ZEN & THE ART OF OUZO: REMEMBERING LEONARD COHEN

33 years ago, early in the summer of 1983, I participated in my first Zen retreat followed by a Buddhist conference, a full-on academic immersion in Buddhist studies which for me had, up until then, been primarily confined to a few undergraduate East Asian Studies/Buddhism classes, and independent study courses with just one teacher at Eckerd College in St. Petersburg, Florida. I was 24 and a bit of an odd type: a Puertorican who liked to wear Salvation Army coats with t-shirts underneath, with a silver hoop earring, and a proselytizing propensity for punk who also wanted to be a Buddhist scholar-priest.

I saw a poster in said professor´s office for a Summer Seminar on the Sutras to be held at his undergraduate alma mater, Cornell University, for the month of June. This was to be both preceded and followed by seven day intensive Zen meditation retreats called sesshin, led by Joshu Sasaki Roshi, then in his 70s and a pioneer in the bringing of Zen to the US. His retreats were known as the real deal, strict, no nonsense, austere affairs where discipline was tight and a passionate desire for satori, or an experience of awakening, to be one´s only focus. I was beside myself with excitement. For about 10 years, I had called myself a Buddhist and had practiced meditation as best as I could given the Miami limitations of no teacher and no community and no one sharing my interest. This was my time!

Sasaki Roshi´s  7 day Zen sesshin were grueling affairs, beginning at 3am and lasting till 9pm, sometimes later where about 11-14 hours a day are spent on one’s meditation cushion (or, as in my case, seiza bench as my knees were not yet able to bend yogically). The rest of the time was divided into walking meditation, meals, tea times, teisho or formal talks by Sasaki Roshi, chanting from one´s seat, and cleaning duty, all interspersed with 5 terrifying face-to-face sanzen periods where one sits facing the Roshi and presents one´s koan to then be prompted to answer it. And of course, a few hours of sleep and “free” time where we could run to our rooms, lay our heads down and, maybe 10 minutes later, be roughly awakened by wooden clappers signalling the start of the next period. Even the characters used to describe it 攝心 are made of compounds including a hand and 3 ears + heart-mind, suggesting a deep, internal practice of listening to one´s deepest nature. Sesshin were not for the faint of heart.

Lack of sleep, lack of movement, and lack of aspirin all conspired to make me a simpering wreck by the time it had ended but I felt changed and more formally committed to my practice than ever before. I was also set on my desire to become a Buddhist scholar as well, given the remarkable exposure and access to big names during that month. Luminaries in the field of religious or Buddhist studies such as Huston Smith, Taitetsu Unno, Alan Sponberg, Raoul Birnbaum, Tamura Yoshiro and others were to give structured talks each day. For those of us taking the month long seminar for academic credit, essay questions were to be answered and copious amounts of notes were taken. Many of us were university students in the field of East Asian studies or just curious kids interested in something different. One of my roommates was Prof. Unno´s son, Mark Unno, with whom I became friends.

After the sesshin, couches were moved, tables shifted and while the meditation hall stayed open, it was made smaller to facilitate the return of its original fraternity house atmosphere, complete with pool table and the ubiquitous guitars. People who hadn´t spoken a word to each other in a week were hugging and kissing like old friends as the buses or taxis came to take some home. New arrivals, a more “normal” crowd, also began arriving. The seminar began the next day and for 3 weeks we were treated to deep and profound lectures on Buddhist philosophy, from experts in different schools of Buddhism including Jodo Shinshu, Tendai, and Shingon. The days began with Roshi too giving lectures on his own Zen school of Rinzai which he called Busshin-shu (Buddha-Mind School). At night other, more informal talks continued as after dinner groups gathered to share experiences of the sesshin and notes as to how successfully we had solved, or not solved, our koans. Various clumps of people befriended each other and flitted about. There were long walks along the gorges, trips to local lakes after late night sweat lodges, and plenty of pot smoke and bongs discreetly enjoyed. All in all it was a was a mixed group of interested frat boys, old hippies, experienced Zen students, old Zen monks, young Zen monks, Europeans, Canadians and the usual assortment of Americans from every State including even Puerto Rico.

I met Leonard shortly after the sesshin was over, one afternoon at the beginning of the seminar. He was 49 or 50. A handsome, bushy haired man who looked to me like a Jewish Al Pacino, he had sat a few feet to my left in the zendo during sesshin where we all remained mindfully waiting for Enlightenment, our one koan solution, or for our knees to explode. (In my case, the aches were so bad, there were whole hours where I played Elvis Costello´s “Get Happy” from side 1 to side 2 over and over again in my head just to keep from crying.) I was told he was a “songwriter” but I´d never heard of him and honestly, I wasn´t impressed; gloomy folk songs are what they sounded like to me when he played some for the fans who´d gathered around him and requested something from him. I found his voice was too low and I felt the songs depressingly plodding. Of course, at the time I was listening to The Clash, The Jam, and Gang of Four so my tastes were a bit more, “charged”, let us say.

One night, after plenty of cigarettes and stories, a few of us made a liquor run as some of the professors were hanging out with us. We bought saké for Prof´s Unno and Tamura and enjoyed the opportunity to further pick their brains about topics the more serious students of Buddhism were eager to explore. Beer and whiskey and lots of pool sufficed for the rest. I believe it was the next night when, gathered on one of the well-worn couches, Leonard arrived among my little group. One of the girls was telling me how famous he was and I happily showed her my disinterest. “Look, I just sat sesshin with the guy, that´s alI I know,” I said. Leonard heard this and smiled, though afterwards she asked him to play a little music on guitar because she was sure I had heard something of his (I hadn´t. Honestly.) “You never heard that one?” She asked with barely disguised irritation. “Nope” I shook my head. She looked embarrassed. He finally gave up. Miffed it appeared to me, but not so much as to prevent us talking. He asked me where I was from and we talked about New York City and Miami, the drug scene down there, my family´s Puertorican background, crime, and of course, our favorite subject, Zen and our shared teacher, Sasaki Roshi.

Gradually he warmed up to me and we began talking about places in the world he liked. I liked his stories. They were rich with detail and he seemed to catch glimpses of people and places that other travelers might miss. I told him I intended on spending my senior year in Japan later that summer, that I was studying Japanese and that I´d wanted to go ever since my father, a WW2 vet, had told me of his experiences there. He asked if I intended to become a monk and I said I was considering it. “Hmm… Have you ever been to Greece?” he then asked me. “No, but I have a good friend from there and I hope to go sometime” I said and he then told stories about its women, its beauty, it´s beautiful women, and of the brilliant sun. He mentioned retsina, Metaxa, and ouzo and I said I´d never had any of them. “Never?” he asked, raising an eyebrow. “No, honestly, never”, I said. Sensing an opening to repair the slight of not being impressed with his gifts, this prompted me to arrange a trip to the local liquor store where I bought a bottle of Ouzo. Returning to the table with the bottle and a couple of glasses, I watched as he carefully poured “3 fingers full” of ouzo and then added a little cold water in, stirring it up until it became milky white, then dropped a few ice cubes. “Try this” he said, handing me the glass. It was lovely! I savored its anise-type flavor and for the next few hours we just kept drinking and mixing, sharing stories about life and the world, the perils of women and the arduousness of Zen (or maybe it was the arduousness of women and the perils of Zen?). We killed the bottle and he managed to accept another request to do a song or two. The friends who´d gathered around applauded. It was nice.

I tried not to show it but, unfortunately, I still wasn´t impressed. Leonard looked at my face and nodded slightly. That´s alright, he seemed to say, We´re good.

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CHARNEL GROUNDS

CHARNEL GROUNDS

From their cold, studied perspective above
The wind holds, and squinty eyes capture the choicest with god-cruel clarity:
A concentration of nimble lines, off-white, some round, some bloodied, all ready.

Below, broken fragments, wheels with histories, stories of bravery,
Unrecognizable vehicles, sagas of the grand and the sad together,
Put together, handed down pieces for the weavers of words
To recall later on, stringing it all together
Long after the cleaning.

On the eighth day, the sun began to sing
Invitations to the unholy feast
Carried by the foul air,
To the far mountain corners where
Leaping forward, driven and driving,
Cutting the air with warlike shrieks of celebration
They descended.

Glory and death, brown, dust-grey shrouds,
Boots solidly on the ground waiting,
The ancient timekeepers – the sands –
And the wind which forever blew the
Cries of the wounded and dying
To the eternal distant mountains
Or swelling seas, who watched with impassive certainty
The regular goings on of each generation.

Wherever they begin, they end the same:
The hills of Afghanistan,
The sands of Pacific islands,
The corners in Paris,
The jungles of the Congo,
The streets of Stalingrad,
The dry mountains of Chile,
The sewers of Warsaw,
The flat lands of Iraq,
The fields of the Dakotas,
The gardens of Babylon,
The same.

The many tales recorded,
Told though the tongues of
The men who weren´t there, savored by the sons who shouldn´t,
Are all kept firmly in memory by the hungry birds,
Returning to somber hillsides,
The plains, and the streets,
Year after dying year.

HOW THE LIGHT WILL COME BACK

HOW THE LIGHT WILL COME BACK

Neither hyperventilating about mansplainers
nor decrying embittered smug putzes
will move me from my illicit happiness,
drawn across my eyes, carved deep into my character,
set and ready for the fights up ahead,
because I know we will win-
upsetting our rulers and unruly both,
whose own joys have become
crusts at the edges of their hate,
ephemeral glimpses of “greatness”
lying near the feet of dead brown people
once drawn here to build up
while they tore down the last vestiges
of our American civilization.

We´ll make no excuses:
resolving to upset the entirety of it,
until it falls and shatters
littering our streets with glittery shards
we will then use to decorate the new structures,
sparkling the old hate outward-
drawing the light back in.

America, It´s Over

There is little doubt that, come Nov. 9, a fractured USA will plod on with one of two of the most disliked politicians in recent memory to try for the White House in place as President. Should Trump win, an astounding transformation will have taken place. A blustering, lying bigot will have ridden a wave of White discontent into a sea of political and cultural disenchantment and who will immediately face widespread opprobrium at home and abroad. His supporters, many proto-fascist and proud of it, will celebrate appropriately. How that ends, no one can predict, but opposition will be fierce and quite possibly ugly.

If Clinton wins, all kinds of stories will be created including that of that an intelligent, ambitious woman so resentful of her philandering former President husband that she took to politics to redeem herself and her gender and finally broke the Great Glass Ceiling. Such myth-making hogwash will grow even worse as apologists unite behind her warmongering ways while the streets are stocked with military-suited police forces dampening dissension. However, the opposition to her will probably be large as well, with armed right-wingers screaming about impeachment on one side, and the scattered remnants of Bernie Sanders´ voters fighting vainly to keep her honest from the other side.

I do not need to remind anyone that Presidential politics has hit new lows and it is this which has finally tipped my hand. The same pattern repeats itself every four years with some Troglodyte on one side threatening the end of Western civilization, facing a minor Trog from the “other side” for whom we must pinch our noses and select as the “lesser of two evils” or else the sky will fall and endless wars, social cutbacks, and ever more restrictions on our rights will follow. I am old enough to have figured this one out. And I´m not invested in it anymore.

It will be a mess either way.

For a third of my life I have lived away from the US, first in Japan and now in Iceland. Feeling more like an exile than an ex-pat, my connection to the US gets slenderer with each passing year and honestly, this is fine by me. I am no longer someone who abstractly speaks about being a “world citizen”, I now feel like one. Nevertheless, given the nature of nation-states, I must retain a passport for travel and thus, to which state I “belong” becomes an important issue. Now that the election is over, I feel it´s time for me to make a decision. This coming year I will be seeking citizenship here where I live, in Iceland.

The fact is, America, it´s over. I´m letting you go.

The signs were long in coming.

For years I have not cared about USAmerican cultural spectacles like “Super Bowls” and, when relatives this past January said they were staying in rooting for their team that weekend, I asked them “Why?”, not knowing it was the weekend of that over-sized spectacle. It´s only my children who keep me aware of the latest music styles, honestly, I couldn´t identify but one song of Lady Gaga and the so-called World (sic) Series makes little sense to me since Cuban, Japanese,  or other teams out here in the world don´t play.

Having never seen the Kardashians or heard them speak (I am fortunate, though I have seen pics) I can´t imagine their cultural significance. I know little of “vines” and understand “memes” as FB items only casually. I´ve never seen an episode of Game of Thrones, or an episode of 40 Rock, and Jane the Virgin is something I know about only because of my connections to Latino academics and writers who pen articles happy to see some Latino/a face so publicly (and “Latin/x” puzzles to no end).

But those silly cultural trends are small, and not the biggest part of my decision.

Other trends I am quite up on and they are a bigger part of my story. I know about the near daily police killings–I watch with stomach-churning anxiety every police video released and all the compendiums made into repeated memes. Beatings of Occupy activists and before that, “free-speech zones” first got my attention that something was going terribly wrong, that this place I had left had already changed beyond recognition. We see maybe the most exciting and possibly important protest movement in years, the Standing Rock, No Dakota Access Pipeline protests winning hearts and minds around the world but losing (again) the “war” as few expect the fracking, the consequent earthquakes, and the misery caused by our addiction to non-renewable and non-clean energy sources to be abandoned under either a Trump or Clinton administration.

As Henry Giroux recently said, “War has taken on an existential quality in that we are not simply at war; rather, as Étienne Balibar insists, “we are in war,” inhabiting a war culture that touches every aspect of society.” I think that´s right. The divisiveness and antagonisms between citizens of the same country erupt periodically in race explosions (over the murders of Blacks by police) and an atmosphere of low-level violence exists in even the most banal of political discourses. I didn´t feel comfortable when I left and I feel even less comfortable looking at it now. It truly is “a war culture”.

When I left for Japan I was 23, when I came here to Iceland I was 42 and in the intervening years I´d already witnessed a gradual coarsening of politics, an undercurrent rising of anger and hate. As I softened, partly by absorbing Japanese politeness and quiet, and partly feeling tempered by exposure to other cultures, the US became angrier, crueler, and more insulated. Reagan was President when I first left and the jingoism and willful blindness of his oligarchic entourage seemed to give everyone on the street permission to begin openly hating gays (who were dying from some mysterious disease at the time), “welfare queens” (many of us understood what that really meant – Blacks) and Grenada and Nicaragua and tough talk seemed to bring out the foolish imperialist in the average person on the street no matter what the facts were. Bluster became the rage on marginal TV stations, first Morton Downey, Jr., then gradually the “shock jocks” (including Trump´s BFF Howard Stern) were getting airtime all over the places I visited when I´d come back to the States. Then they became regular commentators and their ilk filled network television, many becoming guests and consultants on network news and on this new network, Fox. That bluster helped build Trump, and his possible election as US President tomorrow may be the historically inevitable result. Certainly, his ascension as putative working class champion and Man-Who-Will-Deliver, the US´s own American caudillo, is a result of all these trends. By the time I came to Iceland, Bush the First was President and there was Sept. 11 and the end was plainly in sight.

It´s become too much for me. The US, as a country where nearly 80% of the people believe in angels but barely half accept that climate change is real, is a country moving backwards, not forward. And in the little time remaining in my life, I want to live in a place where people move forward, peacefully, with their ambitions sincere and their lives openly and proudly connected to the larger world. I don´t feel that bragging about how great you are is the appropriate default position to take publicly, when millions remain poor, disenfranchised, and bitter about being politically powerless while fearful of immigrants seeking better for their lives. It´s too painful. There has been a growing gap between US culture and myself, that combustible mixture of easy access to guns and little access to reason and comradeship. I don´t like the low level daily violence, the anger, the resentment, the defensiveness, the loudness, the commercialization of everything, the fake news, the phony “issues” and the willfully insular perspective. I also don´t like the macho posturing that is part of everything, leading to so-called open carry laws allowing guns in churches, schools, and bars. That is a madness people outside the US see with a clarity that is as sharp as it is obscured by the violent defense of it in the US. You can keep it. It ain´t me.

So, simply put, unless it´s to visit family or a friend, I´m not going back. Ever. And I cannot conceive of any reason to ever live there again. The US has lost me. We´ve grown apart and it´s time to officially call it quits. I don´t feel “at home” there and I do not identify with it anymore. There are tons of people I admire there, many more I love and wish to see again. But overall, the US has become “that” country, a place of constant anger and bitterness, open racism, and a dangerous, infantile denial of reality, whether that´s the urgency of climate change or the need for less war and military intervention.

America, it´s over.

I´m a part of the bigger world now; even while living in Iceland, a small, isolated rock in the north Atlantic, I feel more connected to the rest of humanity- and more influenced by and more liable to be influenced by the world and its peoples than I ever felt in the US.

I´m sorry. It´s over, America. I´m tired and need a smaller, happier, safer life with people who feel a part of their world. With what time I have left of my life, I want to help make a difference in a place where that´s actually possible. Where the smallness of the country belies a greater connection to the larger world outside. Where despite differences, people appreciate resolving them non-violently, talking instead of yelling, seeking compromise and consensus instead of conflict and contention. There are no utopias out there and Iceland has much I am dissatisfied about (long winter darkness among them). But it´s been home for a number of years and I am comfortable here in ways I never was anywhere in the States. As I said, I´ll visit my family and friends when it is possible. But I´m not ever going to live in the US again. That´s finished.

José M. Tirado is a Puertorican poet, Buddhist priest, and political writer living in Hafnarfjorður, Iceland, known for its elves, “hidden people” and lava fields. His articles and poetry have been featured in CounterPunch, Cyrano´s Journal, The Galway Review, Dissident Voice, La Respuesta, Op-Ed News, among others. He can be reached at tirado.jm@gmail.com.

WHAT WE KNOW & REJECT TO CONSIDER

/Some wondered/
/Pondered/
/Those half-assed attempts to make/
/This world, the next one./

/Some attempts were not so/
/Half-assed, though:/
/War, and more war, poverty and repression/
/All were fine weapons./

/To report differently is/
/To lie./

/The powers of the world always/
/Fall/
/Into the hands/
/Of the powerful./

/We know this./

/What wondrous power/
/Lies dormant,/
/Asleep, now/
/While the structures for/
/Our cages/
/Are built by incompetents?/

/In the interim, there are always/
/Keyboard clicks./
/Tapped by the/
/Incomprehensibly insolvent./

THE FUEL WE LIVE ON, THE MASTER WE LISTEN TO

We move on fear-
Fueled and far-ranging, we
Traverse roads and groves
Of living
On fear.
Our anatomy is wired for this.

Our development, a work in progress,
Glued together by fear.
Our wealth is held by fear.
Our strengths,
Our weaknesses, too.

In the fire of our days
We feed the rising flames
With fear-
A discovery our poor
Selves take to heart,
Depressing our souls,
Inhibiting any journey where
We should otherwise partner with
Hope,
That other, oft-cited master.