner” motivations.

Gurdjieff once said, in effect, “If you want to lose your faith, hang out with a priest” and I now fully understand what he meant.  But it´s everywhere–in every religion, in all forms of spirituality. Many of us know the type: either decent but superficial fools with no sense of inner depth, or officious, condescending, imperious, self-righteous, but well-protected behind their clerical collar types, the minister´s fake bonhomie, the imam´s fatuous proclamations, the nun´s bitter severity, or the guru´s holier-than-God over-smile.

I´ve seen them all.

And yet, there remain those for whom the yearning came first, the pull of … well, something, that Great Something, which many of them still had no formal designation for and even when settling comfortably upon a language of faith — perhaps their own home faith or something they felt “just right” to later adopt as their own, there is still that something which came before.

The truly spiritual life has no name. The spiritual calling has no limits. The inner life is personal and not a part of any system.

But we are part of systems.

Many of us are born within cultural religious trappings that envelop us in every part of our lives and embrace these as our own. Others have the opposite-they are born fighting the listless air of faith which chokes their inner life and they dig deep to find the authentic source, often paying a heavy price for it. Still others move about their lives and find one day that their wonder is bigger and far more powerful than their answers and, cultivating that, they travel paths never dreamed of before. But either way, we are surrounded by systems of thinking and feeling, of doing and being, cultural, linguistic, national, ethnic, racial, political and economic in which we struggle, we swim facilely or we alternately struggle and successfully navigate.

I think Rumi understood it (though I find him the world´s most overrated poet in translation, his spiritual ruminations are splendid.). George Fox understood it. Hildegard of Bingen, as well. Shinran and Honen both understood it. Thoreau and Emerson, too. Whitman got it (boy did he get it!) and even many established members of religious orders too are able to cut through the administrative b.s. or the ecclesiastically theological red-tape and tap into a genuinely inner spiritual depth which shines and attracts others, such as Thomas Merton. Many utilize their deep inner life as a way to widen the net of Compassion and, as they do this, they see clearly the world´s inequalities and fight tooth and nail to change it. Dorothy Day is one example here, Martin Luther King, Jr., another, as well as Thich Nhat Hanh. They may have had their doubts, or moments of failure and fear, and were sometimes hesitant to challenge the institutions they belonged to. But they were so tightly linked to that inner life which is antecedent to formal affiliation with any faith that they brought it up and through the channel of their faith poured their inner selves out into the world.

One could argue that the very molding of this inner life was, in fact, modeled after the already installed set of concepts they´d been exposed to, and this too retains some truth, I suspect. But when we read their writings, we see very often glimpses of a fight, a struggle going on within them which, upon further inspection, appears to expose limits or conflicts with their faith and a need to follow instead their own “drummer”, apparently heard more deeply than the preset limits their religions draw. It is this element, an inner response to an inner call which is the essence of what is best about spirituality and without which, the spiritual life is but empty formalism and rote behavior sets.

Our world quakes with tremors of pain in every realm: geographical, ecological, environmental, etc. We face enormous challenges everywhere we look. But for me, solace can be tapped into and occasionally found and even sustained when I retreat into those inner depths from which later erupt at times, lava fields of creativity and the out-pouring of Compassion for a world in pain.

Let´s reach into that place, all of us, into the ultimate well-spring of Being, and try our best to bring up decency and kindness, understanding and wisdom. And then, no matter what we face, let´s utilize the restored depth for the benefit of the generations to come. To do anything else, would be to waste the gift we of all animals uniquely possess: consciences.

And then let´s let the Angels determine how many can dance on pin heads.



Two people I know now have recently become grandparents. Peers, my age. I am not sure I ever envisioned this, but my generation is of that age when our kids are beginning to have kids of their own. And Life goes on…Hitting one´s peak, job security, bills and debts to pay, ceremonies to attend, and as one generation comes in, another moves further up the pews until finally, we become the venerated object of attention in the box up front.
It all moves with little pause.

Time appears to not reflect too much upon its own lumbering weight.

And yet…no distress. It´s OK.
It is as it is, moving irretrievably towards its end, all quite predictable, all quite in the nature of things.

I remember being a child, I remember events and flashes of searing pain or ecstatic joy. I remember, too, the awkwardness potential of adolescence and the bright power of my own glory days.

I remember as well, smaller lights, flickers of Eternity in the tiniest gesture or ill-considered impetuousness of acting out stupidly for one reason or another.

I remember hitting 30 and a cake wheeled in front of an audience in Los Angeles I was trying to impress with my intensity and organizing skill burst into warm applause as I seethed within at the break of protocol, wishing to hide and yearning instead only to be taken seriously. So seriously I forgot to appreciate the kind gesture given me on that momentous occasion.

I remember 40 and the two too-many glasses of port hiding some deep down knowledge that the trajectory of my life had turned a corner whose momentum I couldn´t stop and knowing far inside that it would not be good.

And 50? Meh…

49 was more “significant” for an old student of cosmologically meaningful number sequences.
7 x 7.
That was cool.

I climbed a mountain that day, ate and hiked well in good company and faced a future in a foreign land as an exile where I still remain, now contemplating cultural resonances sent to me from afar, reminding me of a belonging I need only return to in order to partake of.

And now they are having grandkids around me.
And I am happy for them.

As it goes on and on and on…

SEX SYMPHONY (For National Poetry Month)



A blaze of
riotous fireworks of tones,
sound bubbles and drowned out whispers
Sing! Vocal musings too tying
string locked atonals, fractured
belly-flopping, slip-wet,
drip down sad blue notes and meandered
flat steps- lightly down, more, more there,
more horns, warm through
delicate viola hands wet on back- wet
in front-down there-
slip-wet, slip-wet
belly-flopping tuba, bass, ah!
rising little piccolo screams burst
strings and hold, oh! oh! oh!

How without conducting baton
the song ends on open treble moans
and dual sky-clad characters
becoming a monad of minor-keyed aches
and muted ahs!