Poetry | Instrumental Music

I wrote this poem as a brief, spontaneous creative exercise from a prompt. I didn’t make a second pass to polish. It’s simply an impromptu response that took a few minutes. I thought it worth sharing. It feels particularly poignant, as I’m excited to go to a post-rock mini-festival this weekend.

The prompt:
1. Paint your lyrics on my canvas
2. Between a rock and a soft place

Music without words
Flows
An emotional landscape
The whole body reverberates as a canvas
For the instruments to paint
Their “lyrics” on
A symphony of sensation
Beyond words

The mind is hard
Seeking certainty, truth, and absolutes
It crushes down to powder and cuts to pieces
With sharp edges and a hard core
The heart is soft
Feeling and beating with the world
It touches and is touched by all
With connection and the break of disconnect

The right music
Tickles the beating heart’s feeling
And defies the ready capture of the mind
Drifting between them
Inspiring the greatest power of both
Defying both’s petrification
It is unstoppable
Between that rock and a soft place

Cross-Post: The Post-Rock Way – Hymn | Spotlight: Sigur Rós

This post was originally on my other blog about exploring spirituality and philosophy through post-rock music. I felt it must be shared, as the song I highlight and the experience I had in the described concert really resonate with the last post I just wrote. I recently wrote a post on the best albums of 2021 in post-rock, so I recommend checking that out if you find the music in this post interesting.


Last night, I saw another post-rock legend, Sigur Rós, and like in the experience of my previous post on Mono, I was left feeling touched in a way that’s difficult to describe – nearly moved to tears on multiple occasions. This surprised me, as even though they’re revered by many in the genre, I’ve never been deeply into Sigur Rós. I wanted to share a bit more about this experience.

First, I want to repeat a quote that came from Taka, the songwriter for Mono, regarding the spiritual experience that music can present:

“Music is about experiences,” Goto says. “Witnessing extremely loud sounds live is one type of experience. It’s almost like seeing a spark of thunder in a quiet night sky, then hearing the echoes of loud thunder. It’s beautiful, yet crushing – an unusual experience.”

“At the same time, subliminal music is extremely spiritual. Every sound and melody start to soak into every cell in your body, takes them subconsciously and moves them. Music can speak to everyone more eloquently than words. It’s close to philosophy. It’s a gift from God.”

Taka, from this story

Watching Sigur Rós evoked precisely this sentiment in me a few times throughout the performance, even though I wasn’t that familiar with their oeuvre. The super-fans around me were much more amped, clearly experiencing every note deeply and profoundly, much like I did in seeing Mono recently, but even at a more basic connection, the supreme artistry and intensity of this band moved me in similar ways with certain songs.

Personally, as a post-rock super-fan who has grown much more deeply into darker emotional soundscapes with very technical instrumentation over the last few years (for instance, Russian Circles is my most listened to band of the last two years), I found Sigur Rós’ instrumental aspect a bit more lackluster. It truly hinges around Jonsi’s amazing vocals to really create the emotional soundscapes that awe the listener.

Furthermore, this still fits post-rock in the way my first post on this blog outlined, as they have played with language to move beyond any easily understood concepts, even pressing a gibberish, created language into many songs to push beyond the barriers of language into an emotive space that the listeners are meant to resonate with and fill in the meaning themselves. This article really digs into that well.

For me, the songs that moved me were the songs in a major key, where the instrumentation resonated fullest with the falsettos of Jonsi’s voice. These songs gave me goosebumps and teary eyes, feeling like there was some deep cleansing of heart at play. They felt much like Taka’s description above, but the incomprehensible vocals that expressed emotion more than actual words pull the heart along like some sort of transcendent hymn to human experience. As Taka said, those moments are a gift from God.

There is probably no greater example of this for me from the set than Sæglópur from Takk… Takk means “thanks” in Icelandic, and Sæglópur means “lost seafarer”. The song is a mix of Icelandic and the band-created Hopelandic. It is one of their more well-known songs. I have been aware of it for years.

In listening to this song, you’ll likely feel a lot of emotions in the delicate, lonely beauty of the beginning and the crashing intensity when the rock experimentation in sound comes to the fore in mid-song. It pulls at the seeking heart, yearning for solace, facing challenge and pain, and continuing to press onward.

It’s a hymn to the human heart, and that feeling is what shone through for me with Sigur Rós time and again. The songs that felt like existential hymns, every last one of them evoked a sigh from the audience when they were over. That’s a spiritual experience that goes beyond words.

Healing | Impermanence and the Lack of Return

I’ve healed past the worst of depression in the last few months, but I find myself in a difficult place that’s hard to understand. I still wish I were dead. I feel like I’m just waiting for my life to march forward, one day at a time until my consciousness blinks out. I don’t really have any joie de vivre, rather a goal of trying to become wiser and tune into the ebb and flow of the mystery of existence while showing up for the other lives around me.

I’ve talked about this a few times on the blog before – the problem of the metaphor of “healing”. People speak of it as though you’ll return to how you used to be, but that’s a very limited conceptualization of healing. I’ve thought of it more in terms of other, physical healing I’ve been struggling with.

Last summer, I was in the best running shape I’ve been in in probably 15 years. I was getting faster and faster, more and more enduring, and simply poised. My goal was to run a marathon, and I was ahead of schedule and pace.

Then, I pulled a hamstring. A few weeks later, I started again and immediately had intensive calf problems. Every run felt like my calves were going to cramp with every single step. Eventually, I gave up on the marathon and shifted to minimalist shoes – I used to wear them all the time and had greater leg strength and balance because of it.

Not long after that, I started having Achilles tendonitis. First in one leg and then the other. Since December, I’ve been fighting and hobbling along as best as I can for one or two runs a week, getting stronger through care and a strong sense of resolve, but one Achilles simply will not fully heal. I would walk around like an old man with one good leg for most of the week, heal, and then run and repeat the cycle.

About a month ago, I realized I could get a compression sleeve to assist. It’s made a huge difference. I can walk around without much any pain and normal gait. I can run with only a slight pain at the start. It’s almost like my Achilles is normal, and the sense of a nodule near the heel has slowly dissipated. However, I can only go roughly a day without it, and it doesn’t feel completely normal. I don’t know if I’ll ever be able to walk normally again without some brace to support my foot.

In healing past everything I’ve gone through, have I returned to some version of myself prior to my experiences? Some chipper, confident guy who believed in love, partnership, and the good intentions of others in relationship with a hope about life and the future? No, I haven’t. Not in the slightest. I’m still pained and tortured on a deeper level, and I don’t know how to change that. I only get through due to a lot of developed self-care, the loving care of those in my life who do value me and see me, and the constant presence of my cat as well as my family. In a sense, it’s like the sleeve – if I don’t connect to these supports constantly, I quickly fall apart, unable to bear all the memories, doubts, and feelings of unworthiness.

The funny thing is that shattering pain has made me feel deeper and kinder than I’ve been in the past, and I can’t really imagine going back to normal in some way that covers over the vulnerability and compassion I’ve felt from it. A couple quotes recently really brought that to the fore, affirming my efforts and dispelling some of the doubts I’ve had about myself, which I’ll share briefly below, but I want to summarize this post with a clear point first.

Healing isn’t some river of Lethe forgetting and return to some previous before. Our lives and experiences are integrated in a complicated growth and decay of impermanence – change. In a very real sense, the body and heart keep the score, and healing back to some enhanced functionality may never be complete like it was before, but like some sort of psychological kintsugi, the art of mending may leave the need for supports that hold the cracks together or an inability to do like previously, but with some fortuitous circumstances, it may sometimes also leave some golden, shining new beauty.

In my own case, all I can do is continue on, doing my best for myself and others, with patience and care for the entire process.

As the Kotzker Rebbe, a nineteenth century Hasidic rabbi, said: “There is no heart more whole than a broken one.”

Sent by a friend, uncertain origin

Sublimation happens when we are no longer attached to our pain. It is not that our pain vanishes, nor that we become immune. Tender sentiments continue to flow and, in fact, appreciation of beauty intensifies. When we are no longer consciously and deliberately fighting it, the pain itself is reconfigured into the very substance of compassion and sensitivity.

Thus, in the work of these three great masters [Saigyō, Hōnen, and Dōgen], we see a pathway out of tragedy that transforms its energy into the signs of enlightenment, signs that do not designate a sterile and frigid person, but one full of feeling and tender. It is this transformation and this process that Dōgen seeks to explicate in Genjō Kōan.

The Dark Side of the Mirror: Forgetting the Self in Dōgen’s Genjō Kōan by David Brazier, p. 37

May this help those who need it.

Gassho!

Cross-Post: The Post-Rock Way – Transformation | Spotlight: Mono

This post was originally on my other blog about exploring spirituality and philosophy through post-rock music. I recently wrote a post on the best albums of 2021 in post-rock, so I recommend checking that out if you find the music in this post interesting.


Earlier this week, I went to see my favorite band live for the 4th time: Mono. Up to the concert, I’d had some mixed feelings due to personal history, but I came out of the concert feeling deeply cleansed. Here’s what I wrote on Instagram:

Words cannot capture how much this concert from my favorite band, @monoofjapan , meant to me tonight. I nearly cried several times through what truly felt like a pilgrimage of the soul. The artistry is so powerful it breaks your heart wide open. At the end, an encounter with a friend led to us staying for autographs, and I got a copy of the first Mono album I fell for as a piece to sign and frame. So thrilled for every moment of this night. #postrocklive #concert #musicasspiritualexperience

To be clear, as this might just feel like fanboyish excitement: Mono’s newest album is called “Pilgrimage of the Soul“, and it’s inspired in part by William Blake’s poem, “Auguries of Innocence“. Lines from the earliest section of the poem are regularly quoted as inspirational and highlight Blake’s spiritual aspirations/virtues. In fact, not only are several song titles based on these lines, an audio clip of a reading of the poem played at one point, closing out a song in the set.

To see a World in a Grain of Sand
And a Heaven in a Wild Flower
Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand
And Eternity in an hour

Auguries of Innocence, opening lines

The set was interspersed with tracks between this album and the previous, “Nowhere, Now Here“. The feelings of nature and pushing to greater heights of a spiritual pilgrimage had the counterpoints of the more minor key of the previous album, and the balance was stunning. Beyond this, there were a couple classics: Halcyon and Ashes in the Snow (arguably Mono’s best song).

In thinking of my experience, the album, and Mono’s greater discography, I realized that this idea of transformation in the strongest, most beautiful sense, although one facing the challenges of suffering and sadness, is something I’ve always taken from Mono’s work, and I’m convinced it’s a dynamic thread throughout. Their first album is titled “Under the Pipal Tree”, a direct reference to the Buddha’s enlightenment under the Bodhi Tree (the Pipal Tree). The Buddha’s spiritual journey is one of recognizing the problem of suffering in the life of all sentient beings and seeking peace in response to it.

Subsequent releases riff on problems like this, thinking on fantastic takes of the connection with others, the remembrance of family, dealing with disappointment, and a sojourn through Hell.

A much younger me discovered “Hymn to the Immortal Wind” (the album I refer to in my Instagram post), and the experimentation of rock crossed with classical orchestra with a delay-laden tremolo lead guitar, immediately got through this focus on nature, humanity, connection, and heart/soul. It was a turning point in my life, from which I’ve never been the same, and furthermore, after which, I’ve struggled to share these feelings with others. My trepidation at the concert was grief: a feeling of sharing that having been lost.

However, with the opening riff of the first song, “Riptide“, and the subsequent shift to crushing power and speed, I felt all my clinging of attachment unmoored, and this feeling of having my narrative torn apart by beauty, by majesty, and my sheer, powerful abundance of all that is, came through multiple times, leaving me nearly in tears.

There are few post-rock bands as masterful as Mono, and Taka’s songwriting and presence on stage are nothing short of genius, and this kind of spiritual experience is intentional in their music, especially live. As Taka said when touring for “Requiem for Hell”:

“Music is about experiences,” Goto says. “Witnessing extremely loud sounds live is one type of experience. It’s almost like seeing a spark of thunder in a quiet night sky, then hearing the echoes of loud thunder. It’s beautiful, yet crushing – an unusual experience.”

“At the same time, subliminal music is extremely spiritual. Every sound and melody start to soak into every cell in your body, takes them subconsciously and moves them. Music can speak to everyone more eloquently than words. It’s close to philosophy. It’s a gift from God.”

Taka, from this story

This quote summarizes both my feelings about post-rock’s intensity of expression and the intensity of Mono’s live shows. I highly recommend exploring the spiritual experience of transformation that their music offers.

Lojong Slogan Practice: #1 – Train in the Preliminaries

I’m taking up the challenge of going through Atisha’s 7 point training of the mind from Tibetan Buddhism and will attempt to write a breakdown for every one of the associated 59 slogans. I hope this will add depth and a movement towards effortlessness, sudden meditative non-meditation, and well, healing for myself and offer a breakdown of each slogan in the hope that it will help others as well.


I actually wrote on this slogan a while back when writing about struggling with suicidal thoughts. That post had some good insights, but I thought it worth returning to this slogan with the purpose of intentionally grouping and setting off the slogans and to pay this slogan the respect it deserves.

Honestly, that in itself is easily overlooked. I have five commentaries on the slogans, and many skip past this in a very brief description. Pema Chödrön doesn’t even address the four parts of the preliminaries, and Trungpa doesn’t speak much further to them than that and tying it to guru practice, but in that regard he is right in line with the scriptural master, Jamgön Kongtrül. Dzigar Kongtrül, on the other hand, as well as Norman Fischer, speak at length about the four preliminaries and the full reason why they are crucial for us to understand in moving forward in Lojong practice. They are the mindset needed to cultivate bodhicitta and walk the path of the bodhisattva.

This slogan is the first and only slogan associated with the first of the seven points of mind training.

The descriptions I’ve read for this slogan break down “the preliminaries” into four parts. I summarized them in my own words years ago and still have the post-it note I used at the time to do it. It’s on my fridge (and is pictured in the other post). I’m going to take this as a chance to revise and express them again in the hope of capturing more nuance and empowering them better in my own words for my own understanding.

  1. Human life is an especially rare and precious gift; a human life able to encounter and practice the dharma even more so
  2. We here must die, and we know not when
  3. All action, speech, and thought are entwined with results: all action, speech, and thought are karmic
  4. Samsaric existence is one of dukkha

I had intended to really tie aspects of the Dhammapada into the last of these, but I just did it with 2, 3, and 4. In reading through these and thinking about how to present them here, I decided I think it’s better to reorder them for a structure of mindset, and I hope this will become clear below.

I propose we approach these in the order of 4,3,1,2. The reason to start with 4 is that it represents the entry point to the entire Buddhist path. It’s a marker that points to the first of the Four Noble Truths, and thereby all of the Four Noble Truths. Some summaries of Buddhism emphasize the importance of this teaching, as it’s the first teaching the Buddha gave after attaining enlightenment, and it’s his diagnosis of the spiritual/existential problem of human life and the cure for said ailment – the eightfold path. In a sense, it’s his greatest moment of being a medicine Buddha, and it is accurate to claim that it is the summary of all of his teaching.

Furthermore, in recognizing and accepting the Four Noble Truths as a starting point, a practitioner should also be compelled to take refuge in the Buddha, the dharma, and the sangha, which is key in moving forward with the mindset of the other preliminaries and the later slogans’ focus on bodhicitta. This preliminary is the starting point: one must recognize there is a spiritual problem to address in order to undertake the spiritual journey like the Buddha and become a bodhisattva oneself. Without this first step, the other preliminaries and, honestly, Buddhist practice in general don’t have much purpose behind them.

We should look at 3 next because it is another foundational basic of the Buddha’s teachings. The opening lines of the Dhammapada, not to mention most chapters throughout, emphasize that mind precede action (whether speech or bodily action) and that the results following the mind’s intentions match those intentions – either pure or impure. In other words, action, speech, and thought is karmic: it is a chain of cause and effect, and intention and view inform the cause and thereby influence the effect. In a sense, as karma is often expressed in metaphors like seeds and giving said seeds sustenance to grow through subsequent repeated action, we could summarize with “You reap what you sow”, but this also applies to thought patterns and worldviews – you strengthen them through repeated intention, thinking, doing, and speaking. This addition is what makes the Buddha’s teaching a bit more nuanced and profound. Hence, the concept of taming the mind through meditation and focus on ethics (i.e. pure intention and action) – meditation brings mental concentration, which strengthens the intentions and mindfulness to continually choose to enact pure thoughts and speech. Recognizing the laws of karma (cause and effect as described above) at play in our lives is another core realization needed to begin the Buddhist path. These first 2 reordered preliminaries are basic premises without which, one cannot even begin.

Now, let us look at the first of the preliminaries. This is the one I’ve struggled with the most in recent times. When struggling with dukkha in the most painful physical, mental, or emotional anguish, it’s hard to see life as a precious gift. However, the commentaries make it clear just how many animals are out there who are not human. This science article and graph makes it clear that humans are only a small part of the animal biomass on Earth. If one were to be any animal, it’s statistically unlikely to end up as a human (clearly, this plays along with ideas of reincarnation, but let’s just go with it for now). Furthermore, as we’ve already said, dukkha is the spiritual problem of existing as a sentient being. Human beings are the only sentient beings with the awareness and attributes to both realize this and work towards nibbana. Beyond that, one must be sound of mind as well for those attributes to truly apply. On top of this, it’s even more fortuitous to be born in a time where a buddha has realized and spread teachings on the dharma. Even more fortunate: to have access to said teachings – for instance, the Buddha lived roughly 2500 years ago, but his teachings only have become widespread and understood in the West in the last few decades. Even now, just being born in certain areas or cultural milieus might forever cut one off from the opportunity to encounter these teachings. As such, having the opportunity to take up the eightfold path and quench the suffering/dissatisfaction (dukkha) really is a precious gift that cannot be taken for granted. Being aware of this capability and opportunity as rare and precious should spark inspiration and gratitude.

Finally, let’s look at the second preliminary. It’s easy to lose sight of how another set of Buddhist teachings apply to our lives: the marks/seals of impermanence and anatta. I chose “we here must die” out of a favorite translation of some of the early lines of the Dhammapada (Fronsdal’s translation). I’ll quote them briefly again:

Hatred never ends through hatred.
By non-hate alone does it end.
This is an ancient truth.

Many do not realize that
We here must die.
For those who realize this,
Quarrels end.

The Dhammapada, trans. Fronsdal, (5-6)

There is no permanent, ongoing “I”. Our time is limited. Standard Buddhist thought grew in a culture with a deep metaphysical background of reincarnation, but even if we buy that, this particular life could end at any time. I could die before even finishing this post from some unforeseen accident.

If we really take this to heart, we can understand the importance of authenticity to our existential projects in Heidegger’s Being and Time. I use this as a contrast to emphasize the motivation. In Being and Time, Heidegger posits that Dasein (human beings) live in a state of distraction from our own mortality. We live with the reality of our finitude out of sight and out of mind. As such, we are always already fallen away from our true potential for authentic revelation of a fully human life, except when existential crises wake us up to the truth of our mortality and we work towards it with resolution. This stance ultimately riffs on other aspects of ancient Western philosophy, even just summarizing it now, I can hear echoes of Plato, Aristotle, Epicurus, and the Stoics in Heidegger’s position. The point in this summary: there is something to this. We don’t generally see that our life is always already a possibility that could shift to impossibility at any moment. We don’t live this way. To some extent, a full-hearted focus on mortality like that would make the mundane efforts of life inconvenient, but on a greater level, there is an anxiety of facing the big unknown of death in our self-distraction. This preliminary is telling us to remind ourselves again and again as groundwork for our spiritual efforts. Why? Like Dasein’s existential authenticity that comes through resolution towards death, embracing our impermanence, even the flux that there is no permanent self day to day, makes us see that all we have is this moment, so we must practice now. We must work on generating compassion and wisdom now. There is no other time, and there is no guarantee that we’ll have another chance to take up the precious opportunity we summarized above. Time is of the essence – the present moment is the only essence, and it’s empty.

If one focuses on these four preliminaries, the impact can be profound. It truly sets the mind in a different view. They act both as some key facts to set one’s perspective and some points of inspiration to put in effort. I had just started studying them when my dad died, and the fact that I had been focusing on these preliminaries for a few weeks beforehand helped me shift through that transition more gracefully than I would have otherwise. In writing this to better explain them all and inspire others, I find myself settling into the mental framework again for moving along to the next point of mind training. I hope you will come along with me.


May this summary explain why the four preliminaries are a crucial first step in training the mind and generating bodhicitta. May it inspire others to research this practice as well (I’ve linked books by different authors on this text above in the initial paragraphs).

Gassho!

Reevaluation | Doubt, Patience, Purpose

Recently, I have thought about gratitude a lot. I know it’s crucial to a healthy mindset, and at times about a year ago, I had a fair amount of it, even as things felt like they were falling apart around me. Now, not so much. It’s all I can do to hope that my life will make sense again some day. Every day, I feel like I’m waiting to die, and the only gratitude I have for the last couple years is the clarity of boundaries I need to uphold for the future and for the friends who’ve shown they care when I have felt utterly worthless.

A tarot reading recently brought this into focus. It showed two paths forward for a question – one was trying to find gratitude and convince myself that those perspectives were valid. The other was sitting patiently in confusion, in mourning, in meaninglessness and despair, sitting with the feelings of doubt — being intimate with the mysteriousness of being rather than trying to explain it away. The second of the two actually looked like the more positive long-term path, and ultimately, it made me feel more at ease with a sense of failing my own values.

How so? I doubt everything – I doubt there’s any point to existence, the full-on absurd of Camus as a felt existential experience. The key with that comparison is that the task is then on me to affirm and create my own purpose. That seems impossible. More daunting, and more painful, I doubt ideas of the dharma. In my best days, I feel like showing up and doing well for myself and others is all that matters, understanding that we all share the pain of samsara, but at times, the nihilistic overtones in my perspective make me wonder if that’s even true, if it all washes away in impermanence.

However… I hold to the idea that those doubts are precisely the strongest possibility for seeing clearly and really feeling compassion and wisdom fully. I’ve remembered that Zen emphasizes doubt as crucial to breaking through to enlightenment, and Dogen emphasizes a chiasm of intimate intertwining between delusion (doubting the dharma in this case) and enlightenment. My own feelings of doubt are rooted deeply in personal loss, and when I really pause, I can’t help but see the impermanence of it all – love is empty. It’s a passing construct like all the rest that exists, and as a Buddhist nun I know speaks about such things regarding gain and loss, “How could it be otherwise? Nothing is more natural.” As such, why do I cling???????

All I do know is that showing up for others teaches me time and again that my own pain is not separate from the human lives around me all the time. It’s easy to fall into your own ego narrative, but when you see the passing of time and the confusion and pain of others, it’s easier to be patient with their own selfish treatment towards you as their own delusion from a misunderstanding of time and life, of dharma, as well as to see your own moments of being lost rather than skillful, and furthermore, it’s clear that those moments of seeing clearly and helping others are the most fulfilling, even when life seems meaningless. I hope that continuing to invest in this and to take up practices like meditating on the brahmaviharas, which feels right, will grow the seed of new purpose through the nutrients of patience, growing in the rich soil of doubt – just as the lotus grows in the muddy water

Here are a few quotes that I hope will fit with this – first a quote regarding the Tibetan slogan practices and the cultivation of bodhicitta. I find the Tibetan practices some of the best at overturning our understanding and valuation of self.

How bodhicitta works is very simple. When we look outward and see how much all other beings are suffering–even though they want to be happy just as much as we do–then our care for our small, individual self naturally transforms into care for a much bigger “self”. We grow from having self-care to universal care. Right away our own suffering becomes smaller. It doesn’t instantly and totally disappear, but diminishes naturally and progressively as we free ourselves from attachment to the small self. When the sun shines, it absorbs all the light of the moon and stars into its brightness. Similarly, when we have bodhicitta, the brilliant light of our universal love and care outshines and absorbs our concerns for this one individual.

– Dzigar Kongtrul Rinpoche, The Intelligent Heart: A Guide to the Compassionate Life, p. 12-13

Once again, I’m going to throw in Dogen’s Genjokoan, but I’ll use another translation this time, regarding self-involvement, buddhahood, delusion, enlightenment, and practice:

To carry the self forward and illuminate myriad things is delusion. That myriad things come forth and illuminate the self is awakening.
Those who have great realization of delusion are buddhas; those who are greatly deluded about realization are sentient beings. Further, there are those who continue realizing beyond realizations and those who are in delusion throughout delusion.
When buddhas are truly buddhas, they do not necessarily notice that they are buddhas. However, they are actualized buddhas, who go on actualizing buddhas.

– Dogen, “Actualizing the Fundamental Point” (Genjokoan) in Treasury of the True Dharma Eye (Shobogenzo), trans. Kazuaki Tanahashi, p. 29

Finally, Mumon’s commentary on the famous first koan of the Gateless Gate (the Japanese/Zen version of the Chinese/Chan originals) emphasizes the importance of doubt for breaking through and having a great experience of kensho. Aside: I’ve actually written previously about this wonderful koan in relation to a heavy song by my favorite band here.

For the practice of Zen, you must pass the barrier set up by the ancient patriarchs of Zen. To attain to marvelous enlightenment, you must completely extinguish all thoughts of the ordinary mind. If you have not passed the barrier and have not extinguished all thoughts, you are a phantom haunting the weeds and trees. Now, just tell me, what is the barrier set up by the patriarchs? Merely this Mu (Z note: the key word of the koan that means “nothing”) — the one barrier of our sect. So it has come to be called “The Gateless Barrier of the Zen Sect.”

Those who have passed the barrier are able not only to see Joshu (Z note: the master in the koan) face to face but also to walk hand in hand with the whole descending line of patriarchs and be eyebrow to eyebrow with them. You will see with the same eye that they see with, hear with the same ear that they hear with. Wouldn’t it be a wonderful joy? Isn’t there anyone who wants to pass this barrier? Then concentrate your whole self into this Mu, making your whole body with its 360 bones and joints and 84,000 pores into a solid lump of doubt. Day and night, without ceasing, keep digging into it, but don’t take it as “nothingness” or as “being” or “non-being.” It must be like a red-hot iron ball which you have gulped down and which you try to vomit up but cannot. You must extinguish all delusive thoughts and beliefs which you have cherished up to the present. After a certain period of such efforts, Mu will come to fruition, and inside and out will become one naturally. You will then be like a dumb man who has a dream. You will know yourself and for yourself only.

Then all of a sudden, Mu will break open. It will astonish the heavens and earth. It will be just as iff you had snatched the great sword of General Kan: If you meet a Buddha, you will kill him. If you meet a patriarch, you will kill him. Though you may stand on the brink of life and death, you will enjoy the great freedom. In the six realms and the four modes of birth, you will live in the samadhi of innocent play.

Now, how should you concentrate on Mu? Exhaust every ounce of energy you have in doing it. And if you do not give up on the way, you will be enlightened the way a candle in front of the altar is lighted by one touch of fire.

– Mumon, The Gateless Gate, trans. Koun Yamada, p. 10

Two last notes: Hakuin, a Zen patriarch, is quoted as saying, “The greater the doubt, the greater the awakening,” although I’m struggling to find a solid source for where he said this, but the idea is clarified well here in this article from Tricycle about great doubt in Zen, written by the very translator for The Gateless Gate above. Furthermore, Yamada Roshi, said translator, is summarized as seeing Zen practice as such in the foreward to his translation: “Genuine fruit of Zen practice, he repeatedly maintained, is manifested when a human being is able to experience an emptying of one’s ego, and truly live out one’s humanity with a humble heart, at peace with oneself, at peace with the universe, and with a mind of boundless compassion” The Gateless Gate, p. xii. I think that’s a fantastic inspiration to close this with and a guiding aspiration, one I didn’t have when I started to fumble through writing this post. It’s a happy accident, the best thing that I could find in writing this.


May this inspire others to break through their perspective with great determination and great doubt.

Gassho!

Philosophy Riffing | Ethics cont. – evil is mistaken choice, a challenge to that, virtue ethics and friendship/relationships, and choosing a partner

This was another meandering exploration of this topic with a payoff in the particular of our connections to others and how they should enhance our excellence. I take a lot of time in the first half of exploring the Socratic position on evil and my problems with it. There are also examples of the Buddha prior to giving the sermon on the Four Noble Truths and some further commentary on the bodhisattva ideals and goodness as well.

An aside: I wanted to include this brief poem by Yung Pueblo somewhere along the line, but I didn’t remember to place it anywhere in the discussion. Adding it here for it’s brief, beautiful resonance with the second half:

it is not love
if all they want
from you
is to fulfill
their expectations

Yung Pueblo, Inward, p. 12

I just found this other great poem when looking through as well.

when passion
and attachment
come together,
they are often
confused for love

Yung Pueblo, Inward, p. 24

And as promised, here is the link to the previous post I reference in the second half: Love in Romantic Relationships: Cultivating Self and Other through Friendship.

Philosophy Riffing | Ethics – excellence, ethics vs. morality, good and evil, and a spiritual expansion

This was a meandering recording that pulled up a lot of details I didn’t originally have in mind and left many others unsaid that I had originally intended. May come back with a part 2 soon. I hope this gives others many things to ponder or at least some ideas/sources for them to go look at further. Feel free to ask questions in comments.

Note: At about an hour and 10 minutes, I make a mistake with Carl Schmitt. He described the distinction that grounds the concept of the political as the friend-enemy distinction.

Cross-Post: The Post-Rock Way – Presence | Each Moment is the Universe

This post was originally on my other blog about exploring spirituality and philosophy through post-rock music. I recently wrote a post on the best albums of 2021 in post-rock, so I recommend checking that out if you find the music in this post interesting. A recent release of an old favorite band inspired this post.


A few weeks back, an old post-rock favorite released a revamp of a previous album. The second song grabbed me in particular, leaving me almost in tears due to several layers of personal meaning in the album.

First, this album was one of the first post-rock points of connection between myself and the woman whom my heart was still broken over. Second, the album was being released on the 2nd anniversary of the day we met. Third, the song feels like an exploration of the faith in facing each day with perseverance, even in the difficulty of a human life.

I had meant to write this post earlier. Now, it feels out of tune with my emotional landscape, but I still feel the poignancy of that idea/sentiment should be shared: the presence of getting up and doing one’s best to be present, kind, and open-hearted to whatever arises day to day, no matter the difficulty involved. In my other blog, I’ve spoken many times about the Zen saying of “before enlightenment, chopping wood, carrying water; after enlightenment, chopping wood, carrying water.” So much of the pursuit of release from suffering, no matter the pursuit (including many practitioners takes of Buddhism) falls into an idea of deliverance from suffering, such as nirvana/enlightenment being a fully different realm or life, but that’s not the case. I touched on this in my most recent post on my other blog – the Buddha lives in the burning house, i.e. nirvana is right in the middle of the burning suffering of samsara. There’s no other life or existence out there. Opening to the moment vulnerably and being present to the full unfolding of it is key to showing up with an appropriate response that is the wu wei skillful action of a buddha. I struggle to express this, but ultimately, this comes forth in the realization of selflessness and the interdependence of all things: each moment is the universe.

Another much more beautifully poetic and philosophical way for us to express this is some evocative statements from Dogen’s Genjokoan (my title here is somewhat inspired by Katagiri Roshi’s book on Zen and Dogen of the same title). Warning – these truly are confusing to the extent of almost being infuriating to standard logic: truly a koan. I posted some of this on facebook years ago, and several friends got full on annoyed because they didn’t understand. However, in philosophy, and especially in Zen koans, we need to open ourselves to the conundrum and let it break our standard conceptual barriers.

Since the Buddha Way by nature goes beyond [the dichotomy of] abundance and deficiency, there is arising and perishing, delusion and realization, living beings and buddhas.

Therefore flowers fall even though we love them; weeds grow even though we dislike them. Conveying oneself toward all things to carry out practice-enlightenment is delusion. All things coming and carrying out pratice-enlightenment through the self is realization. Those who greatly realize delusions are buddhas. Those who are greatly deluded in realization are living beings. Furthermore, there are those who attain realization beyond realization and those who are deluded within delusion.

To study the Buddha Way is to study the self. To study the self is to forget the self. To forget the self is to be verified by all things. To be verified by all things is to let the body and mind of the self and the body and mind of others drop off. There is a trace of realization that cannot be grasped. We endlessly express this ungraspable trace of realization.

When a person attains realization, it is like the moon’s reflection in water. The moon never becomes wet; the water is never disturbed. Although the moon is a vast and great light, it is reflected in a drop of water. The whole moon and even the whole sky are reflected in a drop of dew on a blade of grass. Realization does not destroy the person, as the moon does not make a hole in the water. The person does not obstruct realization, as a drop of dew does not obstruct the moon in the sky.

When we make this very place our own, our practice becomes the actualization of reality (genjokoan). When we make this path our own, our activity naturally becomes actualization of reality (genjokoan). This path, this place, is neither big nor small, neither self nor others. It has not existed before this moment nor has it come into existence now. Therefore [the reality of all things] is thus. In the same way, when a person engages in practice-enlightenment in the Buddha Way, as the person realizes one dharma, the person permeates that dharma; as the person encounters one practice, the person [fully] practices that practice.

Translation of Dogen’s Genjokoan as presented in Realizing Genjokoan: The Key to Dogen’s Shobogenzo – Shohaku Okumura (pp. 1-4)

This may all seem obscure, but it’s worth summing up with pointing out how Dogen focused on the practicalities of life. Practice was outlined in such examples as how a cook should prepare food to stay fully present to the process. The day in and day out is precisely this: the actualization of reality that is chopping wood; the actualization of reality that is carrying water. In other words, it’s a mindful openness to the interdependence of each moment, and furthermore, that engagement is not one where delusion is forever left behind, it happens within our deluded life. Buddhas are those who greatly realize delusions – sitting awake right in the middle of them. The Buddha lives in the burning house.

When I listen to this song, “When I Rise & When I Lay Down”, I feel this engaged, living practice. Another way we could think of it – that realized delusion – is the creative affirmation of Sisyphus that closes out The Myth of Sisyphus. Even in struggling to push a damned boulder to the top of a hill in the afterlife over and over, we have to imagine Sisyphus happy in some of the most poetic, heartlifting, Nietzschean words you’ll ever read:

One always finds one’s burden again. But Sisyphus teaches the higher fidelity that negates the gods and raises rocks. He too concludes that all is well. This universe henceforth without a master seems to him neither sterile nor futile. Each atom of that stone, each mineral flake of that night-filled mountain, in itself forms a world. The struggle itself toward the heights is enough to fill a man’s heart. One must imagine Sisyphus happy.

The Myth of Sisyphus, Albert Camus. Trans: Justin O’Brien (p. 123)

Oddly enough, Old Solar is a Christian band with religious themes resonant throughout – the album is called “Quiet Prayers” and has other songs with titles such as “Help Us to Be Faithful”. As such, taking a deeply spiritual tone as a call to holding to a faithfully engaged life throughout the burdens of the day to day is perfectly on point with this song, just with a very different perspective of what that kind of practice entails: not one of the grace of God, but one of the practice of actualizing this moment in its totality, even in the midst of suffering.

This song may have made me cry for personal reasons, but these considerations I’ve outlined are so much deeper and more profound, and I hope you’ll find them in listening to it too.

Reevaluation | Taking refuge

Today, I saw a facebook memory post from 2 years ago. I’ve been thinking a lot about the last 2 years recently, wishing I could somehow jettison it all or twist it into something completely different. The post reminded me instead to find strength in reaffirming my values and path in its ongoing depth of intention that has gone above and beyond the pain of obliterated personal goals and the loss of meaning.

The post:

“Hat man sein warum? des Lebens, so verträgt man sich fast mit jedem wie?” – Nietzsche (One who has their why of living can withstand almost any how.) Tonight was cold, and I felt tired, old, and unenthused, but ultimately, if you commit to practices like running, like philosophy, like becoming a bodhisattva, the “warum?” of being engaged in such a life carries you along through the challenge of such obstacles.

In the last several months, when it was all I could do to pick myself back up every morning and try again, to not give in to the despair that made me want to commit suicide, I focused on things like bodily exercise, digging into spiritual texts, and caring for those in my life – just like the post. We could call this: body, wisdom, and compassion. To me, this is the “chopping wood, carrying water” of the ongoing path that is life, and no matter what I may lose or how much I may feel dead in comparison to past versions of myself (does such language even truly make sense?), these continue to move me forward and hold me accountable to myself and the universe from which “I” have no separation. In a weirdly resonant note, I think of this challenge and self-destruction in both Nietzschean ways of the “going-under” that is progressing forth as human over the abyss and the Buddhist insights of realizing that all this form and meaning we cling to is empty. It’s all a dream, even the things that “defined” us, even the experiences we cherished, even the pain that arises. The condition of a human life in all that becoming is the constant, and that’s what can inspire the larger choices to awaken: be present and do your best to do well to yourself and to do so for others by offering understanding and care.

In looking through quotes to match up with this Nietzschean inspired post from the past, I found a great section in Pema Chödrön’s When Things Fall Apart about the Buddha facing and overcoming Mara to achieve enlightenment. It halted me in my tracks of wanting to throw away the past with some sort of harsh reevaluation, instead taking refuge in the dharma of tenderly opening to just this – all the experiences of pain, loss, disappointment, doubt, fear, heartbreak, depression, despair annoyance, self-criticism, and the absurd – and trying to bring my best intentions of wisdom and compassion forward as I have continued to do from the past, knowing that it will always be an “on the way”, a process and path upon which I walk. I feel so much to be the person who’s thrown off by big events in the quote below, doubting that his efforts are any good at all in that very process, and the insight is to embrace that difficulty and continue in it. In a sense, the refuge of buddha, dharma, and sangha is finding peace right in the middle of everything being on fire (The Fire Sermon), of recognizing that you are in the burning house (The Lotus Sutra), and sitting in it with ease. As Dogen says, the Buddha is in the burning house:

I think maybe all of the maras arise from fear of death, but yama mara is particularly rooted there. When we talk about a good life from the usual samsaric point of view, what we mean is that we’ve finally gotten it together. We finally feel we’re a good person. We have good qualities, we’re peaceful, and we don’t get thrown off balance when arrows are shot at us [note: allusion to the story of the Buddha’s enlightenment from the beginning of the chapter – basically here a metaphor for the various daily things that our mind pursues and pulls us off a steady path of mindfulness]. We’re the person who knows how to turn an arrow into a flower. We feel so good about ourselves. We’ve finally tied up all the loose ends. We’re happy. We think that’s life.
We think that if we just meditated enough or jogged enough or ate perfect food, everything would be perfect. But from the point of view of someone who is awake, that’s death. Seeking security or perfection, rejoicing in feeling confirmed and whole, self-contained and comfortable, is some kind of death. It doesn’t have any fresh air. There’s no room for something to come in and interrupt all that. We are killing the moment by controlling our experience. Doing this is setting ourselves up for failure, because sooner or later, we’re going to have an experience we can’t control: our house is going to burn down, someone we love is going to die, we’re going to find out we have cancer, a brick is going to fall out of the sky and hit us on the head, somebody’s going to spill tomato juice all over our white suit, or we’re going to arrive at our favorite restaurant and discover that no one ordered produce and seven hundred people are coming for lunch.
The essence of life is that it’s challenging. Sometimes it is sweet, and sometimes it is bitter. Sometimes your body tenses, and sometimes it relaxes or opens. Sometimes you have a headache, and sometimes you feel 100 percent healthy. From an awakened perspective, trying to tie up all the loose ends and finally get it together is death, because it involves rejecting a lot of your basic experience. There is something aggressive about that approach to life, trying to flatten out all the rough spots and imperfections into a nice smooth ride.
To be fully alive, fully human, and completely awake is to be continually thrown out of the nest. To live fully is to be always in a no-man’s-land, to experience each moment as completely new and fresh. To live is to be willing to die over and over again. From the awakened point of view, that’s life. Death is wanting to hold on to what you have and to have every experience confirm you and congratulate you and make you feel completely together. So even though we say the yama mara is fear of death, it’s actually fear of life.
We want to be perfect, but we just keep seeing our imperfections, and there is no room to get away from that, no exit, nowhere to run. That is when this sword turns into a flower. We stick with what we see, we feel what we feel, and from that we begin to connect with our own wisdom mind.

Pema Chödrön, When Things Fall Apart: Heart Advice for Difficult Times (pp. 93-95)

May this offer inspiration to those who need it and help them find their own refuge in difficulty.

Gassho!

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