Here are a few excerpts of talks I’ve given.
When I decided to leave Japan to devote myself to the practice and study of zen, one of my closest friends said she wanted to take a last trip with me. I asked where, hoping she’d say Okinawa, renowned for its beautiful beaches, friendly locals, and Chinese-influenced food. She said, “Eiheiji.”
This was January. Fukui prefecture, where the founding temple of Soto Zen has just sat for 1,200 years, was covered in snow. I had experienced the lack of heat in old Japanese buildings. I had also experienced the even frostier treatment of Westerners seeking to practice zen at traditional Japanese temples, and this was the mother ship.
At that moment I would have given anything to be able to muster a rational argument in favor of beaches and the bitter melon that Okinawans use in their cooking. But all I could think was, I’m being forced to do what I’ve committed to do. Life is saying to me: Okay, let’s see your cards.
That’s how I found myself touring a thousand-year-old temple in the company of one Reverend Kuroyanagi (Black Willow), head of the international division of Eiheiji. He had served for eight years at a temple in L.A. and spoke excellent English. Although he was at least in his fifties, possibly sixties, he had an amazingly youthful face and always seemed to be laughing, even when his expression was serious. I was impressed by him and decided I might as well ask the Question. This was the question that if I got the wrong answer to it from someone I trusted, I couldn’t continue on this path. This was the first gate.
The question was about desire. From my several years of reading, it seemed a common interpretation that the goal of zen practice is to eliminate or otherwise transcend so-called “worldly” desires. I had two issues with this. First, it didn’t seem possible for a human being to eliminate desire. Even more problematic, it didn’t seem desirable.
Admittedly, many of the problems of human psychology are caused by people’s blindness to and mismanagement of their desires. Conversely, the things that make life worth living, pleasures both simple and intricate, human relationships and artistic creations, depend on some form of desire. I couldn’t imagine what a world devoid of desire would look like, and I didn’t want to find out. Most of all, I didn’t want to declare allegiance to a repressive, life-hating way of thinking or being.
So I asked Reverend Black Willow about the Buddhist view of desire, trying not to give away how important the answer was to me. In the time-honored tradition of zen teachers throughout history, he responded, “What do you think?” I told him what I thought. There was a brief silence, and then he said the sentence that ushered me through the first gate, enabling me to continue on my zen way. He said, “That’s my understanding too.”
Alexander McCall Smith writes that priests and doctors shouldn’t set themselves against anything human. So I’m going to say first that desires are inexhaustible, and that’s a good thing.
In Defense of Death
In a commencement speech given after he was first treated for pancreatic cancer, Steve Jobs said:
“No one wants to die. Even people who want to go to heaven don’t want to die to get there. And yet death is the destination we all share. No one has ever escaped it. And that is as it should be, because death is very likely the single best invention of life. It is life’s change agent.”
This is an example of someone, incidentally not a famous zen master, who saw into part of the wholeness of the world, the intimate interdependence of so-called opposites. In the same speech, he said that from the time he was 17 years old, he looked into the mirror every morning and asked himself, “If today were the last day of my life, would I want to do what I’m about to do?”
So his understanding of the inter-reliance of life and death was not merely theoretical; it informed his actions on a daily basis. Life and death are not really opposites; they are part of a single mechanism. We need death to help us live a good life. Living in full awareness of the nearness of death is possibly the best way to live a life you won’t regret when it comes time to die.
I used to live across the street from a cemetery. I could see the tombstones out my bedroom window. For me it wasn’t a depressing place; it was an encouraging one. Those stones whispered to me every day, “Live now, live well.”
Us and Them, 9/11/2011
I was born in New York City. My brother is a police officer there. Ten years ago today, he was heading home after working the night shift when he got the call. He watched the Twin Towers fall. It must have been horrific; I can’t imagine. When I visited New York that winter, a hundred days and nights had come and gone, and still the air smelled burned.
So the question is, how do we respond to things that happen? The President said, “You’re either with us or against us.” That sounds simple enough. But who is us? And who is them?
When his father died in the World Trade Center, Jeremy Glick was in his mid-twenties. He signed a petition, a Statement of Conscience protesting our wars on Afghanistan and Iraq. After this petition appeared in The New York Times, Jeremy was attacked by Bill O’Reilly on his TV show. O’Reilly raged about how Jeremy could defend the people who had murdered his father. The young man calmly asked, “Why would I want to further brutalize and punish the people of Afghanistan? The people of Afghanistan … didn’t kill my father.”
Surely if anyone would be justified in hating, Jeremy would. But he knew the truth: us and them don’t actually exist. In Buddhism we say that all of life is interconnected, a shimmering net of interwoven strands. At each crossing of the strands lies a jewel, a being. And every jewel reflects the entire net.
Because of this interdependence, an early Buddhist text says, “In this world, hate never yet dispelled hate. Only love dispels hate. This is the law, ancient and inexhaustible.” Martin Luther King, Jr. said, “Returning hate for hate multiplies hate, adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars.”
So what then must we do? The petition that Jeremy Glick and thousands of others signed read, in part:
“WE BELIEVE THAT PEOPLE OF CONSCIENCE MUST TAKE RESPONSIBILITY FOR WHAT THEIR OWN GOVERNMENTS DO–WE MUST FIRST OF ALL OPPOSE THE INJUSTICE THAT IS DONE IN OUR OWN NAME.
LET US NOT ALLOW the watching world today to despair of our silence and our failure to act. Instead, let the world hear our pledge: we will resist the machinery of war and repression and rally others to do everything possible to stop it.”
Resistance of war and repression begins with resisting the first fiction: us and them. The foundation of any real religion is reverence for life. So we are asked to love life, in all its manifestations, with all our hearts. To love it in joy, and love it no less in heartbreak. That’s the work we have to do in this world.
We do it with hope that one day we will learn the smallest of our actions has consequences beyond our imagining, and we will learn to care for these consequences, because the present gives birth to the future. We hope that people everywhere will one day come to know that many of the things we fight for, the borders and prejudices, us and them, are invented–that in reality there is no separation–everything exists together, intimately linked, a single life force expressed in infinite, breathtaking variety.