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.

Advertisements

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.

The (Re)Discovery of the Present

It was not particularly special but again, something was very different. The light in the room  made the peripheral things glow with a trembling brightness that felt different. The weight of my body in the chair was different. The waves of sound and the eyes´ glittering movements of focus and unfocus too seemed different.

It was different.

Every breath was followed, in and out, with the usual attentiveness I give to this, my daily practice, but today a bond was revealed. There existed a quiet merging of the me that was breathing, and the objects around me which were neither overly focused upon nor ignored. As is the practice, they were allowed to be–arise, sustain, and fall, as all conditioned things behave, but now, the me that was following the breath had entered a newer space. A space of quiet and focus, for sure, but also a space of profound unity. The sounds still rang in my ears: the sliding slam of the van door in the parking lot behind me, the people walking and talking about their new classes, the occasional car in the distance, and the crinkly sound of feet on wet pavement, some hurrying, others more plodding all came in and went of their own accord. The thoughts? They too were there, as always, popping up in their constant, often irritating way, but I have long learned to allow them their roaming space and they will eventually, if all goes well, go on their merry way while I bring my attention to the ever flowing breath. In and out, in and out. I ride the breaths with focused but relaxed attention, feeling the in breath as it automatically charges its way into my belly, then subtly slowing down the exhale, ever-so-slightly, I stay carefully “on” the out breath, “riding” it to its end at the bottom of my belly and watch the magical transition from out-breath to in-breath occur, bringing oxygen-infused new blood throughout my body in a process repeated thousands of times daily which I otherwise never notice. But which keeps me alive.

But now my attention was luminous. The act of focusing and the focused object (the breaths) were woven together. It all became effortess. The light in the room and my bodily sensations were indistinguishable. Time was forgotten and instead I was bound to the moment in its ever-changing movement from “this” moment to “that” moment, fully focused, awake, hearing the same things, being the same man I was earlier and yet, it was complete in a way I have felt only a few times in my life. My absorption rested on no premise nor theoretical presumption and it allowed itself to be experienced without any contrivance of mine.

I had discovered, or, better still, rediscovered the Present. It was full and complete, it was even and undisturbed, it was present and filled with Presence and yet it was completely ordinary and apparently accessible to me all the time. But this time, I “caught” it. I caught it in the act of being there, in its ubiquitous nature, like a snapshot – this is why I say it was “luminous”, it was as if an interior light was suddenly turned on to reveal an Eternality in the moment, and I remained still and  concentrated, but now I was filled with a joy. A joy without a self to enjoy it. This was “bliss” for sure. It was neither tied to this or that, nor to me or the objects of my attention but experienced on its own terms. It was nothing special and it was extraordinary. And it was appreciated.

The Value of Our Innocence

“The moon ain´t romantic/It´s intimidating as Hell”
-Tom Waits

“It´s a lousy rainbow anyway…”
–Aztec Camera

THE VALUE OF OUR INNOCENCE

It does nothing to alleviate the pain to say, “stay strong”. Nor is any loved one, brutally murdered, returned when we ask the survivors – or ourselves – to not lose hope. Humanity has never suffered from a surfeit of violence. At the rate we are going, there will always be more. I can glibly say “I told you so” about conclusions I have reached in my own studies of current affairs or history about the background of the events we see these days and it may satisfy my own deep-seated inclinations for self-praise, but that hardly matters in the face of ongoing brutality as we have seen in France and elsewhere: the predictable responses from dangerous Right-wingers and neo-liberal demagogues stressing racist nationalism, border walls, mass expulsions or advocating more violence. Staying strong or remaining hopeful will not, by themselves, survive the rush of madness we seem to be falling into, exemplified by the enthusiastic insanity of longing for the excitement of an Apocalypse in order to feel more alive. It may all be for naught but at some level we must keep on our horizon the better world we long for, and the innocent hope for Heaven on Earth. No capitalist system will take us there, and that particular conversation is long overdue. Nor can we expect goodness to follow hollowed out economies worldwide, rising poverty and shocking levels of debt bondage scattered throughout the First, Second and Third Worlds; as if we lived in separate planets. I am not at peace today, but I hold on to my innocence which still believes a better world is possible and that when we work together, it can be created. In these dark times, a little light goes a long way. I pray others find such illumination and face the days ahead with renewed fervor to recreate our world in a better image than the one we share now. If not, ostensibly romantic moons and delicate rainbows will be cynically regarded and the emptiness of our human vision will be revealed in continuing savagery and death. We must find a better way.

A GOOD MAN WITH SOFT EYES

An old friend has soft eyes.

There is welcome there, and good neighborliness. A twinkle of mischievousness can be spotted as well. But no trace of malice can be seen, although, with kids and grandkids, my guess is he has had his patience tested, at least once or twice. Still, he has changed from when we walked to school together- his girth is grandfatherly and joyfully wide, his red hair now white, and a beard adds to an effect of rotund kindliness where in years past, a freshly shaven face and neatly combed hair gave him a “nice boy” look, an effect no doubt reflecting inner values of decency he´d been given and held onto.

I´m sure he has known his share of pain and, given his background and the times, heard, and maybe even entertained, the racism of the region we lived in. But strangely enough, over the years, I never heard a mean-spirited or prejudiced comment from him and while he might have kept such close to his chest (if they existed in his heart), I like to think the eyes gave away a less sharp and more delicate secret – that he simply was a good man.

I despair much these days. Cycles of violence consume my news gathering jaunts, a deep-seated need to comment on such leaves me exhausted and frequently dispirited, and the cumulative toll on my own spirit, one which longs for a world which at least makes the efforts to see through the other´s eyes, to walk in the others´shoes, and to feel what the other´s heart feels, has me at times cynical. I am brought back to one of my favorite bands, the Buzzcocks, who used at the end of one noteworthy listing of shifting beliefs in the song “I Believe”, a chorus which might seem artifice if it weren´t delivered with so much pathos about 20 times in a row to a fading climax:

“There is no love in this world anymore!”

I am too influenced by such sentiments to be much of a “romantic” and yet I remain, as one friend called me, a “moralist”, certainly not in some pre-packaged, scolding way, but a person who appeals, again and again, to himself and to any who will listen, that our world needs a different approach if we are to survive. An approach rooted in the delicate structures of morals and ethics in our treatment of one another. Rooted so deeply in fact, that it stands stable and strong, a powerful example to all that this is the way we must be if any of us are to live.

My friend with the soft-eyes may or may not share those views; I knew and grew up with him and his family and they were always, in my mind at least, kindred spirits: like us, working-class, a little less in the shiny department as some of the other flashier (and wealthier) neighbors we shared, and maybe a little bit of an “outsider” status, though he of Scots-Irish background and I Puertorican. He was a “good ol´boy”, not in some negative way but in the straighter-laced, far less hippier comportment I reveled in. And I don´t know what he thought about when Life was hard, nor was I privy to his pain during the years I lived on the same block. But on the occasions we fished together or walked to school or when, years later, when I stayed for a time in the old house with my mother and sickly father, he came readily when called to help carry my father to his bed or out of a tub, I saw something worth celebrating in my jaundiced heart: kindness. He still has those eyes, and I hope he continues to bring to others the same inspiration he gifted me. Would that our world had more good men with soft eyes…

INNER EXCURSIONS – THE CONTEMPLATIVE IN LIFE

What does it mean to be “contemplative” and what does a contemplative “do”?

One may be an introvert, thoughtful, a “quiet-type”, or a loner, but that is not the same as being a contemplative. Nor do robes, religious affiliation, shaven heads, or monastic or cloistered living guarantee that one is a contemplative, either.

It means, I think, to hold oneself in the deepest and most quiet places where there are no answers but where the very act of being exists as an enormous, awe-inspiring Question whose Presence is so delicate it requires one stop all other activities to sense it, or plug into it, but is so big as to outstrip all other aspects of self, revealing them to be of minuscule import by comparison, and demanding of one´s attention. All else is distraction. It means to retreat more and more to that place where one is there, holding that Question so close to oneself that they merge and one no longer sees the essence of living as separate from that depth. It means that when engaged in other things, there remains the Great Lingering Pull to go back “there” and to replenish oneself in the waters of the “farthest reaches” of my inner quiet.

I have met many priests, monks, and reclusive religious-types who were not contemplatives. I have also met naturalists, students, retirees, and workers who were. What distinguishes the contemplative from the person with a deep need for solitude or religious identity is the over-riding need above those others, for connection. This connection is not towards the world or the things of the world, but connection instead to the space of Being at its most primal depths. Without regular access to that, the contemplative suffers. Without tuning in to that frequency, the contemplative´s life is a scattered pulsing of impulses, needs and desires, many authentically deep, but not fully tapped into nor fully integrated.

When I was a child, I often sat on the ground across the street from my home, in the center of a schoolyard, and simply stared at clouds, sometimes for hours. That is where it began. This habit stayed throughout the otherwise tempestuous teens and I rarely took it as anything seriously. I also walked daily, sometimes again for hours, aimlessly wandering. I know it was deeper than loneliness because truth be told, I wasn’t´t really sad or lonely during those times.

I was fulfilled.

While there were many elements in my life which were unsatisfactory or wanting, they were not the cause nor the result of these inner excursions. They were tangential to the experience of retreating so far within that I managed to touch something nameless and yet still timeless inside me. Something that needed, and needs still, regular tending.

Today, I am comfortable in crowds, am quite sociable and enjoy and celebrate company and the fellowship of kindred spirits. Yet when I am alone, I am tapped into a deeper Source which fills me with the most wonderful feeling, the gift of holy interiority, in which I am driven to remain for a while, though the constraints of life interfere and activity beckons. As a very young man I dreamed of being a hermit in some Chinese mountaintop, of being a recluse in the forests of India, or a nameless monk hidden away in one of Japan´s remote monasteries. I lived for a time in many such environments and they remain the most fulfilling times of my life. When I worked “in the world” dealing with such interiority, as a Chaplain dealing with death and dying, I tapped into a social manifestation of that Great Work. Now, with children and home life, I am tried daily to retreat there for any substantial time and it is a struggle. I have deepened other aspects of living, “sympathetic joy” (mudita in Buddhism) around the joys of my children, for example, but extended periods fulfilling that call are far too few now. This is a sadness which requires addressing.

Convenient Fictions, What´s Next

But the task as I see it, is to acknowledge the convenient fictions that make up this “me” while all the while striving to do things here, at this level, which pull me ever upwards in my ascent to…well, to live, in my case, is to wrestle in this manner.

Wrestling with Life is the true task of any awakened person or one striving for such an awakening. In fact, the very action of wrestling in this context, IS the process of waking up.

I am convinced that as we strive for the Highest, we must reach downwards to elevate those needed help. And, as we work so hard to to strive to better our world, that we never lose sight of the Great Context: we are but atomic specks contained in one delicate form in a vast and unfathomable Cosmos.

Doing the first would change the structures we currently live within, capitalism, first of all, and then gradually the more delicately constructed structures of violence and racism, sexism, homophobia, patriarchal systems thinking and other configurations of the social order dissolvable only by careful application of the acid of compassion and justice.

Doing the second means a more individualized humility towards Life itself, a more interior perspective which sees a Greater Perspective.

For me, Infinite Light and Infinite Life are the poetic descriptors of that grander vision, “Amida”, infinitude itself, and we are all “saved” already, lifted from our finite limitations and headed back to the wider depths from which we originated and to which we should embrace our eventual return. Doing what is right, the good; fighting for justice and a better, more fair world, is the task I undertake not as payment for entry into my true home, but as the ultimately natural expression of the Grander Benevolence which pervades all things. I need not worry about doctrinaire prohibitions or small print exclusions, I do good because it is there and is right and is the best way to benefit all beings. Somewhere down the line, the creation of that “Pure Land” here on Earth, may be the result, but I need not concern myself with results. Doing my little part is enough, and the moral compass my inner life is set towards is the path that makes this life better for me as well, and one I can look back with some confidence that it was all worthy.

CONVENIENT FICTIONS, PT. 3

Were we to operate with a requisite and healthy amount of pride in who we are while acknowledging others right to their pride in who they are under the umbrella of a universal, shared compassionate concern for the whole, our political, economic and social systems would look a whole lot different than they do now.

There is this problem. It is one that has perplexed me for years and one I continue to struggle with although far more spiritual people than myself have wrestled with it than I. Still, it remains. This problem is the resolution of the two issues I brought out earlier here and their resolution is definitely not an easy one. Who am I, both transitionally and, on the broader sense, cosmically? If I am a man, a Puertorican born in New York City, born to my parents who brought with them their own cultural, social, economic and other aspects of identity to the table of my being, then how do I reconcile that with that deeper sense of Being, that of a more philosophical nature and “its” relationship to Being Itself, however one conceives of this? And then the hard part (as if pondering those 2 questions isn´t hard enough!) of finding which one of those aspects of “me” is most important, reveals a “who I really am” and thus the one I should (exclusively) rely upon?

Sages and mystics chose the impersonal one, the broader one, the one most aligned with the greater concepts outside the realms of empirical verifiability. I like them. I wanted to retreat into some cave and ponder such questions night and live a life where that is all I did. I imagined myself cavorting with this age´s Ramana Maharshi or others like him or, more communally, living my life in some monastic setting where the collective efforts were to pursue such questions along the single-track of Higher truth. I even spent long periods of my life, in Japan and in the US at monastic retreats pursuing just that. I loved it.

I was also unsatisfied.

For I felt another “calling” within, to move arising from that smaller me towards activities which worked at making life for all people fairer, more just, more Truth-full, but narrowly settled within the confines of rent and kids, jobs and “regular” life. I loved people, felt for their sufferings, knew the deleterious effects of poverty and colonial mindsets on the self-esteem of people and I intuited that this was done to inculcate helplessness so that someone else could benefit. That people didn´t have to live in poverty, of mind or spirit, that there were those who pushed and kept them there and thus a great evil surrounded me which needed resistance. And given as I am to wanting to go out and help, I saw the greatest calling as rectifying the world´s “smaller” ills. So I have pursued that too with gravity and energy.

I still do.

And I am still wavering between these poles. Between the daily necessity to access the timeless quiet within me which I feel is connected to that higher sense of Being, and the less elevated attempt to alleviate pain and suffering among all around me, in this little life of barely a century, in this container of my smaller identity.

It is not just balance I seek. It is Wisdom. For without wisdom, how will I know what to do? How can I chose without knowing which direction should take the most of the little time remaining for me?

I am and have always been inspired by Thomas Merton. His life of seclusion (more physical and social than political or spiritual) was not spent running away from that deeper pursuit nor was he oblivious to the rapidity of the world´s changing nature around him. He threw himself into both. But he did so from his spiritual side. Can we emulate his example from the “domestic” side? How do we affirm who we are in the small sense while maintaining connection to a greater Truth which sees all of us from a “higher” perspective? This is no easy task.

Recently, Tao Ruspoli was featured in CounterPunch as a documentary he made of a great flamenco master tackled this idea of identity with gusto. I saw this man, a singer and grizzled bon vivant who I identified with, at least in terms of dreaming one day I might end up so purely involved in Life from this side, reciting poetry to friends (instead of songs in my case) and drinking heartily at all hours, making love to Life and reveling in the process with comrades who appreciated the same.

But what, then would happen to that me who longs for Eternity and its contemplation here and now? Where would he fit? I don´t know.

The author asks this question and hopes that it is possible:

The question is, can we affirm a unique cultural identity, celebrate “mastery” in particular domains (and embrace other hierarchies that skillfulness necessitates,) fighting against the forces of technology and globalization, all of which, according to Heidegger, level meaningful differences between people, places and things; can we do this without resorting to reactionary or backward-looking ideologies?

I would agree. Meaning, I don´t know. But the task as I see it, is to acknowledge the convenient fictions that make up this “me” while all the while striving to do things here, at this level, which pull me ever upwards in my ascent to…well, to live, in my case, is to wrestle in this manner. That we do the best we can down here, living as authentically as we can in the process, while looking to the Great Horizon with wonder and, dare I say, aspiration. Something like that…

Convenient fictions

I am a fictional identity.

Not because I don´t exist in the conventional sense, but because all of my existence is provisional, transient, and dependent upon a whole series of causes and conditions giving this word “identity” an odd characterization for such a fluid and potentially open-ended process. (for a further elucidation of my ideas on this topic see Tirado, J. M. (2008) The Buddhist notion of emptiness and its potential contribution to psychology and psychotherapy, International Journal of Transpersonal Studies, 27, 2008, 74-79)

Thus “I” am a  process.

This process moves quickly, but “I” (the guiding or dominant tendency within a number of sometimes shifting identities) am constantly adhering pieces of experience together to create a solid framework on which I build a story about who I am. This story I then take to be “me”, solid, immutable, and unmistakably a real entity.

But it´s not. Nevertheless, I hold fast to this idea because I am afraid. I am afraid that if this collection of thoughts and memories is not me, then I am, in fact, nothing. That somehow this identity I so long identified with, should it be discarded, then all I thought I was or am is discarded as well and I am left some terribly unimaginable blankness. I fear then that I will fall into some empty hole of nihilism in which life has no meaning and I am free of all moral, ethical, and socially binding constraints. I fear the “emptiness” of no meaning, no significance, and no ultimate perspective.

This would be a horrible misunderstanding, with obviously disastrous consequences.

When “I” am seen a s a fluid process in a cosmos that is fluid as well, where boundarious are porous and, at the quantum level anyway, nothing dies but all comes into magical being with Grace and Beauty, then I can let go of these fears and relax into the Wonder of Time and of Being.

Our separateness, our selfhood and our identities are, at best, convenient fictions, employed by ourselves to escape fear and by others to exploit it.

I´ll have more to say on that latter part in the next installment.